Engaging with the media: 6 lessons from a small charity

Sophia Parker is the Founder and Chief Executive of Little Village, a London-based charity that acts as a foodbank, but for clothes, toys and equipment for babies and children up to the age of five. In this guest blog she shares 6 lessons she learnt from engaging with the media from filming a documentary, featuring on BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour and a double-page spread in the Observer. At this year's Social Media Exchange Emily Wilson from Channel 4 News, Miriam Wells from the Bureau for Investigative Journalism and Dan Dewsbury from 72 Films will be coming together to lead an interactive Masterclass on engaging with the media to demystify the process and answer all your questions exploring how charities and the media can come together to tell powerful stories.

Little Village is like a foodbank, but for clothes, toys and equipment for babies and children up to the age of 5. We’re a movement of parents committed to alleviating material poverty in London. We make it as easy as possible for families to support one another with dignity and love. I launched Little Village three years ago in the context of rising child poverty, austerity and cuts to vital public services. Since then, we’ve fulfilled 3500 requests for help across 29 of London’s 32 boroughs. We’re powered by an incredible network of nearly 200 volunteers, including parents we’ve supported who want to give back to others. Towards the end of 2018, we had a lot of media interest in our work at Little Village. It started with a Dispatches programme with associated articles in The Sun and The Mirror. BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour and a double-page spread in The Observer followed, alongside several appearances on BBC News, Channel 4 News and LBC Radio.

So what did we learn through engaging with the media last year? …

1. Get upstream. You and your service users are the experts. That means not only can you help journalists to understand an issue they are interested in, you can also help them to identify the issues that matter in the first place. It was brilliant working with sounddelivery early last year as they facilitated precisely those conversations. For example, Jude invited Jezza Neumann to one of our storytelling workshops. Afterwards, I talked to him about my strong hunch that baby banks were growing fast, that people weren’t aware of this fact, and how they were a powerful way of understanding the impact of austerity on families in the UK. Before I knew it, he’d pitched the idea of a film to the Dispatches team, and within two months, it had been made and broadcast.

2. Make sure you know the angle. As a small charity it can be exciting to get any media interest at all. One consequence of this is that it can feel a bit arrogant or pushy to ask for more information on the angle, and the story they’re trying to tell, before agreeing to participate. But it’s vital — you don’t want to end up involved in a story that doesn’t 100% align with your mission. Journalists are totally used to this. Find an experienced media volunteer who can do the pre-conversations about why they’re interested in you, what they’ll ask, and the nature of the story, and ask them to be the first point of contact with the media. If you can’t find this person in your own networks, take a look at the Media Trust who offer a matching service between small charities and media professionals.

3. Consent, consent and more consent. At Little Village we work with families who can be extremely vulnerable. Even for those who aren’t, it’s crucial to ensure you have a clear and consistent approach to consent. Here’s our form. It’s worth noting that we operate a policy of ‘continuous consent’: in other words, we check in with people throughout a media engagement whether they’re still ok with the consent they gave. We’re very strict with photographers about not taking wide shots of our playgroups and we always keep a clearly designated area shot-free. We have to be assertive about this. It is always worth it. The safety of the families visiting us is paramount.

4. It takes time. My mind was blown the first time a news team came to visit. There were three of them, two of us and we spent three hours together. The final piece lasted 30 seconds and was broadcast once on the regional News at Ten. Don’t expect this work to be quick! That’s especially true if you’re helping journalists to meet people who are experiencing the issues you’re working on. You will need to coach that person, and accompany them to interviews, which can often be an emotional experience. Unfortunately social media can be unkind and it’s vital to look out for people after the event as well as before and during it. Make sure you have a lot of time to do this.

5. It’s ok to say no. In the run up to Christmas we had more media requests than we could manage: I guess journalists could see the power of a story highlighting the difficult circumstances of the families we support at a festive time of year. But it came on the back of a term when we’d had a lot of cameras around, and we started to feel a bit like we were in a fish tank being watched. I took a difficult decision to turn down a fantastic national news feature because I felt that our volunteers and families needed to be left alone to get on with our work. With hindsight, it was absolutely the right thing to do for Little Village (and fingers crossed the news team will come back this year…)

6. It can feel a bit grubby but (mostly) that’s ok. You’re used to working in depth, you understand the detail, the importance of language choices and the complexities of whatever public services and social structures you’re navigating. Life is less complicated in the media. Issues need to be presented simply and in a way that attracts attention. Sometimes that feels very uncomfortable. You will need to make the judgement call about whether the loss of nuance is worth the media exposure. In my experience, if you’ve followed points 1 to 5 here, it usually is.

We do this work because we want Little Village to be a platform for the families we support to share their stories and raise awareness of child poverty in the UK today. We want to show how poverty is blighting lives right here, right now, on our doorsteps. The first step towards addressing child poverty, which is rising for the first time in a generation, is to raise awareness. We can’t do that without amplifying our messages through the media.

About the Author:
Sophia Parker is the Founder and Chief Executive of Little Village, a London-based charity that acts as a foodbank, but for clothes, toys and equipment for babies and children up to the age of five. Follow Little Village on Twitter and Instagram  @LittleVillagehq. 

Want to learn how to engage with the media to put a spotlight on your work?  Join us at the Social Media Exchange on Monday 11 February at Resource for London for a day of interactive and practical masterclasses, lunchbites and talks.  Emily Wilson from Channel 4 News, Miriam Wells from the Bureau for Investigative Journalism and Dan Dewsbury from 72 Films will be coming together to lead an interactive Masterclass on engaging with the media to demystify the process and answer all your questions exploring how charities and the media can come together to tell powerful stories.

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