Thursday, 8 May 2008

How to deliver unpopular messages (and how not to)

Perhaps surprisingly for a communications officer, I don't get out much, so I always look forward to events that allow me to meet other charity communications people, swap stories and learn from people with more experience and - frankly - bigger teams and bigger budgets. And today I went to one of those events, Charity Communications 08.

There were lots of inspiring speakers there, although disappointingly fewer examples of successful comms "on a shoestring" than last year, but perhaps the most striking thing I came away with was the contrast between two of the speakers, Camila Batmanghelidjh (director of Kids Company) and Kelvin MacKenzie (former editor of the Sun).

Both very strong, determined personalities. Both fearless, outspoken, unafraid of personal criticism and prepared to deliver unpopular messages. But where Camila Batmangelidjh is prepared to speak out in defence of the young people she works with, often vilified in the media, however much that opens her to attack (she talked about speaking out at the time of the murder of Damilola Taylor, making the point that we as adults had failed not only Damilola Taylor but also the children who killed him), Kelvin MacKenzie really didn't seem interested in anyone but himself. MacKenzie perhaps didn't endear himself to the audience by characterising charity workers as overpaid, dishonest, crooks, at best "not bad people, but misguided", by showing a total lack of interest in the work of charities, and also by refusing to engage in any discussion he wasn't controlling (he refused point blank to discuss with a woman from the Lucy Faithfull Foundation why it might be necessary for a charity to work with paedophiles). But enough about him...

Batmangelidjh made a few really key points. Asked how she has managed to use the media for such positive effect, she says she speaks the truth and is not afraid to be attacked for it. When she speaks out, "it may not be in the best interest of me, it is not always in the best interest of Kids Company, but it is always in the best interest of the kids". She noted that a lot of charity chief executives feel vulnerable about speaking out, and that the voluntary sector has "disempowered itself in the search for money". Her message: "Get brave and refuse that equation". But she was realistic about how you get yourself in a strong enough position to do that:

(1) run an effective project
(2) get your work independently assessed to prove its efficacy, and
(3) stay true to your values

"Don't underestimate the power of the truth. Find the truth in what you're doing". Only then should you (in her words) open your big mouth.

It was certainly clear to me why her clear-headed and uncompromising stance has paid dividends in the media coverage she and her project have attracted over the years.

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