Published: 10 February 2009

Ideas sell: getting more media coverage for your charity

Trina Wallace caught up with Ian Hargreaves – Non-Executive Director of Ofcom and Professor of Journalism at Cardiff University.

What advice can you offer charity communicators looking to get more media coverage for their organisation?

Begin by listening well, understanding what the world is saying and thinking about the area you’re concerned about. Then work out carefully who you are targeting in terms of media audience. Make sure your messages are clear and connect to the life of the people you’re trying to communicate with.

Communications isn’t the paint job at the end of the production line. It’s the basic engineering right at the beginning. If you design products or create charitable objectives that are incapable of being effectively communicated you’re going to be less successful than you otherwise would be.

There are outstanding examples of communications in the charity world. Make Poverty History and LIVE 8 are the most striking communications campaigns of recent years.

But there’s a new danger that you can be so obsessed with communications that you lose track of the substance and the integrity of what it is you’re trying to do. That’s a charge that’s often made at politicians and it’s very important that charities don’t fall into that.

How can journalists and charity communicators best establish a relationship that is mutually beneficial?

There’s only one currency that works with journalists, and funnily enough it’s neither drink nor money. It’s ideas that get into newspapers, magazines or radio shows. The problem with being a journalist is that you are surrounded by people who think that they know what you want, but what they give you isn’t what you want.

Often it’s not interesting, or not what you think the public is interested in at the moment, or not genuinely new. If you crack that, get journalists the ideas they need, you crack everything.

Is new media good news for charities?

New media’s another thing for a professional communicator to have to think about and try to be accomplished at.

It has an absolutely vital role to play in all campaigning but you have to work out quite carefully what that role is. Making clever use of social networking sites is one thing, getting an argument going in the blogosphere is another. But I think you’re always going to want to convert that and spill it over into conventional media coverage.

Are smaller charities at a disadvantage in trying to get media coverage? Or does a lack of resources not matter if they have a good story to tell?

I don’t think that organisations that don’t have resources should curl up and die because actually, if you’ve got a story and you can work out who it’s of interest to, you’ll be able to get coverage in the media. If what you’re doing just isn’t interesting, innovative or new in any way, you can’t really expect to get coverage. Charity communicators who have a good story should set out with a bit of vim, vigour and confidence. Look up the name of a journalist who’s in your area and deals with the subject, and send them an email and follow it up with a phone call.

As an experienced journalist, how easy has it been in your career to work with charities and charity communicators? Where could they have done more to help your story be better?

I don’t think that charities are better or worse than anyone else. I’ve dealt with lots of people who’ve been very skilled and of great value when you’re on a story. As a journalist you need information, you need it fast, you need insight, rival insight and rival arguments. Getting those at speed and knowing where to find them is the art of being a journalist.

Charities, in general, are better than government departments. They compare well with the business sector, which, of course, puts a lot of money into this. I don’t think charities should be beating themselves up or thinking that they’re a poor relation. They should be encouraged by the range of charity communication successes that you see out there, both at the national and global level, and build on that. There’s a lot to build on.


Ian Hargreaves, non-executive director and professor of journalism, Ofcom and Cardiff University

Ian Hargreaves has over 30 years’ experience as a journalist. He’s been Director of BBC News and Current Affairs, and Editor of the Independent and The New Statesman. He was also a former Director of Cardiff’s Centre for Journalism Studies and Director of Greenpeace UK.