Just back from giving a talk to lots of charity folk (mostly from communications / press / pr) about why they need to become more like news organisations.
By that I certainly don’t mean ActionAid should try to become like News International. What I mean is that charities should do more reporting. Not PR. Not marketing and communications. On-the-ground, face-to-face, regular, consistent, fair, factual reporting.
I haven’t space in this blog to go through my whole spiel but, in bite size chunks my argument is this:
- ‘News’, in its many and various forms, is immensely important for shaping our political outlook and directing social action. If you don’t believe me then look at the effect blanket coverage of the China earthquake had on fundraising compared to the virtually non-existent coverage of Burma. Over $900m raised for Chinese earthquake victims (approximately 74,000 deaths to date). About $55m raised for Burmese cyclone victims (approximately 134,000 deaths to date) – source, The Times (22-5-08).
- News organisations are doing less on-the-ground reporting. The evidence for this will be familiar to those who have been reading this blog and from Nick Davies, Press Gazette, and the missives sent out by the NUJ
- News organisations (and the public) are relying more and more on other sources for their news . I’m sure you’ve already noticed that most of us are now getting ‘news’ from lots of places we didn’t used to (this blog for instance). From the government, from commercial organisations (Property News anyone?), and of course ‘citizen journalists’, aka the public. According to OFCOM, for example, the government now spends over £100m a year producing newspapers and funding government ‘news’ outlets.
Problem is… most of these sources are erratic, they lack context, you don’t know what their motive is for writing / photographing / recording their content, and there’s little chance their news is informed by a sense of obligation to the public interest.
That’s where charities come in.
Now charities have an agenda too of course. But they are also motivated by a sense of obligation to the public, have a keen interest in seeing injustice reported, are structured in such a way that they can report as part of their day job, and of course they’re already ‘on-the-ground’. Plus, since they tend to wear their agenda on their sleeve (often in brightly coloured neon), at least you know where their bias is coming from.
But, and it’s a big but, charities have to understand that reporting is different from PR. They have to realise their audience is not just big media organisations anymore, it’s also the public. And as such their communication to the public should be informed by the values that inform journalism, not the values that inform PR.
If they collect factual information, report it fairly, and contextualise it properly, they won’t just start to fill the public information gap left by fast-departing news organisations, but will promote their own cause in a sustainable and ethical way.