In the past few years, we have been living in a highly politicised society where public interest and engagement has grown. This was evident during the recent election where voter turnout was at its highest since the 2001 general election.
What does this mean for charities?
This rise in public interest can have various effects for charities. In some cases, charities may be seen as an alternative to party politics. As political parties move along the ideological spectrum they create gaps where charities are able to step in and better represent the views of the electorate, which in turn enhances their authority when influencing policy. Recently, we have witnessed this with environmental issues, where parties and nations are turning their heads away from green initiatives and policies thereby giving charities a niche. In other cases, charities have become experts in their field by leading on research and speaking openly about the consequences of policy and budget changes; this is evident in the healthcare sector. Thus, overall for charities that engage with the political zeitgeist of the day, this is positive. However, what about charities that consider themselves to be apolitical?
Whilst charities cannot be completely apolitical, there are those that try to operate outside the political sphere. This is largely due to the fact that they are reliant on the support of all members of the community, regardless of their political leanings and therefore do not engage in party politics or comment on policy or funding changes.
What does this mean for PR?
From a Communications perspective, and in my experience, this can be challenging in today’s society in two key ways: having well-known personalities, who engage with politics/are politicians, promoting the cause and gaining press coverage.
The biggest backlash is due to having political well-known personalities, particularly MPs, as supporters. Whilst their status may allow the charity to highlight their cause nationally and internationally, it can lead to public criticism. Although their views may not be shared with the charity, their affiliation to the charity can damage the reputation of the cause; it may result in a loss of support from the public.
Furthermore apolitical charities are finding it harder to get into the news. With the election buzz and policy changes dominating the papers, traditional charity stories no longer cut it. The easiest way to stay ‘current’ is by commenting on news items and offering your organisation's views and expertise. Yet, when you are solely reliant on your local community, whose political leanings differ, you cannot offer a comment due to the risk of losing supporters. Consequently, you are pushed into the background.
So what can you do?
If you choose not to express a political leaning then it is always best to be bipartisan. If you have an MP as a supporter, then invite other political candidates from differing parties to also support your organisation. Causes such as: human rights, equality campaigns and hospice care, impact all parties and therefore charities should be encouraging politicians from across the spectrum to join their cause. By doing so you are highlighting to the public that you are truly neutral.
If you do receive negative comments, then explain your stance. Don’t be afraid to say that you operate outside of the political sphere. It is better to be transparent than to ignore the issues.
When it comes to gaining coverage in the media, I am still figuring that out. Offering comments that are related to the sector and industry can help but if you are not willing to take a stance then papers are not likely to be interested. Whilst we continue to promote stories highlighting the people and families we have helped, they will always be in the shadows compared to cabinet changes and funding cuts. Unfortunately, this continues to be an uphill battle.
In my opinion, charities should be stepping into the political circle. Whilst we are held accountable by our communities and reliant on supporters, we also have a wider responsibility to educate the public about our causes and how the charity sector, and those that benefit from our work, are affected by political parties and their policies. Moreover, charities have the power and expertise to influence policy and represent public interest in ways that political parties cannot. With the public becoming more politically aware and dissatisfaction with elected officials it is only a matter of time until we are all pulled into the political realm.
Jaini is a politics graduate turned communications professional seeking to encourage positive change in society. She is a travel enthusiast and professional Indian dancer. You can follow Jaini on Twitter at @JainiHaria1