PR can be solution for donor fatigue

Following the tsunami, Hurricane Katrina and the Asian earthquake, a fundraising expert explains how good PR can help keep the contributions coming

There appears to be no end to the number of natural disasters that have been hitting the headlines this year - as well as the many situations where the impact was as much man-made as 'act of God'.

The media are crucial in communicating these disasters - but what exactly is the role of PR? Perhaps more importantly, how can aid charities use PR to counteract the great British tendency towards cynicism and the apocryphal 'compassion fatigue'.

One of the ironies of media coverage of mass-scale human catastrophe is that charities are transformed in an instant from the journalist's equivalent of class nerd to teacher's pet.

Ask any charity how much of their PR activity is devoted to trying to get somebody interested in its work. Yet in a disaster, such as the recent earthquake in Pakistan or the Boxing Day tsunami, every journalist suddenly wants to use charity contacts, case studies and expertise.

So the first task for a PR team working in a field prone to disasters or emergencies is to be prepared. Because if you are not, somebody else will be. This means plans for spokespeople, lines of authority, communication flows and footage of people in action.

The first thing any donor, or potential donor, wants to know is that their charity is at the scene, making a difference. The challenge of combating compassion fatigue and building supporter loyalty involves PROs working to ensure awareness of the worth of donations. There is nothing quite like the footage of a charity in action to make a donor feel good about his or her donations - or to encourage further contributions.

Keep the media close...
Alongside the pre-prepared internal processes to help secure coverage are good relationships with the right journalists. Hard luck if the phone does not ring when a disaster strikes - that means nobody knows that your organisation is ready and waiting. There are so many organisations with strong press relations that trying to build contacts in the midst of the mayhem would be difficult, if not impossible.

But media relations cannot act - and should not act - alone. As important as media coverage are emails, newsletters, websites and direct mail, all of which reinforce and integrate the message to target audiences.

Equally crucial is the content of coverage, and there are five areas that coverage should include to woo potential donors.

The first is to explain that the need is great - and your organisation can do something. It is all too to easy to demonstrate the need for money after a major disaster such as Hurricane Katrina, it is harder to explain that donations to a charitable organisation can make a difference.

It is rare for appeals to be included in editorial pages, but even in advertorials the need and the solution can still be expressed clearly and repeatedly. Anybody who gives wants to feel they made the right decision, and anybody who is thinking about giving will want to feel that a donation will be well spent.

Second, an organisation's expertise needs to be promoted. Yes, there is need, and real people who need help. But that does not mean that well-meaning amateurs are the solution. This is why you will often hear NGOs emphasise how long they have worked in an area where a disaster has struck and the knowledge they have on the ground.

Third, showing the genuine grief of families and individuals circumvents our natural instinct to dehumanise people in disasters. Statistics tend to allow us to hide behind a shield of numbers. But the grief of losing a child is the same the world over: PR should help people empathise with the plight of people far away.

It also needs to be stressed that we all work together. Again and again research shows that the giving public want to see their charities co-operating at appeal time. The Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) tries to ensure that the public face of appeals is of agencies working together.

Of course, every fundraising department and PR team is striving to make sure their organisation gets the good logo placements, interviewees and 'staff at work' footage - but they also work hard to ensure they do not compromise the overall image of partnership.

...and donors closer
Finally, easy donation mechanisms must be promoted. Ten years ago, disaster appeals relied on a charity producing an advert to solicit donations and then setting up a telephone hotline. Now online donations have transformed the speed at which people can give cash. It is believed the first appeal email from a British charity was sent only 12 hours after the Boxing Day tsunami struck.

As important as coverage is during a disaster to combat compassion fatigue, the story does not end there. What has happened a year or six months on from the disaster? In this context the date to watch is 26 December this year - 12 months on from the tsunami. Every fundraiser in the land will want the agencies that operated in affected countries to show how well donors' money has been used.

This will involve PR teams at charities providing success stories and examples of transformation to interested journalists, rather than simply letting them uncover the isolated but inevitable case studies of incompetence and inactivity.

For me, compassion fatigue is nothing but a myth: people generally do not run out of compassion, but the charity sector does run out of ideas. The enemies are marketing, fundraising and PR fatigue.

The good news is that we can do something about this fatigue with the skills, ingenuity and creativity within the charity sector.

Joe Saxton is chair of the Institute of Fundraising and is helping to set up a sister body - the Institute of Charity Communications

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