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The view from the press room

By Kevin Ritchie

Walkathons and fundraising dinners are not news. That was the message hammered home by three members of the Canadian media and one social marketer during a media panel at the Canadian Centre for Philanthropy’s seventh annual Symposium. Charities like feel-good stories, but those stories are tough to sell to the media. News doesn’t necessarily have to be good or bad, but it has to be interesting.

The panel, entitled "What’s the story?" consisted of The Globe and Mail’s AndrÉ Picard, CBC Television’s Alison Smith, The Edmonton Journal’s Liane Faulder and social marketer Ric Young, president of E.Y.E. They posed their own questions to the sector: What story are you trying to tell? What do you hope to accomplish by getting your name in the paper? Will national coverage on the six o’clock news and a front-page story in a major daily really affect the way increasingly materialistic Canadians view philanthropy?

All four stressed that before charities start telling, they should first start listening.

AndrÉ Picard, The Globe and Mail
There are two kinds of charity people, said Picard – those with no media coverage who want to know when they are going to get it, and those who’ve had coverage but are annoyed that journalists always seem to get it wrong.

"When Michael [Hall, CCP’s VP of research] was describing the core supporters of the sector – married, religious, socially committed, stable, optimistic – I couldn’t help thinking that they are the antithesis of newspaper editors," Picard said.

He characterized most editors as middle-aged white men who are cynical, unstable, socially inept and irreligious. Charities just aren’t part of their worldview. So instead of complaining about how the media doesn’t seem to care, charities should court publishers, editorial boards and advertising reps at newspapers and TV stations. Tell them your donors work on Bay St., Picard said, or write a letter to the editor.

"You’re doing a fundraising dinner. So what?" Picard said. "There are a dozen a week. What makes yours different?" Good stories are about tangible results. Reporters want to know what a charity is doing. How does a charity affect its community? What kind of work does it do and what does your story mean nationally and internationally?

Alison Smith , CBC Television
Before a charity can tell a story to a reporter, it must first understand why the story is being told. News is about the extraordinary, Smith said. If you want to see your story on the 10 o’clock news, you have to compete with hockey playoffs, tear gas in Quebec City and Stockwell Day.

"For the most part, I don’t think Canadians or journalists, for that matter, understand what the voluntary sector does," said Smith.

Go behind the jargon and the spokespeople, and give a reporter access to the people who are working the front lines – the people who are making the difference. "If you’re trying to pitch me and CTV and The Toronto Star, I want to be sure that I’m getting the best example that you’ve got."

Smith also advised charities to consider their relevance to major news events. Reporters will often turn to experts to put a news event into a larger context to make it more relevant. For example, she said, there is a debate now surrounding mandatory volunteering in schools. "Lead the debate on issues," she said. "You shouldn’t be afraid of that kind of conflict."

Finally, Smith pointed out that, even if a story doesn’t wind up on the 10 o’clock news, it may still feature prominently on the network’s Web site. The news pages at CBC get between 700,000 and 800,000 hits each day.

Liane Faulder, The Edmonton Journal
"There has to be a story to be told and it has to be newsy," Faulder said. "Our first business is news." Tough, gritty stories get attention because they are often linked to real people and real conditions in a city. "Don’t be afraid to say the tough thing."

Faulder advised charity workers to call reporters regularly to mention what they think about an issue or about the reporter’s last story. Or to give them story ideas. The reporter may not use your idea, but he may to call you when another story breaks.

She gave a couple of examples of "newsy" stories about the voluntary sector that had interesting people behind them. One was about a woman who had been extremely crippled with multiple sclerosis for years. Through alternative therapy, she recovered fully and led a walkathon. "I could’ve interviewed her for two hours," Faulder said.

Stories that expose political injustice also get a lot of press. An organization in Edmonton set up a "Quality of Life Commission," a forum for people on welfare to talk about how government cuts have affected their lives.

"We don’t know what’s happening unless you tell us," Faulder said. "Don’t be shy to deal with controversy."

Ric Young, E.Y.E.
The voluntary sector must look harder at the broader picture if it is going to sustain itself. That was Ric Young’s message. Young is president of E.Y.E., a social marketing firm that plans strategies and campaigns to promote social change.

"The most compelling story, it seems to me, is not the one we have to tell, but the one we have to hear and understand," Young said. He pointed to an earlier presentation by Michael Hall, VP of research at CCP, who said the lion’s share of the sector’s core support comes from religiously active Canadians.

Religious organizations are seedbeds of philanthropic values, Young said. But the religiously active are rapidly becoming a subculture. Only 25 per cent of Canadian attend weekly religious services, down from over 50% in the 1950s. "Perhaps we ought to start praying, whether we’re believers or not, that this segment doesn’t dwindle anymore," he said.

Consumerism and individualism are replacing the philanthropic impulse. But Young believes that all is not lost, provided that the voluntary sector can find ways to "tap the reservoirs of good will that exist among Canadians." He cautioned, however, against thinking that greater understanding of the sector is the key. "If only they understood us, all will be well – this is not the answer," he said. The sector should not assume that it has more to tell than it has to learn.

Faith communities provide a forum for discussions about values and relevance to society, he said. Likewise, the voluntary sector needs to take not just its story, but "greater moral conversations" out to the broader general public.

Reprinted with permission from Front & Centre, July 2001, Canadian Centre for Philanthropy. For information: See the Canadian Centre for Philanthrophy’s Sources listing for more information.