How PRs can help charities navigate an existential digital crisis

Fundamental change is afoot in charities' relationship with digital according to an influential study, and PRs have a role to play in helping not-for-profits navigate the turbulent times ahead.

Can charities navigate the brave new world, asks Henry Playfoot
Can charities navigate the brave new world, asks Henry Playfoot
The New Reality report tells how experts, including 50 charity heads, Martha Lane Fox and Google’s Steve Rogers, are warning that charities need to up their digital game if they are not going to be left behind. 

It seems ‘non-digital’ trustees, an over-emphasis on social media as the answer to every question, and an alarming lack of confidence in the boardroom are all roadblocks in the third sector’s digital highway. 

The report correctly argues that digital is not just about sprucing up your Facebook page and making sure the website works. 

It makes it clear that digital goes way beyond comms and fundraising; it's about culture, infrastructure and service provision. It’s about the role of charity in a connected world. 

Essentially, many not-for-profits face nothing short of an existential crisis – think what Spotify has done to music, what Zipcar and Uber are doing to private transport and what Airbnb means for hotels and travel. 

What would happen if new organisations brought a similar disruptive approach to the charity world?

In a world where businesses like Indiegogo, Kickstarter and JustGiving help individuals support causes on their own terms, a brutal pragmatism is emerging where the networked supporter holds many, sometimes all, of the cards. 

So if charities are all at sea, how can agencies help? 

We used to help our clients talk to people who ought to care about what we were saying; telling shiny, idealised stories to change attitudes and sell more stuff. 

These days? Not so much.

PR and comms can no longer sit in a silo at the end of the production line, slapping a veneer of messaging on to whatever is put in front of us.  

We need to sit with the strategists, customer experience experts and designers to bring our ideas and insight to the table when the conversation starts – not when it’s finished. 

If there’s one thing PR and comms professionals have learned in the past 10 years, it’s that in a hyper-connected, always-on world, you have to get your product or service right, because there’s nowhere to hide.

The fact is that no one discipline owns ‘digital’, and as comms functions converge and traditional organisational silos collapse, PR urgently needs to redefine and assert its role at the centre of the business – and charity – conversation.  

Henry Playfoot is strategy director at Claremont Social Communications

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