Communications and PR for charities: Why it's important to spend time preparing your strategy
Guest Blog by Skilled Volunteer, Carolina Gasparoli | Jun 2023
A very crowded space
I’m sitting at my desk when I hear the doorbell ringing. It’s a very nice guy asking if I think blind children in our community deserve more support. Of course, I do, I think these children and their families need more assistance. He asks if I want to donate some money.
Regrettably, I say no. Why? Because this would be the third request in a week from people ringing at my door asking for money in support of very – all of them – worthy causes. Not to mention friends, family, or colleagues running the marathon or doing some other activity to raise money for a charity of their choice. Or paid ads on Instagram, Facebook, etc. with a celebrity telling you how much people in Somalia need our urgent help.
What is the point of my story? The charity sector is a very crowded space. Each and every one of these charities is competing for the same things: attention, support, money, or action.
So, how do you as a charitable organisation stand out? How can a charity be heard above the noise?
Communications and PR strategy: what they are and why they are important
How can your organisation intercept public sympathy that would eventually turn into an interest in what you are trying to achieve and, ideally, move them to take action?
You need a communications and PR strategy. Some definitions first.
A communications strategy is a roadmap to identifying your messages, the channels you are going to use to convey them, and to whom, so people take action, i.e. donate to your organisation, share your content, sign your petition, get behind your cause. A communications strategy focuses on three questions: What do you want to communicate? How do you want to communicate it? Who is your audience and where is it? It should also consider crisis management (more about this below).
A PR strategy is a thoughtful plan to identify which steps your organisation is going to take to build trusted relationships with your audience, so people feel connected and compelled to act.
I use a specific definition of PR: PR is anything you do that is in the public eye. PR is about boosting your credibility, raising awareness, and building your brand. Some people (alas some PR people as well) tend to reduce PR to media strategy and, in the worst cases, to “what to say when I speak to a journalist”.
If you want to know more about PR, I highly recommend you read Hype Yourself, by Lucy Werner, plus her website, her Medium (if you have access to it) and LinkedIn account.
How do the communications and PR strategies interact with each other? Whilst the communications strategy is the overarching roadmap to identify the three goals mentioned above, you can think of your PR strategy as the action plan to make it happen.
Communications and PR focus on targeting the right audiences, crafting powerful messages, and thinking strategically about how to disseminate these messages in a way that reaches the right people at the right time. As they frequently overlap, in this blog we are going to cover the main pillars of both strategies in the section below.
Building your roadmap
- Establish your communications objectives – Communications objectives must align with your business objectives, so start by reviewing what you are trying to achieve as an organisation. In other words, what are your business objectives, strategy, goals, or theory of change? How will what you are going to say help you achieve your objectives?
People often feel overwhelmed at this stage as they realise that they have multiple objectives. That’s ok. Ask yourself: what do you want to focus on for the purpose of this specific project?
- Identify your audience – Communication doesn’t happen in a vacuum: you always talk to someone having a specific objective in mind. Before progressing any further, have a clear idea of who your audience is. Is it the public? If so, which demographics are you targeting? Is it the Government? Is it the business community? It is also important to ask yourself some additional questions like: what is your existing audience? Do you want to expand your existing audience, or do you want to reach a new audience?
It is also essential to spend some time investigating where your audience is. Are you going to intercept them mainly on social media? If you are a local charity, for example, your targeted audience is probably your local community, so any local initiative, local authority newsletter, or local news desk could help you reach them.
Depending on the project, you may have to identify a more specific audience: journalists, bloggers, or news desks. There are additional considerations to bear in mind when approaching them, which deserve a dedicated blog. Hype Yourself mentioned above is a very helpful starting point. It is worth mentioning here that when you decide to engage with your audience is also important to successfully disseminate your messages. Always ask yourself: “Is my project/call for action/etc newsworthy?” In other words, is there already some interest in similar stories so your pitch will land well? Also, remember that journalists need some time to turn around a story, so you’ll need to send your pitch well before you expect the article to run.
One final point on this. Pitching to journalists is not about writing a press release and sending it to your media list. How annoyed are you when you are approached out of the blue on LinkedIn, via email etc. by a random company/person who completely misses the point of what you do, your mission or interests? The same happens to journalists who receive a generic press release, not tailored to them.
- Spend some time crafting your messages – You have identified your objectives and key audience, now it’s time to reflect on the messaging. What are the main things you want to say about your organisation, campaign, or product you would like to launch? For example, you may want to raise awareness of a policy issue or launch a book or a report.
At this stage, collecting case studies, statistics, and any other useful data about your organisation and projects would be immensely valuable and give you relevant content to back up your overall messages.
This is where storytelling comes in as well. Again, storytelling is a wide and well-researched field that will take us too far. If you want to learn more about it, I recommend Do Story. How to tell your story so the world listens, by one the most important authors, Bobette Buster.
- Audit your existing communications channels – It is important to map the existing channels you use to communicate externally. How many different channels do you have (social media accounts, podcasts, newsletters, emails, leaflets, brochures, website, etc.)? Which ones are the most efficient/effective? How big is your database? Do you have the right people on it? How many followers do you have on social media? It is worth remembering that quality beats quantity, particularly when it comes to social media. In other words, having the ‘right people’ following you is more valuable than having lots of followers.
As part of this mapping exercise, it may be beneficial to review what your main competitors are doing (in this instance, you can gather insightful data about their social media channels, website, and newsletters if you are subscribed to them) and evaluate how you are doing in comparison. This is a useful exercise because it can give you some ideas to improve your own content.
- Consider what success looks like and how to measure it – This stage is important because it will provide some insight into how successful your organisation has been in meeting your communications objectives. This is a vital part of your communications strategy because it will help you evaluate what has worked and why so you can report with confidence to the CEO, the Board, donors etc. how well your organisation has performed.
Here are some examples of metrics you may want to consider:
– new followers,
– new people on the database,
– how they heard about you,
– increase in donations,
– increase in volunteers,
– better relationships with your local council and other local partners, etc.
- Crisis communications plan – Only a few words about this topic as it is a discipline in its own right. According to my communications strategy guru, Alistair Campbell, a crisis is “an event or situation which threatens to overwhelm the organisation if the right decisions are not taken”. Consequently, the first rule of crisis management is “to work out where this is going to end in a position that best protects the organisation and on principles which it consistently defends”.
All organisations, even if they are small, should think about what can cause a crisis and have a clear plan in place before they are hit by it. The government website is a good place to start if you want to know more about this topic Crisis communication – GCS (civilservice.gov.uk).
Some final thoughts
My boss once told me: “Communications is like politics and arts. Everybody thinks they are an expert”. It is very true. I cannot count the times my colleagues or I have been challenged by people who had very strong views about the organisation’s communications strategy, although their day-to-day job had nothing to do with that.
Several people are going to try to influence your work. Hopefully, this blog gives you some ground to stand on so you can put together a communications strategy with confidence.
It will take time, but it is time well spent. It will provide you with a more targeted approach, more tangible and quality results, which, in turn, will boost credibility with your audience.