Published: 13 January 2012

Give your brand away

Social media has changed the charity communications goalposts, says Forster's Peter Gilheaney 

You spend years plugging away at the comms coalface of the charity you work for, incrementally increasing understanding of the need for presenting a coherent brand profile to the outside world, and that brand guidelines are there to help rather than hinder. Your chief executive and senior leadership team get it, your trustees are on board – even community fundraisers are sticking to the script. You sit back, a contented smile on your face as you contemplate the praise you’ll be showered with as the charity benefits from all that hard work.

Then the bloody goalposts move. 

Giving people a voice 

The rise of social media is requiring a hasty re-write of the rules of communication and engagement with the public, and at the heart of that re-write is the urgent need to reconsider the relationship between your brand and the people you communicate with.

The days of passive communications consumption are long, long gone. Now, via the miracle social media, not only do the people we are trying to communicate with have a voice, they also have multiple channels to air that voice. The brand doesn’t belong to the organisation anymore; it belongs to everyone the organisation engages with. 

Representing your brand 

Old school brand communications, in many cases, were about presenting a united front; about an order, rigour and control over what was communicated from the inside out by anyone associated with the brand. This approach is no longer fit for purpose (if it ever was), because the proliferation of channels without an editing process make it virtually impossible to control messages in this way. Pandora’s box has been opened, and a huge number of organisations have had their fingers very publicly burned trying unsuccessfully to nail it shut again.

Two elements of this step change in communications are exercising organisations the most: the speed with which a single utterance on social media can blow up into controversy and widespread mainstream media coverage, and the delicate balance between the faux intimacy of social media communications and the need to represent your brand accurately and sincerely. 

A careful balance 

One recent flare-up that illustrates both points is the hole dug by Ed Milliband through his now infamous “blackbuster” tweet. It started with an attempt, by a man accused of being robotic, to sound more human, and led within hours, via an unfortunate spelling mistake, to widespread derision and ridicule. With social media it is easy to think you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t, but that doesn’t have to be the case.

Getting the right balance between intimacy and formality isn’t a new skill but something that anyone who works in customer services is engaged in every day of their working lives. The principles that apply to that context are exactly the same for social media communication: be yourself and talk to others as yourself, but remember you are wearing the name badge of your employer. 

Listen to supporters 

The other key thing that people who are good at customer services do is listen. Social media provides your brand with the opportunity to interact with the people you want to reach, to listen and respond rather than simply sending out dictates or shouting into the dark. The best brands spend more of their time asking and responding rather than telling these days.

Charities are no different in this respect, and have a head start as the great majority of them are already people-focused organisations and retain immense good will with the vast majority of the general public. They need to make the most of that head start by releasing the iron grip on their brand, and by starting to embrace sharing. 


Peter Gilheany, charity director, Forster Communications

Peter is charity director at Forster Communications, the social change PR agency. He has spent 25 years working with and for charities on communicating around social change, from developing the Gift Aid It brand back in 2001 to creating the strategy for the movement to tackle loneliness in 2018. Along the way, he has worked with almost every high profile charity in the UK, writes regularly about communications issues affecting charities in Third Sector and PR Week and is a former trustee of CharityComms.