This is the text of my latest post on Huffington Press, first published on Sunday 26th October 2014
Some charities still haven’t got their heads around how to work with traditional media: newspapers, radio and television. When it comes to social media, many assume an ostrich-like pose, burying their heads in the sand.
At BHT we work hard at maintaining a high profile in the local media. We actively avoid national media, although we were one of the first charities in Sussex to wholeheartedly engage in social media. Rightly or wrongly, we never seek national media coverage. I’ll explain each one in turn:
There is a direct correlation between our local media profile and public support, for example reflected by donations to our Christmas appeal. Another local homelessness charity was the ‘go to’ organisation for the media, and they were duly rewarded with generous public donations.
In the first two or three years after I became chief executive, we did little media work. We had other priorities. However, when our fundraising and PR strategies were reviewed, the need for a much higher media profile was agreed. From having perhaps one or two mentions in the local paper each month, we now can have several mentions and articles each week, radio appearances, and the odd television item.
One outcome of this, as an example, is a quadrupling of donations for the work of First Base at Christmas.
We very rarely say no to a request for a quote or an interview. It takes time an effort. Last Saturday I had to be at the studio of BBC Sussex at 7.10am for an interview. The next day, Sunday, I was up early for an interview with Meridian TV about shipping containers (thank goodness the clocks had gone back that morning).
Good local journalists understand the need for an ongoing relationship, and are not interested in dishing the dirt for its own sake. They are, in my experience, decent and ethical. I was once approached by Adam Trimingham from the Argus to say that a very damaging allegation had been made against me by a senior politician. Shaken, I asked him if I could have a few minutes to think through how to respond. He said that there was no need for a response. When I asked why not, he said: “Because it’s not true. I’m not running the story. I just thought you would want to hear what was being said.”
The national media is a completely different beast. They have no interest or need to nurture a relationship. They have a filing deadline and, working in a competitive market, they don’t have to consider the consequences of their stories.
Paula Sussex, the recently appointed chief executive of the Charity Commission, in a reflection of the hostile and destructive approach of the national media, describes her press officer as an “armed guard”.
On an almost weekly basis we are asked to collaborate in a programme for national television. We very rarely, if ever, say yes.
There have been at least a couple of occasions recently when a producer or journalist, trying to persuade me to set up interviews with clients, have said that they are so ‘ethical’ that they had psychologists available to work with our clients once the programme had aired!
One journalist who bucks the trend, in my opinion, is the BBC’s social affairs correspondent, Michael Buchanan, whose reporting is always sensitive, measured and non-exploitative.
Social media has revolutionised our media approach. More than half of all traditional media coverage we attract is triggered by our social media output. What’s more, it is fun.
Social media nurtures a culture of greater openness and honesty within an organisation. I know my openness unnerves some of my colleagues, but as an organisation we really have nothing to hide. In today’s world, try to suppress bad news and it will surely come out. It is the coverup, not the offence, that usually is the more damaging. That lesson was first and most harshly learned by Richard Nixon.
I like the approach adopted by the former Conservative MP, Louise Mensch, who when confronted by a journalist with allegations of drug use and outlandish behaviour twenty years earlier, she went on social media to ‘spoil’ the story by saying she was sure it was true but she couldn’t remember that particular incident as there had been so many other occasions.
There have been a couple of occasions over the last ten years when I have been able to say, honestly, to a local journalist that there is no story when they have been told otherwise. They have believed me and dropped their enquiry.
Like mountains, the media shouldn’t be feared, but should be respected. Prepare well, remain vigilant, and enjoy the experience.