How charities can engage with a newspaper when it’s hostile

Alex SingletonAlex Singleton (@AlexSingletonUK) is Associate Director of The Whitehouse Consultancy author of The PR Masterclass and a former broadsheet journalist.

What should you do if newspapers disagree with your policy campaigns? During my time on Fleet Street, I saw many approaches by charities – some good and others bad. Some got shirty, while others seemed resigned to the fact that they would get a bad press and decided not to engage. Both approaches are, I would argue, a mistake.

Constructive engagement, even when coverage has been unfair, frequently delivers the best results. Here are five things to try:

Letters to the editor

A newspaper’s letters page is always keen on letters responding to criticism. The key thing here is to show humility. Too many letters are condescending, strident or antagonistic in tone. Letters page editors rub their hands with glee when such submissions arrive, because they know they will generate lots of responses.

Remember that a newspaper’s readers are a lot more diverse than the newspaper’s stance: you don’t have to convince the most ideological people – just the silent majority who have open minds.

Work with rival journalists

If a major columnist hates what you’re doing, but a specialist correspondent is more in favour, work with the latter, to ensure that readers hear both sides of the story.

Ask for a right of reply

There is actually no ‘right’ of reply if you simply disagree with a newspaper’s opinion – but if you don’t ask, you won’t get. The Guardian, for example, has a response column in which opposing views can be made. Quite often, a newspaper will agree to publish an online comment article where you can put your side of the story – it doesn’t cost them anything and helps get rid of a problem.

Invite hostile journalists for coffee

If someone’s attacked you in print, they’ll be interested enough in you to join you for a coffee or come to an event. The purpose of this is to deploy charm and humanise who you are – so the journalist will see that you are not a demon who deserves constant attack.

Highlight the work the paper will agree with

It’s most likely that a newspaper will attack your most prominent campaign – an issue that’s probably front and centre of your team’s agenda. But it makes sense with critical newspapers to redouble your efforts in promoting other causes that the paper is more likely to support, thereby making critics to see a more balanced view of the good work that your charity does.

Alex Singleton’s book, The PR Masterclass, outlines more practical advice for working with the media.

Check out further advice on media relations for charities on KnowHow NonProfit.

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