NEW IDEAS: This is a public information announcement about understanding charities

Ian copy

We know many members of the public don’t really ‘understand’ us in the charity sector. But rather than ‘teach’ them about what we do, Ian MacQuillin says we need to work with them to create mutual understanding.

When I was the editor of Professional Fundraising magazine, I used to present regularly at fundraising conferences about building better relationships with the media. The crux of my argument was that there’s little point expecting journalists to write good stories about charities just because they are charities. Instead, you’ll have to find out what the media are interested in, what motivates them, and try to provide content and ideas that match their expectations (for those of you who aren’t aware, I was a journalist for 18 years before moving into charity communications with TurnerPR and then the PFRA).

I presented this argument in a workshop at the International Fundraising Congress in 2004. Later at the same event, a fundraiser in a big room session told the audience: “We need to educate the media to run better stories about us.” I could have pulled my hair out.

The attitude expressed by the fundraiser at the IFC – that the media need to be ‘taught’ to understand us better – conforms to the ‘information deficit model’ of public understanding of science. This attributes sceptism about new technology to a lack of knowledge; all that is needed to change that is to provide the knowledge. The deficit model sees the public merely as ‘blank slate’ receivers of information. The ‘public understanding’ model in science communication has lost favour since the mid-90s, and has been superseded by the ‘public engagement principles of the ‘science in society model’.

The National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement defines ‘public engagement’ as:

“The myriad of ways in which the activity and benefits of higher education and research can be shared with the public. Engagement is by definition a two-way process, involving interaction and listening, with the goal of generating mutual benefit.”

The year after that IFC, the ImpACT Coalition was formed to encourage charities to be more open and transparent in their dealings with their publics and to “increase public understanding of NGOs”. In December 2014, after nine years of banging its head against the metaphorical brick wall of sector indifference, it was quietly wound up and replaced with the Understanding Charities Group, which has objectives that are very similar to those of the ImpACT Coalition:

  1. Improve the public’s understanding of charities
  2. Improve the public’s trust, empathy and engagement with charities
  3. Increase positive and tackle negative media coverage.

I’ve now attended two meetings of the group tasked with meeting the challenges of the third strand – media coverage. And while this attitude by no means characterizes the discussions at these meetings, there is still an undercurrent of information deficit/public understanding thinking. I think that current is much nearer the surface in the sector generally, especially among fundraisers.

What public relations theory tells us

The Understanding Charities Group is a public relations initiative and so we need to delve into public relations theory, which evolved considerably in the decade from 1985 to 1995. Public relations features the word ‘relations’ in its title. But it wasn’t until Mary Ann Ferguson, now of the University of Florida, called for organisation-public relationships (OPRs) to be the central feature of public relations theory – at a seminal conference presentation in 1984 – that the academic branch of the profession started to really focus on its operative word.

The standard definition of public relations, contained in the standard text book (Cutlip and Center’s Effective Public Relations) is:

Cutlip and Center“The management function that establishes and maintains mutually beneficial relationships between an organisation and its publics on whom its success or failure depends.”

Prior to the shift to a focus on OPRs, PR was more about sending messages from the organisation to the public. In 1984, two academics – James Grunig and Todd Hunt – identified four models of how PR had been, and still was, practised in the USA over the previous 130 years. These were:

Press agentry – uses persuasion and manipulation to influence people to act as the organisation wants them to. Truth is secondary to gaining favourable publicity.

Public information – disseminates accurate and truthful information about the organisation through press release, reports etc.

Two-way asymmetrical – this model uses scientific research to understand public behaviour and use that to structure the organisation’s communications to better influence the public to do what it wants them to do. Grunig and Hunt called it “scientific persuasion”.

Two-way symmetrical – instead of trying to persuade, much less manipulate, people, public relations is the mediator that negotiates with the public to resolve conflict and promote mutual understanding and respect between the organisation and its stakeholders. In the two-way symmetrical model, all parties benefit, not just the organisation.

The first three models are described as ‘asymmetric’ because communication is entirely one-way – from organisation to public (the ‘two-way’ in the two way asymmetrical model refers to the fact that PR practitioners are first using information from the public in the form or research before communicating back to them – the communication is thus ‘imbalanced’).

Only the two-way symmetrical model features balanced two-way communication between an organisation and its publics.

Over the subsequent 10 years, James Grunig assembled a group of PR scholars to develop the ‘Excellence Theory of Public Relations’ under a programme commissioned by the Research Foundation of the International Association of Business Communicators. Not only does the excellence theory make the two-way symmetrical model synonymous with excellence in PR, it also elevates it from a descriptive to a normative theory of PR – in other words, it proclaims that it is the way PR ought to be practised.

‘Co-creating’ better understanding

At the heart of symmetrical ideas about public relations is the ‘co-creational perspective’, which sees “publics as co-creators of meaning, and communications as what makes it possible to agree on shared meanings, interpretations and goals” [Botan 2004]. This requires a dialogic approach to communication with stakeholders. PR scholar Carl Botan says that “traditional approaches to public relations relegate publics to a secondary role, making them instruments for meeting organizational policy or marketing needs; whereas dialogue elevates publics to the status of communication equal with the organization”.

The symmetrical model is not without criticisms and this blog isn’t the place to explore them. However, Grunig and Hunt’s four models provide theory with which to analyse the objectives and activities of the Understanding Charities Group.

Many people I’m sure would view charity communications, particularly as they relate to fundraising, to conform to the duplicitous press agentry model – which is clearly not the case.

‘We research what people understand about charities so that we can use that information to better persuade them about why we are right and they are wrong about subjects such as ceo salaries and overhead costs.’

However, I believe that the sector’s PR mindset is firmly stuck in the public information and two-way asymmetrical models. We want to persuade people round to our point of view by giving them more accurate information about what charities do (public information) – NCVO’s proposal to set up a ‘charity newsroom’ is classic ‘public information’. And we research what they understand about charities so that we can use that information to better persuade them about why we are right and they are wrong about subjects such as ceo salaries and overhead costs (two-way asymmetric).

Rarely do we engage in genuine dialogue with our publics to find out what they really understand about us and want from us, and use that information to negotiate co-created meaning. This is perhaps not surprising for a sector that is constantly under attack from certain stakeholders, who often show very little desire to engage in co-creational dialogue, instead preferring their own form of ‘press agentry’ in disseminating views about the charity sector that are obviously, and sometimes maliciously, inaccurate and fallacious.

We may never reach these people. But we’ve never really tried. One thing’s for sure: they’re unlikely to be convinced through ‘public information’ and ‘two-way asymmetry’.

Relationships? What relationships?

The second insight from PR theory concerns the concept of the role of PR as the management of organisation-public relationships. To whom are we going to distribute all this public information? How are we going to do it? The proposed NCVO charity newsroom might generate a lot of stories, but I’m not sure who’s going to be interested in them.

PR is about managing relationships but we currently have no relationships to manage.

The challenge for the Understanding Charities Group – and indeed the sector as a whole – is not to put more and more information about charities into the public domain in the hope that this will generate more empathy, engagement and understanding by some processes of cultural osmosis. Instead, using public engagement principles, it needs to establish and maintain relationships with those stakeholders who are crucial to our future success and co-create understanding through genuine dialogue.

Associate members

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