How to transform your media presence: 6 tips for NGOs in 2015

Photographers and journalists at a press conference. How can the development sector better engage with the media? Photo by: Corinne Vionnet / CC BY-NC-ND

The development sector doesn’t always have an easy relationship with the media.

Some nongovernmental organizations complain that journalists provide insufficient coverage of their work but are increasingly critical of their activities, while some journalists argue NGOs are not always media-savvy, can be opaque about their work and are often slow to respond to queries from reporters.

These and other issues were the focus of a forum organized last month in London by Bond, a network of U.K.-based international development NGOs, which brought together representatives from both sides to hammer out new strategies to enable NGOs to communicate better with the media and make sure their stories are told as widely, accurately and positively as possible.

Judith Davey, director of people, performance and accountability at ActionAid, opened the discussion, pointing to growing evidence that the public doesn’t understand what NGOs do or how they do it.

How to address this challenge? Organizations need to work on how they engage with the media and communicate the benefits of development aid, she said.

Mark Galloway, executive director of the International Broadcasting Trust, outlined the findings of a recent IBT report that investigated what British journalists really think about the aid sector. The results weren’t great, with the television, radio, print and online journalists polled expressing opinions that suggested the industry is increasingly critical of aid and the NGOs that deliver it.

Journalists confirmed in the poll that they were putting NGOs under greater scrutiny, partly because of their growing size and influence, and noted they should be placed under the spotlight just as corporates are. Specific criticisms included views that NGOs exaggerate what they can achieve, that they are too big, competitive and concerned with their corporate image, and that they pay their senior executives too much.

The IBT report also delved into what journalists want from NGOs and offered the following six recommendations on how aid groups can help improve their own coverage.

1. Be more transparent.

As NGOs become subject to the kind of scrutiny traditionally reserved for big business, they need to respond with ever greater transparency — especially about sensitive issues like CEO pay.

Although most NGOs can internally justify the amount they pay executives, the sector has been “awful” at explaining this to outsiders, according to Karl Wilding, director of public policy for the National Council for Voluntary Organizations.

“We think in the sector that we’re the gold standard in terms of transparency. We’re not,” he said.

Some charities fear that publishing executive pay in their annual report will deter donors. But while doing this can be “uncomfortable,” it can help organizations stay one step ahead of possible media probes, protecting them from the “we can reveal” type headlines, Wilding argued.

NGOs need to think carefully, though, about which issues they will be transparent on and which will remain private — and to make this clear to journalists, added Mayur Paul, head of communications at Bond U.K.

Médecins Sans Frontières, for example, has a clear policy that it will not comment on kidnappings.

“There are some issues on which transparency is not safe,” noted Polly Markandya, head of communications at the French medical group.

2. Engage more directly with journalists.

All organizations need a strong communications team, but the traditional “gatekeeper” approach doesn’t work in a social media world. Journalists interviewed for IBT’s report said they wanted more direct access to a broad range of NGO officials. CEOs also need to be on Twitter and talking directly to journalists, Galloway said.

“Those agencies that are out there and confident and that have got the tone right are reaping dividends,” he explained.

This extends to finance directors, whose public reports are under more scrutiny and who must also learn to understand the importance of spending on media, noted Media Trust CEO Caroline Diehl.

Paul said communications teams need to work with every department in an NGO so that each staff member understands the organization’s media message. Even if they are not talking directly to journalists, he argued that “every staff member is a touch point for the organization” who needs to “live” its values and act as its representative to everyone they meet.

3. Prepare case studies and data in advance.

Journalists love a human interest story but also want data to back it up. Those polled in the IBT report called for more effective storytelling from the development sector, but also for NGOs to provide specific case studies along with their press releases.

The growth of social media is spawning a new type of “data journalism” and an appetite among the public for hard facts that tell a story in a snapshot, Paul noted. The irony, he explained, is that NGOs already produce a lot of impact evidence for their internal use, but don’t always package it properly or make it available to journalists.

Before a story breaks or an NGO shares news, they should therefore prepare case studies or data such as indexes that are then immediately available to journalists, rather than be left scrambling around to produce them on request. This will increase the likelihood of stories being picked up in both traditional and social media, and give them more weight with readers.

4. Don’t just preach to the converted.

It can be tempting for NGOs to focus their media engagement on journalists, publications and news consumers that are already sympathetic to aid. This “easy sell” approach however means big swathes of potential donors aren’t reached.

“As a sector we’re very good at talking to people that agree with us,” but less good at engaging with those that might not, Wilding noted.

Although left-wing media consumers are more likely to be supportive of aid than their right-wing counterparts, “we need to reach other audiences,” Galloway said. This includes avoiding using “lefty” language that puts off more conservative journalists and readers who may otherwise “think aid is a good thing.” NGOs thus need to identify and target a “swing” audience that is not entirely sold on aid, one attendee noted.

“Everyone knows what the Guardian stands for,” he said, referring to the left-leaning British newspaper. “If you want a swing audience, don’t think you’re going to get it through the Guardian.”

For Galloway, social media is clearly the answer. It’s cheap, it’s growing and it’s the best way to reach young people, many of whom “couldn’t care less about newspapers.”

The Media Trust specifically targeted The Sun — a right-of-center British newspaper — as a partner for its annual Column Idol project, in which aspiring young writers are mentored by its editors and compete to write columns for the newspaper, mostly on social issues such as disability or poverty. Editors involved with the project say it has made them “think differently” about such topics and young people, and Diehl pointed out this underlines how engaging with less obvious media organizations can reap dividends.

5. Give beneficiaries a voice.

The beneficiaries of NGO programs should play a more dynamic role in helping publicize the impact of an organization. According to Diehl, supporting beneficiaries to tell their own story is not only empowering, but can change the way media consumers view NGOs.

“Communities across the U.K. and globally want to have a voice. They want to engage, they want to share opinions and stories, to comment and have a conversation,” she said.

Mobile technology makes this easier than ever before and NGOs should view training beneficiaries in this field as one of their top priorities. The media is meanwhile generating a growing share of revenue from multiple layers of text, photo, audio and video content that are linked to news stories and features, and are “crying out for diverse stories and authentic voices” to fill this space.

“There is a fantastic ability now for us to be pouring content into these media machines,” Diehl explained. “We have to pick up on this movement and tap into it.”

Giving beneficiaries a voice can also have a profound effect on how the general public, and young people in particular, think and talk about aid.

One project that Media Trust worked on with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, for example, involved young filmmakers in India being mentored by media experts to produce short films telling the story of why aid was important to them and the difference it had made to their lives. The films were broadcast on Media Trust’s community channel and were also shown in the U.K. at a special screening for 30 young people who were hand-picked for being relatively ambivalent about aid. Ten days after the screening, 100 percent of that audience said they had talked to friends about the issues raised in the films, while 50 percent had highlighted them on social media.

6. Enter the debate.

In the IBT report, journalists called for NGOs to respond to conversations and public debates as they take place.

Aid groups can have a tendency to “duck out from taking part in difficult conversations,” Galloway said. One “missed opportunity” to engage was during the debate in December about the release of a new Band Aid single to support the fight against Ebola. The lyrics were criticized by some for portraying Africa in a negative light, but the development sector remained relatively quiet on the subject.

NGOs also need to find ways to have more complex, “grown-up” conversations about development, without losing the public along the way, Paul said. Some projects do fail, and NGOs should not shy away from telling these more difficult stories.

Are you working for an NGO or a media organization? What would be your key recommendation for more effective engagement and communication? Have your say by making a comment below.

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About the author

  • Helen castell profile

    Helen Castell

    Helen Castell is a London-based financial journalist with nearly 20 years’ experience covering trade, energy and risk for TXF, Shares Magazine, Global Trade Review, Newsbase, Trade Finance Magazine and other Euromoney publications. At Devex, she writes about development banking, private sector engagement and funding trends. She studied English Literature at Sheffield University and International Journalism at London’s City University, and speaks English, Spanish and Japanese.