How Lymphoma Action learnt to be proactive in delivering its media message 

04 Feb 2020 Voices

Speaking to the media is an important skill for charity professionals wanting to deliver key messages. It can be an intimidating prospect but there are several techniques spokespeople can implement, reports Harriet Whitehead.

In a rather unusual turn of events, I had the opportunity to get behind the scenes at media training delivered by Media First. The sessions tend to be, as you would expect, highly confidential. But Lymphoma Action’s chief executive, Ropinder Gill, said that as part of the charities emphasis on transparency, she was happy for us to cover their training.

While many charities have vital and powerful stories to tell, key messages can be drowned out by poor communication and an increasingly unforgiving media. As we well know, charities have found themselves embroiled in high-profile scandals and are now examined with fine-toothed combs. And rightly so.

Without the right angle, confident spokespeople, and strong examples, messages can be drowned out, say Media First. Charities need to be accountable, demonstrate transparency and show how they offer value and deliver on the promises they make to supporters.

Gill says that “scrutiny can help improve practices” and guide safeguarding, but that charities should have the chance to respond and need the training and confidence to do so.

Arguably, the sector needs to be stronger and more vocal when it wants to rebut media claims. But charity spokespeople need the confidence to be proactive in delivering their messages, rather than solely be reactive.

Indeed, how charities manage and respond to the media is crucial to safeguarding their reputation, and, perhaps, the reputation of the wider sector. 

Key messaging and ‘front-loading’ interviews 

Gill, along with three of her staff, took part in the training in order to better communicate with the media. Their objectives for the day included understanding the media, making communication work for their charity objectives, building confidence, learning how to prepare, learning how to manage tricky questions, and learning how to communicate clearly and concisely.

The media training was led by journalist Paul Brennan who advised staff at Lymphoma Action that they should always have the audience in mind, and make sure what they are saying is human-focused. He said the language should be familiar and every day, as though speaking to someone at the school gates.

An initial exercise asked delegates to quickly find a story in a national paper that grabbed their attention. Brennan then used the examples to set out what it is that journalists are looking for. He laid out the following: 

  • Topical 
  • Relevant 
  • Unusual 
  • Trouble
  • Human interest 

Lymphoma Action staff were told to “front load” interviews with their top line and key message. They were then advised to back up their comments with statistics and research. Charities should follow the below format:

  • Audience: focus on who your audience is not on the journalist  
  • Message: deliver one key message, if necessary offer three at a maximum 
  • Example: offer evidence and a human-focused case study 
  • Negatives: if there has been an issue try to find proactive ways to respond

Brennan also laid out six key questions a charity should consider before putting out its message.

  1. Who is my audience?
  2. What are my objectives?
  3. What is my one key message? Do I have other supporting messages?
  4. What examples can I use that help explain or support my messages?
  5. What difficult questions may be asked?
  6. What else is ‘moving’ on this topic that may be raised?

Why should charity professionals attend media training?

Gill says “good learning should be challenging”, but acknowledges some anxiety at baring it all in media training – with me sitting scribbling in the corner.

She explains that Lymphoma Action wants to raise awareness of its work and “get messaging out”. Therefore, the charity wanted to gain confidence to be proactive in approaching media. Gill thinks this will enable the charity to do better for people affected by lymphoma, as they can take up opportunities to raise awareness, where they might have been lacking in confidence to do so before.

According to Gill, another key reason the charity are “happy to share” is because Lymphoma Action values learning and development. The charity carried out an audit with staff, and found that media training was an area which senior management were keen to undertake. Gill thinks the senior team should lead by example, and says that the charity now has a “culture” of encouraging staff development.

She adds that training is “not just a tick box exercise”, and that it should be practised and shared with others, to maximise impact. For example, the charity holds “lunch and learns”, where staff who have attended training share any learning with the rest of the staff.

Crisis management and bridging 

Brennan explained that media might begin a line of questioning which seems misdirected, likely because the journalist is rooting around for the story or wanting a controversial statement. One technique to handle this is known as “bridging”. For a charity this might entail linking an undesirable question to a topic more pertinent to its cause.

Brennan was clear that this is not a technique to use if the audience needs an answer. For example, politicians are often criticised for ignoring questions and changing the topic on important issues where it is incumbent on them to respond.

In cases of a direct question about a crisis, Brennan suggested that there are three key options, to be used at a charities discretion:

  • Deal with it: confront the topic there and then and set the record straight
  • Defer: If the statistics are not to hand get back to the interviewer 
  • Delegate: Tell the journalist you need to refer them to a specialist at your charity to give details 

Gill says that risk management or crisis management policy gets charities halfway there, but says that she and her team found it useful to practise fictional scenarios to see how policy would actually be implemented.

Brennan spoke about the “ABC technique” which can be used to bridge into areas organisations are keen to discuss:

  • Address and acknowledge 
  • Bridge (link)
  • Content (key messages)
  • Demonstrate 
  • Evidence

This should allow charities to clarify the situation, or distance themselves. If the situation is unclear, charities should acknowledge concerns but not weigh in definitively. For example, if allegations are being bought up, a spokesperson might say “we can appreciate the concern” and “we will be taking x action”, without having to preemptively judge whether allegations have any truth to them.

He added that charity spokespeople should be careful with responding quickly and out of emotion, although it is good to show compassion in a time-sensitive way.

The different types of interviews  

The charity was also given advice on how to talk with different forms of media.

For radio, Brennan warned “there are mics everywhere” and that phones should be on silent. Charities should make sure they are clear and focused when it comes to the message as there is not time to discuss convoluted issues. It is also advisable to use pronouns to engage the audience and use imagery to engage the listeners.

Nonetheless, when speaking on radio Brennan advised that speakers try not to rush the message and allow themselves to pause for a moment and be positive – people can hear a smile. 

The delegates took it in turns to go and speak for two-and-a-half minutes on a topic of their choosing, pertaining to the charity. They then listened back and considered it from an audience perspective. The main takeaways were the importance of charity message, showing yourself to be knowledgeable and compassionate, and using personable language. 

For TV interviews, the skills were similar to radio, but with a focus on body language (although a lot of radio is now filmed too).

Delegates also did a short phone interview, one to one, and had to guess the headline the journalist on the other end would then write. This exercise showed delegates that when speaking on the phone, they should consider key messages and not feel rushed into answering. Also, speakers should be careful not to repeat the journalist's phrasing or questions, so as not to be quoted as such.

Is media training worth investing in?
Gill sees media training as an investment in the learning and development of staff. She says that this training will allow Lymphoma Action to better serve beneficiaries and increase their impact.

Nonetheless, she recognises that many charities do not have the budget to attend training courses. Gill says that Lymphoma “does not have a massive pot” to spend, but suggests charities look for free learning opportunities and share learning. She adds that sometimes charities might be able to fund training from corporate sponsors, and cites the Small Charities Coalition as having good resources for small charities.

On the day, Gill says “different people were comfortable doing different tasks”, but recommends that doing practical exercises was “brilliant”. She now feels “prepared” should she need to speak to the media and says that the training “kept us on our toes”.

Since attending training staff have engaged with media, using all of the principles from the training. “Importantly we made sure that we spent sufficient time getting our one key message right”, Gill concludes.

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