Voluntary Sector: Charitable Competition

Are celebrities the only way to get charities media coverage in the run-up to Christmas? Suzy Bashford finds out.

Christmas may be the season of good will, but that doesn't mean it's easy for charity PROs to get Christmas cards, gift ranges and pleas for volunteers into the press.

The voluntary sector is dogged by media misconceptions that have to be tackled through PR. For example, charity shops' image is that they are staffed by retired old ladies pushing bric-a-brac that no one wants.

Banc, which promotes the retail side of Oxfam's business, tries to flag up surprising products in the charity's range when sending out press releases, such as its belly-dancing kits.

'I take a simple approach: outlining the product, price and where it can be bought with enclosed pictures, just as other retailers would,' says Banc associate director Richard Davies. 'But I add some humour as charities are often seen as very worthy and serious.'

Davies has found that the second-hand craze, spurred on by eBay, has worked to his advantage. One way he plans to generate coverage in the run-up to Christmas is by releasing trend-led stories about the most popular items that people are prepared to give away or buy. Another angle he intends to pursue is that Christmas gifts tend to be predictable, but 'if you go into Oxfam, you never know what you'll come out with'.

In Oxfam's case, when promoting its range it is keen to keep the trading side of the business separate from the campaigning arm in terms of PR.

At retail level, Oxfam does not feel it is appropriate, for example, to use celebrities associated with its wider causes.

However, the overwhelming majority of charities feel that having some kind of celebrity involvement with a PR campaign at Christmas is a pre-requisite. The column inches charities received last winter included Age Concern's celebrity recipe book, the Meningitis Trust's star-designed Christmas cards, and Macmillan Cancer Relief when Robbie Williams and Westlife donated gifts.

'If you have a celebrity attached to your charity, you're guaranteed to get coverage,' says Nick Ede, founder of celebrity agency Eden Lifestyle and organises Christmas events on a pro bono basis for The Stroke Association.

Whereas in the past it would be carol singers and church-goers who would knock on your door, Ede argues that the mantle has been handed to stars.

Verity Rowles, fundraising manager at Help A London Child (HALC), Capital FM's charity that distributes toys and food to disadvantaged families, agrees. In its first Christmas campaign for HALC last year, the likes of Britney Spears, Will Young and Kylie Minogue asked listeners to give up an hour of their time. 'It's inappropriate for our presenters to be constantly asking listeners to (help) because their job is to entertain.

But celebrities seem to have carte blanche to ask people to do things that others can't,' she says.

As celebrities increasingly team up with charities, long-term PR planning is crucial to get as much media leverage out of them as possible. PDSA, for example, launched its calendar in September in a bid to beat the Christmas media melee. The Daily Mail, Hello! and Heat all ran features.

'It was quite early to launch but we wanted to be ahead of the game and get people thinking about it as a good stocking-filler,' says PDSA media and PR manager Liza Randall.

Careful planning

The charity has also secured a Christmas feature in Good Housekeeping around the story of its 'Pet Survivor of the Year' winner that turned out to be a donkey. The magazine ran a photoshoot with Del Boy the Donkey and interviewed the charity.

For long-lead publications like this, forward planning is essential.

As Marie Claire features editor Charlotte Moore advises: 'Get in there early. Speak to the magazine when it's pulling together products for its December gift guide. For us, that tends to be three months in advance or even earlier.'

In Marie Claire's case, just hoping you'll get coverage by mentioning a celebrity name isn't going to work. 'There's no point ringing us about any old celebrity,' adds Moore. 'It has to fit in with the magazine. We'd be more interested in someone not hugely famous but with a strong story linked to the charity.'

Last year, a spate of negative articles about the small percentage of sales charities achieve for these goods served to make their task harder by putting people off buying their ranges.

To combat this, nine charities have clubbed together - Macmillan Cancer Relief, the RSPCA, the NSPCC, WaterAid, the British Heart Foundation, Shelter, Mencap, RSPB and Cancer Research UK - to launch a PR campaign highlighting the contribution that gift sales make to their causes.

Make yourself heard

'It's important that people get the whole picture and we want them to have a greater understanding of where the money goes and how it can really make a difference,' says Mencap trading manager Gill Leech. 'Whether you buy charity cards from catalogues, on the web or at retail outlets, they all help.'

The charities' plan is that the campaign will be picked up predominantly by newspaper journalists interested in soundbites such as: for the price of a Macmillan calendar (£4), the charity can give 40 people a copy of its Cancer Guide; and through WaterAid's sales last year, more than 1,000 people have a lasting supply of clean water.

Although in this case charities have got together to fight for a common cause, it's important that each charity promotes its individual ranges in the press because it's a fiercely competitive sector.

Some charities have had better campaign results by shunning the world of celebrity in favour of shocking images and straplines (see box). In its PR drive for Samaritans volunteers, Sheffield-based agency Dig for Fire commissioned posters with controversial straplines such as: 'I've just had sex with my daughter. Do you think she'll tell anyone?'

'We weren't just shocking for shock's sake,' says associate PR director Sarah Chapman. 'The posters reflected the types of things people say when they phone up. We needed volunteers who could handle the realities of being a Samaritans volunteer.'

And being focused on what you're trying to achieve in a PR drive - whether that be selling retail products, raising awareness of what charity card sales can do or drumming up suitable volunteers - is paramount.

Whatever vehicle a charity uses to carry its message, the most successful campaigns keep it simple to give it the most chance of being heard in the Christmas rush.

THE SAMARITANS

Last Christmas, Dig for Fire was taken on by the Samaritans to launch a drive in Sheffield for volunteers. From a poster budget of £5,000 and no PR budget, the agency used a creative execution that would catch media attention through controversy. It chose a poster saying 'I wish the baby Jesus had never been born', which meant to reflect a typical caller comment at Christmas.

Knowing this campaign was likely to upset religious figureheads, the PR team consulted and warned churches in the local area beforehand, which helped to defuse negative media fallout. 'They were surprisingly understanding,' says associate PR director Sarah Chapman.

'Some regional media said this approach may have been going too far, but it created a debate and got across the feelings that some people go through at Christmas.'

The agency maintained the approach and although the brief was local - the campaign received coverage in regional media such as Sheffield's The Star and The Yorkshire Post - the story was also picked up in The Daily Telegraph, the BBC News website and the Guardian Unlimited website.

It also formed the centrepiece of a debate on Radio 4, as well as getting air time on Radio Leeds, Real Radio and Radio Sheffield.

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