Selfies and the value of plenty of PR groundwork

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The social media phenomenon encouraging women to post “selfies” (pictures taken them of themselves using a smart phone) without make-up with an associated donation to Cancer Research UK, has been a massive success, raising  millions for the charity.

Yet whilst this initiative has to be regarded as a “hit” in PR terms – perhaps the interesting question is  “who should take the credit for it?”.

Carolan Davidge, director of communications at Cancer Research UK, is quoted on Sky News saying: “The trend isn’t something Cancer Research UK started so it’s been fantastic to see so many people getting involved and wanting to use their selfie to raise money for our life-saving research.”

So it appears the initiative on Facebook and Twitter is something that appeared spontaneously and grew organically (see BBC story about its origins here). Some speculate it was inspired by the “Necknominate” game craze from early 2014 in which people challenged others via Facebook to undertake some form of alcoholic drinking stunt, but its origins are unclear. Wherever it came from it has truly spread like the best of memes.

The organic nature of its emergence is perhaps best illustrated in the confusion that has arisen over the donation process. With a designed campaign there would have been a very clearly planned and constructed process to turn the goodwill and awareness into cash – yet this recent trend is notable for the problems associated with it (see BBC story here). For instance, some people trying to donate have been connected to a WWF campaign to protect Polar Bears, others have inadvertently given their money to a fund run  by UNICEF and still other posts have no mention of donation at all, or reference to the cause.

Credit for this “PR Hit” therefore cannot be directly attributed to anyone – yet it can in a sense be laid at the door of good PR. What has been a spontaneous online initiative became linked to Cancer Research UK because the charity has invested consistently in its PR, building awareness of the issue and in its reputation over many years. This groundwork on its reputation is why people initiated and more importantly joined the “Selfie” phenomenon.

A final thought then about the value of PR for my Charity clients. It has been said that PR is “What people say about you when you are not in the room” – perhaps we might now say it is “Why people donate when you haven’t even asked for money”.


Comic Relief not smiling over investments

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We’ve seen a big PR hic-cup, for Comic Relief today with the news that Panorama have discovered that it invests money in companies such as arms manufacturers as well as the  alcohol and tobacco industries. It’s an issue which highlights the need for Charities to understand the value of their reputation and that PR thinking has to enter every dimension of an organisation’s operation, not simply saved for its marketing output.

The revelation has attracted considerable media attention (see The Guardian, The Independent, BBC News ) most of which is critical and most of which will damage the reputation of one of the UKs most powerful charity fundraisers. Yet it seems no-one in this giant in the charity world appears to have seen this coming, despite the fact this very issue has been one which the sector has been dealing with for decades.

I personally recall discussions at one Charity I was involved with 20 years ago regarding where it’s funds should be invested and the very clear outcome being that it had to take an ethical approach if its reputation was to remain spotless. The returns might be lower than other open funds, but the risk to the relationship between the organisation and its existing and potential supporters outweighed the financial aspect.

What we understood then and what hasn’t changed today is that Charities trade on their name – how donors feel about them is essential, literally the difference between the hand going into the pocket or not. Surely someone in a charity working with projects in countries torn apart by war, providing support to people with drug and alcohol problems in the UK and schemes to support people with health issues must have seen the negative implications of being  investing in the very industries at the root of some of the issues it deals with?

The response too has been lack lustre – in an interview on the BBC the CEO of Comic Relief tried to place the blame on the Charity Commission’s guidelines on charity funds investment, clearly a prepared line to try and spread responsibility. Unfortunately the previous interviewee, a specialist in charity fund management and investment had already made it quite clear that Charities can invest in ethical schemes with lower returns when it is in line with their operational delivery.

Comic Relief are in a hole now and just about the only thing in their favour is that they have almost a year to dig themselves out before they once again ask the British public to put their hands in their pockets. By then they could have sorted out an ethical investment portfolio and/or they can hope that the public will have forgotten.

My advice would be to start shifting the money now and to do it in a very humble and public manner.

Commerciality isn’t a crime

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Having worked in the Third sector for more than a quarter of a century, I’m well aware of the antipathy to the commercial sector held by many in not for profit organisations. Indeed most of my working life has been spent trying to get charitable organisations to recognise that professional communication is not just for the commercial sector.

Sadly this mistrust of the culture of commerce means the sector has for years been missing a trick when it comes to developing adaptability, economy and efficiency. Grant based income has essentially hobbled the development of the sector by allowing it to become comfortable and complacent. The harder economic climate of the past few years has therefore come as a shock to many who now seek other means of generating income.

This change to the economic environment may now be leading to a refreshing change in attitudes within the sector.

A poll run by the Guardian supported by an article by NCVO’s senior sustainability officer, Olaf Williamson, shows more than 80% of respondents (who will in the main be from the sector) are in favour of  the Third Sector improving its commercial instincts.

Working in PR I’d clearly support this, as marketing and the ability to tell a tale to engage clients, customers and partners is an essential part of viewing the world in a more commercial way and engaging not just to make money but to shape opinions as well.

And what could be better for the sector than that?

Chugging : short term fix – long term damage?

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We’ve all been there – walking along the High Street when we see a Tabarded individual hovering waiting to pounce as we pass, ready to ask us to support “their” cause.

Chuggers – or “Street Fundraisers” have become a fixture of our towns in recent years, and their abundant presence is an indication that Charities clearly believe they are cost effective.

The fact they are raising much needed funds in the short term however obscures the reputational damage they are doing not just to the charities using them but to the sector as a whole in the longer term.

The approach taken by some chuggers, and perceived by most people on the High Street to be the norm for this type of fundraising, is starting to damage the reputation of both individual charities and the sector as a whole.

Here are some of the recent press cuttings on the subject…

How has the sector put itself in this position? The financial pressures are certainly at the root, but from there we have to look at how Charities then go about tackling their funding shortages. For many it means specialist fundraising teams – all well and good, there are some fantastic fundraising specialists out there. But the problem emerges in organisations where the fundraising function is either separated from the PR function, or worse, placed above the PR function organisationally.

Fundraisers work in hard cash – PR works in the currency of reputation. With this comes a mindset.

Each should work hand in glove with the other if funds and supporters are to be found and the reputation of the charity is to grow. It just doesn’t always happen like that.

I’ve seen at first hand what happens when fundraisers work in isolation from the PR function – yes quick income is identified and brought in, but in the longer term the legacy is one of disillusioned supporters, a muddling of the public’s perception of the values and ethos of the organisation, and a degrading of the reputational stock of the charity.

There is an understanding between the public and the charity sector – it says that people will give of their own accord if they are persuaded that a charity  is worthy. The reputation of the body seeking their support is key to that decision.

Chugging on the High Street is in danger of killing the Golden Goose, as the damage done to the reputation of the Charity sector turns individuals away from  giving because they fear the high pressure tactics the sector is becoming assocuated with.

It’s time for someone to say “Yes it is bringing in cash, but in the longer term this method isn’t doing our reputation any good, and our reputation is the one asset we cannot afford to lose.”