Keep calm and carry on? Doing charity comms when the world is in crisis

18 March 2022  |  Insights
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As I write this, the world feels like it’s imploding. After two years of a global pandemic, we’re once again glued to our screens in disbelief as we see the horrors unfolding in Ukraine.

We watch, we weep, we take whatever action we can. Then we feed our children and go to work.

But the day job – even when it’s working for a charity – can feel strangely disconnected and small in the face of the enormity of the suffering happening just a few hours away.

For those of us who work in communications, it’s our job to talk about what we do. But what if responding to the current tragedy isn’t in our remit as a charity or organisation? Sharing a social media post about a work announcement when the news is filled with stories of death, bravery and family separation might come across as tone-deaf, irrelevant or simply distasteful.

As a PR agency, we’ve been discussing the best approach to take on our own social media feeds and in our clients’ PR. Should we carry on with business as usual? Should we go quiet, or something in between? If the latter, what should that look like?

I know we’re not the only communicators wrestling with this – so if you’re considering the best way for your charity or organisation to respond, you may find our thoughts helpful…

Read the room

Planning is invaluable when it comes to PR – but so is responsiveness to the news agenda. Something you have scheduled into your PR plan a few days or weeks ago may not be what people want to engage with right now, and could even damage your reputation.

Take a moment to consider what people are talking about and whether your planned communications are still relevant, appropriate and don’t inadvertently hit on any sensitivities related to the current situation. Sense-check your story with others to see their reaction.

It’s also worth reviewing any planned media relations and deciding whether you should postpone them. As difficult or disappointing as it might be, when the news is focused on one major story, it’s probably not the best time to send out your important press release or to hold your big launch event. It’s got a lot to compete with and unless it’s time-sensitive, ground-breaking or offers some much-needed joy, it’s not going to get a look in.

You likely won’t have to hold off forever – the news agenda changes fast and another opportunity should present itself soon.

Review your message

Is there something you should be proactively talking about in light of the situation? If your organisation is directly responding to a crisis, you will naturally be ramping up your communications to share stories about what you are doing and to encourage people to support you. This Charity Comms blog is full of advice and best practice to help you.

If you’re not directly involved, is there something you can contribute in your communications that acknowledges the situation, is relevant or useful, authentic and reflects your values?

The Church Urban Fund, for example, supports local church initiatives in England so it isn’t working in Ukraine. It has continued to talk about its core work on its social media since the conflict there broke out – however, it also shared a reflection on the war and how Christians can respond by its Bishop in Residence, the Right Revd Adrian Newman, which was relevant to its audience. Barnardo’s also works with children in the UK and primarily posts about its current campaigns and work – but also shared some tips on how to talk to children about war.

If the answer to both the above questions is no, don’t try to force it: an inauthentic communication could look cynical at best and like a narcissistic PR stunt at worst. Remember the backlash to the celebrity version of “Imagine” at the start of the pandemic?

Remember your cause

Even if your charity’s mission isn’t at the very top of the news agenda, you’ve still got an incredibly important job to do, and both the people your charity serves and your supporters still want to know you’re doing it. So business as usual may well be the right course of action for you.

Charities like The Trussell Trust and Crisis have carried on with their media campaigns and social media posts about the crucial work they’re doing in the UK, promoting their campaigns and celebrating local fundraisers.

They know that while poverty and homelessness in the UK may not be leading the news right at this moment, they're still the difficult reality for the many people they serve. They may not get the headlines they were hoping for, but they’re showing their dedication and persistence on behalf of their cause.

You’ll need to make a judgement call about the right approach for your organisation or charity, both as the current situation develops and with other crises that hit our headlines.

But taking a brief pause to assess the situation and focusing on what people will expect to hear from you at this time will steer you in the right direction.

Written by Charis Gibson, Director of Communications, Jersey Road PR

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