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Improving your case studies with informed consent

11 May 2012

Case studies are the lifeblood of PR and can transform a message from straightforward facts to something inspiring, memorable and behaviour-changing.

Everyone deserves to be treated with compassion and respect but the nature of charities’ work means people who volunteer to be case studies are often more vulnerable and need extra care.

Best practice for dealing with case studies is to make sure they know exactly how you would like to use the personal information they give you. This is the process of informed consent.

The basics of informed consent

Consent needs to be done through a written form, so that individuals can take their time to read through the details and you have a record of the permission they give.

Consent forms will vary depending on the PR needs of your organisation but they should all contain:

  • Full contact details for the case study
  • A list of media you would like to be able to use their story in (ie on your organisation’s website or printed materials, in local or national press, on broadcast media) and tick boxes for them to indicate which ones they consent to
  • Whether they are happy to be photographed or filmed
  • Whether they are happy to be interviewed by a journalist
  • Bear in mind your data protection responsibilities and keep these personal details secure. Always ask permission before you share someone’s contact details with a journalist. If they have indicated they are happy to talk to national newspapers for example, that might not mean every newspaper – talk each opportunity through as and when it arises.

Assume nothing, explain everything

People who are well supported by your organisation can be very keen to say yes to what you ask them to do. They want to help the charity and raise awareness of what a great job you do. But talking to the media is often not quite what they expected so it’s important to prepare case studies beforehand. Make sure they understand why you want to use their story, what do you want them to talk about? Are they helping you to raise awareness of a condition or situation, your organisation’s work or both?

You will also need to make people aware that by sharing their personal information in a public situation, anyone, anywhere in the world will be able to read about it. Case studies may have split from a partner, which can be problematic when they are parents of a child you support. They may have a health condition that their neighbours don’t know about or that carries a stigma in their family. Find out if there are any potential issues and encourage people to discuss them with friends and family before agreeing to go ahead.

Outline media practices and culture

It also helps to give people an understanding of how the media works.

  • What should they expect from a live radio interview?
  • How long might a TV film crew be in their home?
  • Will the local newspaper want to meet them or do the interview over the phone?
  • What is a web chat and how does it work?
  • All of this preparation means case studies are well-informed and the experience is more likely to be a positive one, both for them and for you.

For those case studies who are going to talk to the media, one of the most important things to help them understand is that you don’t have any control over how the finished article appears. Journalists can get facts wrong, they might use language that individuals or families find inappropriate (such as ‘victim’ or ‘sufferer’) and even if a case study has had chance to approve the copy beforehand, an inaccurate or sensationalist headline will ruin it for them. Briefing both parties well and managing expectations will make for the best outcome.

Adapt to changing circumstances

Of course, there are challenges to face, often because of the nature of charities’ work. Not-for-profit organisations are frequently involved with people, or children, in changeable situations which could affect their consent status. For example, a family with a seriously ill child may be happy to talk to the media to begin with but if their child’s condition deteriorates they may not want to or be able to commit to an interview. Think about the circumstances of the individuals you work with and build in an appropriate review timescale to avoid difficult or upsetting situations.

What you should ultimately take from this is that informed consent should be just that, and the more information and preparation, the better the result. As well as safeguarding your reputation, you’ll have also made the next ask much easier as your case studies will have had such a positive experience.

Read more

Working with storytellers: ‘It’s never our story to tell, it’s theirs’

Lisa Pettifer

consultant, Amazon PR

Lisa has for several years been a part of the Amazon PR team, working on projects for SSAFA, RAF Benevolent Fund, Dulcolax & Beating Bowel Cancer, Cats Protection and Jack Petchey Foundation. A former broadcast journalist for the BBC, Lisa also has experience in-house, dealing with case studies, media relations, marketing materials and social media planning.