OBTAINING good publicity for your charity has become critical as fundraising becomes more competitive. At the same time, the demand for charitable services has been growing fast. However, in many respects, it has become tough to get your voice heard as the number of charities vying for attention grows. Social media has become more pervasive to navigate along with email and newsletters.
With the growth of online services, news outlets have changed, local papers are now online, and citizen journalists are more active. In all the hullabaloo of the digital age, you must work very hard to grab peoples’ attention and convey your message. A powerful and human story can arouse interest, bringing an issue to life.
Many medium-sized and large charities gain decent publicity through professional public relations (PR). Most charities and non-profit organisations are small. Thus paying for PR staff or services is one of the last considerations for a small or even medium-sized charity. Invariably, managers find themselves carrying out extra tasks (fundraising, staff management, HR), but they must be competent.
So what’s to be done? You can learn the necessary communications skills by training with the Media Trust or Charities Aid Foundation. You could recruit a trustee or volunteer to help with publicity from Business Volunteers or the Cranfield Trust.
A key task is to create a Communications Plan outlining your needs and available resources. Charity Comms have some ideas on developing a strategy. The first question to decide is who you are trying to reach, which then suggests which channels to utilise.
- local people and councillors, in which case channels would be local papers and social media outlets and groups (e.g. Facebook, LinkedIn etc.)
- opinion-formers and trusts; in which case charity press like Charity Today, LinkedIn, and specialist journals for your sector (FE Weekly, Community Care)
- young people or group members who might want to use your services or join your project, in which case it would be social media platforms (e.g. YouTube, Instagram)
Local events can reach local people, but staffing a parish fete stall can be very time-consuming. There are some national events to take part in, such as December’s UK Charity Week. Such campaigns present charities with numerous opportunities for fundraising and awareness.
Your content should be specific to the audience you are trying to engage with, so planning is vital. Consider which media to use: an example is that websites with video generate much more attention than those without, particularly for younger audiences. Videos made by young people for young people can be effective at communicating as well as building skills and critical faculties for those creating them. However, for opinion formers, research is a better medium if conducted by people with the correct credentials.
Select a few key issues and topics. Small charities with a small hierarchy than larger charities can respond quickly to current events, piggybacking on breaking news and giving a view from the grassroots.
Here are some thoughts from an experienced PR practitioner. Letter pages are among some of the most read. You must comment swiftly and succinctly on issues relevant to your organisation while not just plugging your services. Half of the public relations is about getting other people to repeat your messages.
Storytelling is crucial, providing the life stories of your beneficiaries, and giving a human angle (a free guide to storytelling is on Charity Digital).
Some practical steps to take include issuing a press release to publicise an event, achievement or milestone, but these must be well-written, short and snappy. Remember to include your contact details and a photo since a picture grabs attention and tells a thousand stories, which the media prefer.
Another idea is to carry out and publish research on the effectiveness of your services (which requires good record-keeping) and how they make a difference for service users. Or you can organise a prize-giving or publicity event and acquire a celebrity to present prizes or sponsor an award, to generate further interest.
This work is worth doing thoroughly, as good publicity is essential for marketing and fundraising. You must invest time and effort to engage people—not just broadcast to them.