NEWS ANALYSIS: Charity fatigue makes PROs rise to challenge - Public trust in charities is under pressure due to ever-growing numbers competing for support. PROs are rising to the challenges involved in different ways

According to ICM research for the Media Trust published this week, 70 per cent of the public agree that 'there are too many charities doing similar work competing with each other'.

According to ICM research for the Media Trust published this week, 70 per cent of the public agree that 'there are too many charities doing similar work competing with each other'.

In such a crowded sector the importance of PR becomes paramount to the mission statement of the charity.

There are basic rules any charity should follow, according to Janice Muir, senior partner at Janice Muir Partnership, which handles PR for the National Childbirth Trust and the National Council of One-parent Families.

'In order to support a charity, the public has to know exactly what that charity does, why it does it, who benefits from it and how it does its job. That's the main function of charity PR, apart from when you are dealing with issues and crises. We advise charities to get those things clear and shout them loud,' says Muir.

This is becoming increasingly difficult in what is an over-crowded marketplace. The number of registered charities in England and Wales has risen from 47,000 in 1964 to 185,000 today.

The ICM research also found that one in three people say there is a lack of information necessary to make informed decisions about supporting charities. And more than two in three would welcome league tables rating charities by efficiency and performance.

Faced with this growing crisis, over 200 charities met last week to discuss the Media Trust research and find solutions such as working in partnership, sharing back-office costs and countering the negative impact of aggressive fundraising and promotional activity on public perceptions. It also discussed the role of the Charity Commission and whether it should have more powers to prevent duplication and encourage amalgamation.

The two largest HIV charities - the Terence Higgins Trust and the London Lighthouse - have recently taken the initiative and sought to resolve this dilemma by merging. This has opened up new possibilities for PR, according to Marie Ennis, assistant director of marketing and public relations for the merged Terence Higgins Trust Lighthouse.

Ennis claims the merger has enabled the two charities to ramp up their PR work by bringing together two very strong brands, which no longer have to compete against each other for column inches. She emphasises that despite its increased size, the organisation is determined to remain flexible in its operations: 'We don't have big hierarchical structures, so we can respond quickly to the media agenda and make it work for us.'

However others are not so sure. Gordon McVie, Cancer Research Campaign (CRC) director general, has stated that he feels it would be inappropriate for the CRC to consider merging with cancer care charities such as Marie Curie Cancer Care or Macmillan Cancer Relief. Rather than merging, he insists that they already jointly fund research projects successfully.

'Research suggests that we raise more money separately and that volunteers and donors are loyal to a brand,' he says.

One problem to be wary of is that the public doesn't want to see charities slogging it out in the media in pursuit of attention. Jenny Reid, who joins the Imperial Cancer Research Fund as director of communications next year, says: 'People want to see us working together and we have all seen the impact which can be achieved when we collaborate.'

Oxfam head of media Alison Vickers maintains that working together on key issues delivers greater impact. The aid charities have collaborated successfully on high-profile projects such as the Jubilee 2000 campaign to end Third World debt.

The John Ellerman Foundation, which annually distributes to charities grants worth more than pounds 4m, has set up a grant programme designed to promote joint working. To date, however, take-up has been disappointing.

However, Christian Aid head of media Sarah Stewart echoes the need for collaborative strategies between charities. 'Individual agencies sacrifice a little bit of their brand, but if we want to be effective, we have to work together,' she says.

Others are taking a completely different strategy to combat public fatigue.

According to Rachel O'Brien, head of external affairs for Shelter, the organisation is taking a less headline-grabbing approach to PR than it did several years ago.

'We are now much more likely to take a step back and ask what is the best way to achieve change on housing benefit regulations. Much of that work is done in the policy area, and not all of it is translatable into simple messages for PR. We are constantly trying to find ways to communicate it,' she says.

Charities are facing the general public's growing skepticism with varying tactics. However be it merging, partnerships or more sophisticated media relations techniques, PR has a vital role to play for any charity jostling for support in the public arena.

Good PR has never been a more important tool in pursuit of these goals.

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