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Who should speak for your charity?

This blog first appeared in Third Force News on 6 April 2018 -

The recent negative coverage on Comic Relief’s use of “white saviour” celebrities and the criticism some have expressed about Social Bite’s use of celebrity endorsement has highlighted some of the challenges that face charities when using others to communicate their message effectively and impactfully. So, if someone was to ask you – who is the best person to talk about your charity? – what would your answer be?

My (hopefully educated) guess is that many of you will have answered “well, that depends…”. And that will be the right answer.

But considering what it depends on needs to be a conscious exercise when working out who is best placed to speak to others about your organisation. A particularly clunky careers website advises that “A charity spokesperson is a particular type of media professional, who acts on behalf of an agency or organisation to communicate with “stakeholders”. In real life, a charity spokesperson is anything but a “particular type” of person. They should in fact be the right person at the right time. Learning to discern who that person is at the relevant moment is where the art of communications alchemy can create communications gold.

The ingredients required for any act of effective magic are usually a closely guarded secret but here are few you could add to your spell-binding tools.

· Who is your audience? Messages are only heard if the people are listening. Sometimes you need a “big personality” to be heard in a crowded market place but if you already have the ear of the audience, you may be best using someone who is known within the charity, not necessarily to the wider world. Consider also how well your listeners will identify with the speaker. Don’t underestimate your audience’s intelligence and potential for justifiable resentment of feeling patronised – and reacting badly because of it.

· Why is this person speaking about your organisation? One lesson (of many) to be taken from Ed Sheerin’s video, is that audiences need to see genuine commitment from the person asking them for their commitment to the cause.

· Does this person know what they are talking about? Usually the most effective communicators for a charity are those who know what its needs, its impact and its challenges are. Whether volunteers, staff members, founders, partners or beneficiaries, if they can tell a personal story about how they have seen lives being changed for the better, that is worth a thousand well scripted words from someone more remote from the coal face.

· Is the spokesperson telling your story or theirs? In reality, the best communication comes from those that are telling both. If your spokesperson communicates your message from their heart, it can be powerful and transformational. Just make sure that they understand what tale you are telling and how it fits with their own.

· Does this person feel equipped to speak? Very often the best potential speakers hide behind fear – of speaking in public, of making a fool of themselves, of boring others, of sounding silly, of thinking they are just not good enough. The truth is that anyone who is passionate about a cause and who has stories to share about it already has the core essentials to speak effectively to others. With a little bit of confidence building in what they are good at and with a few tips about how to deal with the fear, anyone can be empowered to speak from the heart – without feeling that they have their hearts in their mouth.

So, who is the ideal charity spokesperson? It can be anyone from your marcomms professional to your international celebrity to that little girl who got helped the day she was a bit frightened in hospital. They can all be superheroes – provided they are in the right place at the right time. Its up to you to make sure you call on the right one.

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