Third Sector Accountability

I’ve worked in the public, private and third sector.  They are different in so many ways…budgets, attitudes, culture and ethos.  When it comes to media relations the difference between the sectors is striking.

The public sector is rightly called to account.  Government departments have an effect on everyone’s lives and political bosses need to justify their decisions to the electorate.  Public sector bosses make decisions and they need to explain their actions.  The public sector enacts policy and delivers services – often behaviour or attitudinal change.  Citizens have a relationship with government without their choice – it’s unavoidable.  Some are heavily dependent on the public sector – the old and the young.  However, everyone interacts with the public sector to some extent whether through health, education, or the DVLA, inland revenue, or planning consent…the list goes on.  Trust varies, and people often have more faith in the people they meet day-to-day; their children’s teachers, their GP, their councillors rather than seemingly faceless agencies or faraway ministries.

The private sector also desires something.  To sell: to look expert; promotion; reputation management and crisis communications.  To go to market and build a relationship from its consumer.  It has to work very hard for trust and often resorts to buying space in media, although of course its public relations works hard to promote products through journalists, providing that critical endorsement from a third party.  There is often a price for this endorsement, one that is not always understood by the public.

Charities, or the third sector can desire to influence government or business to change policy, or change the attitudes of the public, to sell things.  Occupying a relatively privileged place, charities are often well thought of.  They are naturally concerned with making things better so are often well placed to get media attention, by highlighting problems or campaigning for change.

However, there is increasing cynicism about charities; their links with government and big business, the methods some charities to fundraise.  Therefore, it is crucial that they behave with integrity when communicating to avoid problems.  There is no excuse for ill-thought out comms, or sloppy statistics just because they come from the third sector and resources are an issue.  Pulling on the heartstrings isn’t quite enough, emotive messages need to be backed up with objectivity.  Trust is paramount and the third sector must work hard to deserve that trust, particularly as it moves into areas traditionally occupied by the public or private sector.

Charities need to be aware of the consequences.  Getting too close to government for the comfort of their supporters, and losing that ‘critical friend’ role or overdoing the aggressive fundraising has backfired for organisations.  Accountability is key, not only do charities have to behave in a transparent way, communications need to be that two way street, providing a way in for outside scrutiny and comment as well as getting those messages out.