Getting your CEO to get good press for your charity

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Getting your CEO to get good press for your charity

We're sharing tips on how your charity CEO and media team can play a part in owning and changing negative conversations in the media about charity CEOs.
Becca Thomas

Charity CEOs are a source of controversy that periodically comes up in the media and in our research with the general public. The crux of the debate surrounding charity CEOs is pay – how much is too much? Should CEOs even be paid? Last autumn, we asked 1,000 members of the public whether they thought chief executives (among other charity staff) should be paid. Just under half (47%) of the public thought chief executives should be paid; the staff members that most of the public felt should be paid were charity shop managers (61%), followed closely by support and administration staff (57%). I think it is safe to speculate that Charity CEOs and other senior staff have an image problem if a significant proportion of the public fail to see why they should be paid (compared with staff whose roles are a bit more ‘down to earth’, perhaps).

It is unlikely that scrutiny of charity CEOs will ever cease; journalists actually expected critical coverage of charities to increase in general when we asked them about this in our Spring 2017 research. Ultimately, some journalists will scrutinise charity CEOs when given the opportunity because there is appetite from the public to read and feel collective outrage about things like CEO pay; but do not despair too much. We have a few suggestions below for how your charity CEO can help own and change the conversation:

How can CEOs convey the value and expertise that they bring to the table, and get journalists on side?

We conduct research with journalists bi-annually, with the aim of allowing charities to evaluate their media strategy through feedback directly from the journalists they work with. As part of our most recent research, we asked journalists to name charity Chief Executives they thought were effective and, crucially, to tell us why they thought they were effective. We were pleasantly surprised not only by how many journalists could name charity CEOs, but also by the breadth of charities that were represented. Yes, some of these journalists may have already (or could in future) written negative stories about charity CEOs’; but we feel that the comments given are a positive indicator that there is good will towards charity CEOs among (most) journalists. Working with them to develop relationships now could result in more balanced media coverage in future.

We’ve picked out some key comments and recurring themes that came out of the research to help you understand how you might go about doing this:

Is your charity CEO a visible advocate for your cause?

This one might seem a bit obvious; it is highly unlikely that anyone who wasn’t a knowledgeable advocate for a charities’ cause would make it to the post of CEO (I hope). But how publicly do they wave the flag for the cause? This will likely influence journalists’ perceptions of their credibility and, potentially, inspire confidence in the charity they work for. Imagine there is a news story in the media linked to your area of work; a charity whose CEO is an approachable, knowledgeable advocate is more likely to be asked for comment (especially by journalists they have a relationship with – but we’ll come to that later), which could help raise the profile of your charity.

Social media should not be underestimated as a platform for charity CEOs to demonstrate their passion and involvement with a cause. For some media teams, the thought of their CEO running wild on Twitter might be nightmare inducing (and we have first-hand experience of this with the outspoken and sometimes controversial Joe Saxton at the helm); but it is worth bearing in mind that most people can tell the difference between an authentic account run by a media savvy charity CEO, and an account run by their media team.

We’d love to include all the comments name-checking CEOs for their knowledge and advocacy (there were quite a few!), but here are a handful instead:

Comments about Mind CEO Paul Farmer:

Paul has been at the forefront of mental health campaigning for many years - long before it was trendy - and he has shaped the field in deeply significant ways.”

– Sunday Mirror/Sunday People Journalist

Worked incredibly hard to secure the issue of mental health at the top of the public agenda - with a new minister for suicide prevention being a direct result of important lobbying by mental health charities. An important advocate around the benefits system.”

– Freelance Journalist

Comment about Stonewall CEO Ruth Hunt:

“Fantastic profile and the embodiment of her cause.”

– Press Association Journalist

Comment about Retina UK Chief Executive Tina Houlihan:

“With a huge knowledge of her subject, she puts people with RP and other retinal diseases at the centre of all her work. Very professional and hugely enthusiastic.”

– ITV News Journalist

How media savvy is your charity CEO?

Do you remember our blog covering journalists advice on how to respond to a charity scandal? A key piece of advice from a journalist highlighted in the blog was that charity CEOs should have regular media training, commenting that ‘it needs to be a constantly updated skill’. We would hope that your charity CEO wouldn’t have to employ the skills learned in a time of scandal/crisis, but rather use them to demonstrate ease and confidence with the media on a day-to-day/ad hoc basis.

Comments about Alzheimer’s Society CEO Jeremy Hughes:

Excellent understanding of media.”

– Daily Express Journalist

“Engaged in/understands the news agenda passionate and knowledgeable.”

– ITV News Journalist

Comment about Shelter CEO Polly Neate:

I know Polly personally and hear her regularly on the BBC - she's particularly eloquent and coherent about the issues when being interviewed.”

– Various Publication Journalist

Comment about Teenage Cancer Trust CEO Siobhan Dunn:

Engages with journalists and others via Twitter and clearly passionate about the cause.”

– Mirror Online Journalist

Comment about International Rescue CEO David Miliband:

“Public-facing, camera friendly, credible.”

– Sky News Journalist

How available and responsive is your charity CEO?

The final cherries on the visible advocate/media savvy CEO cake are availability and responsiveness. These qualities were mentioned by several journalists as reasons for why they considered the charity CEOs they named as effective. Journalists also seem to appreciate having personal contact and relationships with charity CEOs; is this something that your media team and charity CEO are working together to cultivate? Here are some of the comments we received typifying this theme:

Comment about Friends of the Earth CEO Craig Bennett:

“He turns up to a lot of anti-fracking protests and is always willing to speak to journalists.”

– Bauer Media Group Journalist

Comment about ASH Wales CEO Suzanne Cass:

“Suzanne is proactive and a passionate advocate for anti-smoking.  She responds in a timely way to stories around smoking in the media and is always willing to provide interviews and comment.  She speaks in an honest and non-judgemental voice.”

– Heart FM Journalist

Comment about Debt Advice Foundation CEO David Roger:

“Selective in what they campaign about, he targets specific areas where he believes they can make a difference. Always available for interview.”

– Daily Mail Journalist

In conclusion; if they aren’t already, strategic conversations should be happening between charity media teams and their CEO’s. Key areas to work out are:

  • How they can use their powerful position to be an advocate for their cause

  • How they can improve their media savviness

  • How your CEO can best be available/responsive/develop relationships with the media

We can’t promise that working out a media strategy with your CEO in these areas means that journalists won’t write negative stories about your charity CEO if the opportunity comes up. However, it is worth emphasizing that developing relationships could ultimately lead to more balanced coverage in future. You never know when a journalist might come knocking at your door!

Our next wave of research with journalists starts very soon. If you’re interested in evaluating your charity's media strategy, download a briefing pack (below), email, or give us a call on 020 7426 8888.

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