Skip to main content

Tips on communications success amidst a polarising media climate

8 February 2022

Charities whose mission it is to support a marginalised minority will have first-hand experience of how tortuous a place the UK media – and public arena – can be. For the journalists and keyboard warriors of today, the ‘culture wars’ exist to be inflamed – with little regard for the harmful consequences.

That’s why it’s important that a charity’s communication team feels equipped with the right tools to navigate a divisive media landscape. Communication success begins with a team that feels empowered to counter negative media narratives with impactful campaigns, and meaningful social media and press activity that reflect the charity’s core vision.

Mermaids, the leading LGBTQIA+ charity supporting trans, gender-diverse and non-binary children, young people and families, understands this. Numerous attempts have been made by media outlets to discredit and undermine the work Mermaids does, and the charity is still regularly approached by journalists who are determined to feed a certain negative agenda. Here’s what we’ve learnt about driving home a charity’s mission statement amidst a contentious media landscape:

Balance is key

It’s important to be proactive in capturing the experiences of your service users in quotes for social media or in stories for the press. It’s equally important to be responsive to news on policy, society or economy that may directly impact your service users or your ability to support them – by firing out a statement when needed. But do you need to respond to everything? When the conversation online turns divisive – as is often the case with polarising topics – at what point do you disengage?

Having a clear sense of your charity’s mission will help guide you. In Mermaids’ case, our core focus is supporting and empowering trans young people and their families who are experiencing mental and emotional distress and isolation. With this in mind, it would be beneficial to our community to use Twitter to champion an author who is exploring the experiences of someone who is trans or non-binary, in an authentic way. 

It would also make sense for us to defend our community, by calling out a platform for spotlighting the voices of groups and individuals who are harmful to our community. A clear, factually informed statement that outlines your stance on an issue, and includes the relevant hashtag, is a great way to do this. It will also raise the profile of your charity and position you as an authoritative voice on the topic.

However, when discussion dissolves into reductive, mean-spirited ‘debate’ – as we saw recently with individuals using JK Rowling’s tweets as a springboard to pick apart trans people’s existence – know this is your time to disconnect. You’ve stated your position and it isn’t constructive to engage anymore. You risk giving these posts unnecessary airtime and inadvertently reinforcing negative narratives. The same goes for media requests from journalists with a specific agenda. The usual suspects will get in touch asking for a comment on an issue that a. is offensive to our community, and b. is based on falsehoods. You can leave this, it isn’t worth the energy.

Get your ducks in a row

A ‘key messages library’ is a great way for a communications team to clearly outline their charity’s stance on a number of critical, trending, issues. The library can serve as an invaluable resource for those in charge of social media or press to reference when tweeting a statement or responding to a media request, particularly when this occurs out of regular working hours. It also means if a spokesperson or the Media Manager is confronted with a ‘gotcha’ journalist in a live interview or ringing them up for a comment, they can be confident that what they’re saying is representative of the charity’s views and is evidenced by the charity’s findings.

The key messages library should be developed in collaboration with your Legal / Policy team as they can support with expert knowledge. Additional input from your frontline services team is advised as they have experience supporting your service users, and, most likely, data on your service users, both can be used to back up your points and claims. Ensure the library is centralised in a place that is easily accessible to those who need it.

If there is budget carry out some message testing to gauge whether your tone of voice or framing of content is landing with your audience. This feedback can help shape how you write future statements to ensure you’re tapping into the style of messaging your audience connects with. If you’re a small charity and/or you don’t have the budget, consider other charities in the sector who engage with your community and see if they are willing to share their findings. After all, you have a shared goal to counter negative media narratives with positive, authentic ones.

Protect and empower your team

It’s vital to establish a core group of spokespeople within your charity who have undergone rigorous media training and are readily available for media engagements. Ideally, you want the media professional delivering the training to be knowledgeable about the kind of climate your charity is operating in, and the level of hostility you may be facing. For example, an LGBTQ+ charity would find an (ex or current) LGBT+ journalist especially useful, as they can tap into their specialist knowledge of the sector.

Ultimately, media training equips your spokespeople with the tools required to effectively represent your organisation in what can be a tough media landscape. Keep in mind that there may be need for additional support for those with lived experience, who may be impacted on a personal level. Open dialogue between the communications team and spokespeople is important here; following a media engagement, debriefs can be carried out to check in with the spokesperson, and, similarly, any constructive criticism about the process can be fed back.

Finally, a Crisis Communication Plan is a valuable measure to put in place to provide a communication team with the protocol to follow in the event of a crisis. The plan should outline the steps to take if any incident were to occur that would present a serious risk to the charity. You could even have a pre-agreed ‘Crisis Management Team’ comprised of decision makers within the charity and policy experts who can be alerted to a crisis and mobilised to carry out the right steps.

Learning to navigate what can be a hostile, polarising media climate as a frontline communications professional can be a challenging task. Hopefully, however, the tips above can help to alleviate some of this anxiety and help to increase your chances of lasting success. And always remember to take time out for yourself. Burnout is a very real thing, so look after yourself and each other in the process.

CharityComms will be discussing navigating polarised topics at our upcoming conference – The changing world of charity PR.

Banner Image: Pille R. Priske on Unsplash

Bex Shorunke

PR and media engagement manager, Mermaids

Bex Shorunke (she/her) is the PR and media engagement manager at Mermaids, a leading LGBTQ+ charity supporting trans, non-binary and gender diverse children, young people and families. Previously Bex worked at LGBTQ+ homeless charity akt. Outside of work, she is undertaking an MA looking into ethnicity, culture and intersectionality and does occasional freelance journalism.