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Communication for charities has changed: what’s it mean for reputations?

The job of communications professionals has changed fundamentally in the last decade. Social media, greater consumption of content online, 24-hour news and constant access to emails and the demands they bring have radically changed how any PR or public affairs practitioner does his or her job. But those aren’t the only reasons for change. Many of us have had to adapt how we do things in light of changing public, media and political perceptions of our clients and the sectors they operate in.

A case in point is the third sector, which is dealing with what might be termed an annus horribilis. The world has changed for charities. They face more regular reputational threats – both against individual organisations and the charitable sector as a hole. And this requires changes to how charities are going about their external communications.

There’ve been a number of factors and media stories to get us to this point. But, in a nutshell, charities are still expected to do a great deal of good. At home, this means continuing to support the most vulnerable – but also increasingly providing public services in the face of government austerity and public spending cuts. Internationally, it means bringing aid and relief to some of the most heart-wrenching humanitarian crises imaginable.

The big difference is that attention has shifted, at least somewhat, away from the fantastic work charities do. As a population, we don’t just care anymore about what charities are doing on the ground. We’re also applying greater scrutiny to every facet of their operations. How the work is done is now almost, if not as, important as what is being done.

High profile examples have exacerbated the situation. Many of you will remember the days of headlines about the tragic case of Olive Cooke. And who can forget the long running Kids Company saga? The result has been public criticism of charities by influential commentators – ranging from the Public Administration Select Committee in the Commons to William Shawcross, who heads up the Charities Commission. All of these have demanded charities raise their games in terms of governance and ways of working – while stories about commercial tie-ups, remuneration of charity executives, fundraising tactics and use of fundraising are regulars in the papers. This more critical eye extends to the public. A recent survey reported in the Scotsman revealed one in four Scots was losing confidence in charities’ fundraising.

These issues pose reputational threats to the third sector as a whole, rather than just the charities that are the subjects of difficult headlines. The question is then what charities can do in terms of their communications to mitigate these risks.

Doing so requires a bit of change. Charities will now benefit from not only talking about the good they’re doing, but also highlighting how they operate with best practice in their fundraising, back office functions, and governance. The reality is that the vast majority do so. But if no-one talks about it, then negative headlines will continue. Nature, after all, abhors a vacuum.

Secondly, charities need to make sure they’re educating contacts in the media, but also political stakeholders, commentators and the public directly (particularly through social media) about how they go about their work. This is a long-term investment of time, but it means educated audiences willing to consider difficult circumstances in the future with greater understanding.

Finally, charities need to accept the world has changed and this scrutiny isn’t going to go away. We’re seeing the realities already, with questions about fundraising methods, how public money is used by charities, and whether charities should be using public funds to communicate with government. The third sector needs to include planning for these and other issues in long-term strategic planning and external communications.

Hopefully then, it’ll be possible to get back to the incredible work charities are doing and the invaluable contributions they make. Rather than focusing on the how.