CDE project 22: the approach — review media coverage

Written by
The Commission on the Donor Experience
April 25, 2017

To attempt to translate this investigation from an abstract, stakeholder-guided strategy into practical recommendations, an impressionistic sampling of the most negative media was undertaken via a media compilation by Howard Lake8 of UK Fundraising. 

This revealed a clear correlation between the negative stories that appeared in 2015 and donors’ key reputation-drivers identified by the Charity Commission. This negative coverage takes us a long way as a hypothesis for the loss of trust. However, while reviewing only the extremely negative stories kick-started by the Olive Cooke story is instructive, it provides little guidance on how to improve the situation.

The assessment was therefore complemented by a more thorough and balanced review of one month’s UK charity media coverage from August 2016 across mainstream media, which included more than 160 articles.

This revealed a number of highly instructive insights into ‘what gets coverage’ over a typical period. No single observation is surprising in itself but, collectively, they are suggestive.

Positive Stories

Insight 1.

Medical stories that elevate or criticise possible cures (for cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s and so on) receive consistently strong coverage.

Insight 2.

Charities achieve very positive stories in terms of identifying and validating social needs (housing, NHS rationing, children’s services, health and safety, law and order, lack of pension provision, children’s mental health and so on). Research, at whatever level of sophistication, is the key to placing these stories.

Insight 3.

Criticism works - if your voice is strong enough.

Oxfam criticised the UK government’s Yemeni arms deals during this period, and Yvette Cooper was backed by charities in criticising conditions in the Calais Jungle. Such attacks are particularly credible when criticising government action, and even more so when the commentator is a known figure (for example, David Miliband was prominent in this period, and figures such as Samantha Cameron, Michael Sheen or Prince Harry were prominent in other periods).

Insight 4.

Novel fundraising stories do get picked up – in this period, the BBC covered a group of fundraisers that was committed drawing a picture of every goal its team scored in a given season in return for sponsorship. Sky News also highlighted a man who raised funds for dementia by performing karaoke in his car with his father who has dementia (the link to James Corden, plus the soft ‘end of news’ slot, create the context in which to place these human stories).

Insight 5. 

Quirky human interest stories can always attract interest. In this period, a lengthy media article about a former banker who had founded an animal rescue shelter at great personal cost was placed in the Daily Mail. In another story, a dog who had learned to detect 550 cancer variants was featured. He ‘happened’ to be owned by the head of the ‘Medical Detection Dogs’ charity. In another case, a boy who died was profiled alongside the charity ‘Mason’s Magic’ that he had founded after a brain tumour diagnosis.

Insight 6. 

Industry statistics also get picked up. During this period, CAF’s Giving Index received coverage, but was reinforced by a side story about the University of Oxford discovering a notional ‘generosity centre’ in the brain. The quirky angle gave the somewhat dry story an added boost.

Insight 7.

‘Serious’ stories will be picked up by serious media. The Charity Commission’s review of governance received coverage during this period via an interview with William Shawcross, and a letter in response from Sir Stuart Etherington who then criticised the piece.

Insight 8. 

Picture stories can cut through. The shocking picture of a Syrian boy in an ambulance in Aleppo shocked the world during this period, and was an excuse for charities such as IRC and Amnesty to be the ‘go to’ commentators on the situation in many media. 

Insight 9.

The charity voices quoted tend to be CEOs, research authors, or grass-roots project leaders. Occasionally, titles are not attributed. 

Insight 10.

Lifestyle and ‘background’ media opportunities can provide valuable outlets for messaging. During this period, Radio 4’s Thought for the Day featured a mention of the World Giving Index from CAF.

Insight 11.

Finally, as a more general reflection, it is worth noting that social media and on-line news aggregators are the means whereby many citizens now consume mainstream media (MSM). Social media thus serve to escalate MSM stories and give them added legitimacy via a personal stamp of endorsement. Similarly, the sharing of social memes, personal experiences and niche media stories via social channels gives them legitimacy and may even escalate them into the mainstream, creating a virtuous or vicious spiral depending on the story.

Negative stories:

Insight 1. 

Specific higher profile charities may well become the seed for extended negative reporting. The RSPCA and the National Trust appeared to come under particular discretionary attack during this period, as one bad story may well plant the seed for others. It is notable that the Daily Mail subsequently apologised to the RSPCA for its reports during this period.

Insight 2. 

The media can and does follow through on campaigning agendas - for example, the follow through on the Daily Mail’s cold-calling abuse investigation notably tracked the conclusion of allegations against the British Red Cross during this period.

Ambivalent Stories

Key Insight.

‘Celebrities’ will always attract attention; for example, Amber Heard (donating her divorce settlement to charity), Diane Abbott (spending a large portion of her charity’s money on a dinner event) and David Attenborough (fronting an RSPB report).

In summary, despite how things may feel to many charity workers, a large majority of charity stories are actually positive. 

However, the vast majority of these only serve to validate ‘problems’.

While the message that the charity can help to resolve the problem may be implicit, it is seldom articulated in this way. Over time, this is likely to reinforce the impression of charities as trading in misery and using guilt and despair as their prime levers of influence.

The charities that best escape this ‘merchants of doom’ trap are primarily the health charities, which are able to balance positive (solution) stories alongside negative (need) stories. Another interesting aspect of media storytelling is that the bigger the brand, the less likely the media is to mention that the entity is a charity. This is abidingly true for positive stories, but flips when the brand is being attacked – in which case, its charitable status is generally an integral part of the story.

The net effect of all this storytelling is that the ‘charity’ brand is rarely raised in a positive context, and that ‘charity’ tends to resonate most strongly with messages of doom and decay, or when being criticised for organisational ineptitude or wastefulness.

The strong exception here is human interest stories, which can sometimes be turbocharged by celebrity (perfectly embodied in the media’s own fundraising and distribution efforts – Children in Need, Comic Relief, Sport Relief, The Evening Standard’s ‘Dispossessed’ and the like). A softer, but still valuable exception, is research-led reporting, while a third is instances of social (particularly medical) innovation.




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About the author: The Commission on the Donor Experience

The CDE has one simple ideal – to place donors at the heart of fundraising. The aim of the CDE is to support the transformation of fundraising, to change the culture to a truly consistent donor-based approach to raising money. It is based on evidence drawn from first hand insight of best practice. By identifying best practice and capturing examples, we will enable these to be shared and brought into common use.

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