Jo Barr is director of Jolly Good Communications, a social enterprise providing a full range of communications and public relations services to charities, social enterprises and other not-for-profits. They also work with start-ups and SMEs, helping them to operate in a socially, environmentally and ethically conscious way.
I can still remember something I was told as part of training as a journalist some 20 years ago. When it comes to news, the further away it happens you have to add another zero onto the number of people who are killed, injured or affected before anyone ‘here’ will care.
He went on to say not only was it about distance in miles, but also the distance in terms of lives and culture which made a massive difference. Ten people dying in a tragic school minibus accident in France might make the front pages whilst at the same time hundreds of thousands of children were starving to death in Africa and you would not find a mention of it anywhere in the news pages.
It wasn’t racist, or pro- or anti- any country (I was told), it was merely about the connections our readers could and would make. They could imagine a child, brother or parent hurt in a tragic bus accident in neighbouring France, but it seemed our readers could or would not imagine famine and starvation on another continent. After all, didn’t caring – like charity – begin at home?
Sadly, there was always an agenda. A child went missing for a few hours from a posh part of town and the newsroom was all over the story. Yet a few weeks later when a colleague raised a report of a younger child missing on the other side of town my editor told him ‘Oh that estate, it’s not a story’. I am pleased to say both children turned up unharmed but sad to say that is when I fell out of love with journalism. I wanted to write and care about everyone as equals and to me, a child was a child, always innocent and in need of protection.
Whilst most people like to believe they are not judgemental most of us are. It would be easy to dismiss 20 years ago as a bygone era, yet sadly while people may no longer believe charity begins at home, there is still a significant number who believe charity should look or represent a very simple form or need. I have lost count of the number of times I’ve heard the words – ‘yes but that is not a ‘real’ charity is it?’
Putting to one side the often-controversial issue of private fee-paying schools which could take up an article in its own right, it seems there are still charities which people do not consider to be equal to others. When I started my own C.I.C providing PR support, one of the main aims was to help the small charity sector get their voices heard, something I am passionate about.
But when I sent out a press release about an alternative therapy charity to a London-based online publication which was looking for stories for its charity pages, I was told it was commercial and I would need to pay for them to feature it. I emailed back and explained they were a membership body but they are also a charity that did a lot of important work. When I didn’t hear back I picked up the phone to plead their case in person.
‘No one really needs aromatherapy’ I was told, ‘How is that an important cause?’ I bit my lip and remembered again why I got out of journalism. I explained that one of the key things they did was to help carers deliver aromatherapy to those in need in care homes and hospitals. I told him that when my mother was in hospital with terminal cancer her day improved greatly by a volunteer trained in aromatherapy who came in to give her a hand massage with essential oils. It was relaxing and soothing. It was the kindness of human touch and fragrance in surroundings which by their very nature look and smell sterile.
I was told that was all well and good but it wasn’t a real charity, and the event the release was writing about it was just a PR stunt. They would publish it but I would have to pay.
I didn’t pay, not only because neither the charity nor I had the budget, but because he was wrong. Scrolling back through the pages of his website I saw how just a month before they had published (as free content) a story about a much bigger well-known charity doing a very similar thing (a world record event). I couldn’t help but think it was probably because he had heard of them already, and as a charity, all about hearts their ‘purpose’ was far clearer cut.
The thing about charity is we all have the choice to decide which we support, both in terms of cause and also who we want to give money to. But we don’t have the right to pick is what is a ‘real’ charity and what is not. In many instances, people discount what they have not heard before about or don’t understand immediately. The result is the biggest organisations with massive PR and marketing budgets will always come up trumps and the grassroots ones miss out.
But actually, isn’t a charity a charity, much as a missing child is a missing child? Whilst they may not come from ‘our part of town’, we cannot and should not dismiss them, because the only real loser in that scenario is society itself.