blogging about all things charity comms

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Once upon a time…

Storytime is for everyone

Storytime is for everyone – it’s the way we learn

When was the last time you heard or read a really good story?

I’m not talking about a whole book but more of a simple tale that captured your imagination. Where you had an emotional reaction, it made you think or you learned something new? What made it memorable?

In this blog post I want to look at some factors that make a good story as it’s important to our work as communications officers.

Whilst there are a number of factors involved in writing a good story and plenty of academic research as well, let’s look at four fundamentals to keep in mind to engage our audience – trust, simplicity, humanity and purpose.


The more the reader trusts the author, or the source of the story, the more trust is placed in the story itself. Macmillan has a strong brand and works hard to promote and protect that brand in order to retain trust and help it grow so it can reach and help more people affected by cancer. There’s no denying that over the last year trust has been an issue for the charity sector as a whole as a result of stories in the media. We can’t expect the journalists to do our job for us and bad news has always sold more easily than good. So we need to ensure our stories can be trusted and it’s not all about facts. Facts are great and generally give a context or can be compelling themselves, but they don’t end up in the public domain without an author – and do you trust that author?


A simple story is easier to remember and re-tell. This is where those of us in comms can really help. We often take a complex story and strip it down to the essentials that will enable the audience to understand us and our message. Simple doesn’t mean uninteresting. Remember how, as a child, you first learned through stories? It’s wonderful to see children learning language through nursery rhymes for example and whilst ‘Polly put the kettle on’ doesn’t do it for us in adulthood, engaging, simple stories still do it for us as they are easier to remember and re-tell, thereby helping to increase their reach and impact.

Keep it human

We also seek to bring out the human side of a story – one our audience can relate to. Good stories are about real people and need to be relevant to the audience. I think you’d be hard pushed to find someone these days who hasn’t had what we call ‘a cancer experience’ – knowing someone living with or affected by cancer, having had a cancer diagnosis themselves or having lost someone to the disease. It’s a ‘fact’ we use to make our message relevant and we rely on those who are prepared to share their story as case studies to trust us to tell their story in a sensitive way that gets over the point we want to make whilst having their interests uppermost in our minds.


A good story always has a purpose. It can inform, educate or entertain and perhaps all three. As a result of people reading, hearing or seeing our story we want them to do something, to take some action. On its own it might not compel action, but it can add to messages that people receive in various forms at other times, building a position where they then do something about it.

For me, a recent example of a good story with a purpose was that of the Bristol tattoo artist who spotted a mole on a client that had changed shape and increased in size. He advised the client to get it checked out and his action might well have saved his client’s life as it was diagnosed later that day as a melanoma. The BBC story reported some nice facts as well, quoting melanoma as the fifth most common cancer in the UK, that 25% of these cases were people under 50 and that it claims 2,000 lives a year. The story is human, simple, raises awareness and shows action being taken to extend the training to others.

The art of storytelling is much bigger than the scope of this post but I just wanted to highlight and remind us to make sure our communications and especially news releases have a relevant story that people can follow, relate to, empathise and engage with. This will have a greater impact on our audience and enable us to get more people to take action – whether that is to get help, give to our cause or reach out and help others.

By the way – if you end up singing ‘Polly put the kettle on’ in your head for the rest of today, blame me.

David Saunderson


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Achieving impact in a world of junk food

social junkIn a piece in Guardian Online, Ev Williams drew a parallel between the sort of content that big platforms produce and publish – the eminently shareable stuff from the likes of Buzzfeed and Facebook – and junk food. That’s a bit of a strange thing for one of the co-founders of Twitter to say, but it got me thinking. If one of the masterminds behind one of the biggest channels out there says that too much of the media we consume is just ‘junk food’, what does that mean for comms professionals? How do we achieve impact?

For me, it brings into question how we measure our success, which often means shares, opportunities to see, comments, likes, clicks. But what about beyond that? How do I differentiate between a one-second page view – the instant-gratification, junk-food behaviours – and someone reading something that brought them real value, as Ev points out? To put that into context, am I padding my ego when I say that my article online will get more people to use their local cancer information and support centre? Can it ever be that straightforward? Today’s news is tomorrow’s chip paper, after all.

Sadly I don’t have a magic answer to those questions. But I do feel I need to balance a healthy interrogation of our raison d’être with a sense of pragmatism. No, we can’t tell exactly how every single person who accessed a Macmillan service came to do that, and no, I can’t understand precisely what small changes in someone’s behaviour come about purely as a result of the words I type (at least not yet…). So we need to accept that it’s not always easy to join up comms outputs like my article online and outcomes – someone going to their local support centre. On the other hand, people need to know about us in order to access our services – and give us the next pound so we can do more.

Let’s be honest: listicles and click-bait like ‘This Dad Always Used His Dishwasher Normally. Until Now’ are probably the best example of what Ev is referring to. But although we can’t ignore click-bait, no comms professional in their right mind would rely on it to get their message out. It’s just one way of reaching audiences. Instead, an integrated, multi-channel campaign will expose people to the same brand messages several times and grow awareness. Couple that with real insight into your target audiences – how they prefer to consume their media – and you’ve got a great chance of reaching them and leaving a lasting impression. So my article online isn’t junk food, it’s just one part of a big picture.

I imagine a scenario like this: Tom’s waiting at the hospital with his mum, scrolling through his feed and spots an article his friend has shared. Something to do with a local cancer nurse. ‘Macmillan?’ he thinks. ‘Oh yeah…that green charity. Think I saw their ad on TV last night. Think I’ll check their website out. Maybe something mum can look at when she’s recovering from surgery.’

Going back to Ev’s junk food analogy, yes – there’s clearly some pretty unfulfilling content out there. But I’m in no doubt there are some people who will go to see their GP about a mole because of an article they read in the paper; it’s just not easy to prove it. So let’s recognise that our reporting metrics have limits and make sure we integrate our messaging across channels. That’s how I think we can achieve impact in a world of ‘junk food’ media.


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Trust your communications team

Picture the scene…you take your car to the garage because it needs some work. You hand over your keys, and leave the car in the mechanic’s capable hands to diagnose the problem and carry out the work; a recognition that he has the tools and experience to get the job done. Generally, we don’t often tell them what the problem is and how to fix it. But it isn’t always the same for communications professionals.

Often in my role I find myself in situations whereby people tell me what they would like me to do, the words they would like, the design they would like – and there is no problem with gaining input and a steer from stakeholders and ‘customers.’ It absolutely should be a collaborative process to a certain extent, fulfilling objectives and delivering outputs which stakeholders are happy with for their particular project.

But there does need to be recognition that we are also experts in our trade, just like the mechanic; we might just have a different set of tools to bring to the table, which could lead us to an alternative course of action.

For example, I recently worked on a project for a local organisation (outside of my Macmillan role) planning an anniversary celebration event. I was tasked with the PR and marketing, and trying to encourage younger members to come along and get involved. Great – a brief (of sorts). Sadly they’d also already decided upon their activities, how they wanted it marketed, they didn’t want it advertised on social media, and even sent me some text to use, to ‘ensure the wording is right.’ Unfortunately it wasn’t at all right for that target audience. All of these things were directly contrary to the brief and essentially limited my potential to carry out the job effectively and to the best of my ability. Not ideal.

Trust me I'm a comms professional

The reality is, many people think they could do the job of the humble communications officer. But it isn’t simply a case of putting together words in an order so that they look good. It’s taking into account a myriad of factors to arrive at a recommendation, and implementing learned tools and methods.

Just like the mechanic, we need to go through a process to assess and diagnose the issue or situation, before advising and carrying out the required work.

The content itself is another matter – a press release, or even a promotional leaflet, is not designed to be a flowery, creative piece of writing – something many ‘clients’ believe constitutes a ‘good’ article. In fact, it’s designed to convey your key messages concisely, to communicate with your audience, to be understood, to reflect your brand values. You may have multiple messages from various stakeholders which you want to include, but realistically it wouldn’t be appropriate to include them all but instead to have developed a hierarchy of key messages with the end user in mind. We shouldn’t allow politics to dictate and detract from a piece of writing by letting it take over, but strike a balance between what we want people to know, and what they want to know.

It also takes into account your organisational values, national and local priorities, other campaigns and stories – I could go on. It’s also our job to mitigate risk and protect reputation, and be aware of the stance we should take on various issues. We are essentially the voice of the organisation, brand advocates in all we say and do.

I’m not saying we get it right all the time – we’re only human after all – or that you couldn’t do our job. Just that we are paid to consider certain things, to think a certain way, and our experience and training will stand us in good stead to make appropriate recommendations and take appropriate action using approved methods.

My plea to you? Trust your comms team. Let them do their job and support you in yours. They have got this.

Nicki Strong – Regional Communications Officer.



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Communicating about end of life care

It can be very hard for people to talk about end of life care.

Because it’s such a sensitive issue and an important one to be able to discuss working in communications for a cancer charity, I was keen to go to an end of life conference.

I had been warned it was aimed at clinicians and might not be that useful from a communications angle.

Nonetheless, I decided it would be interesting to listen to the different views of experts. There were some incredibly compelling stories from various clinicians but the most powerful speaker was a man who sadly lost his son several years ago after developing sarcoma.

He talked about the treatment and the care that his son had received and the importance of choice. His son was desperate to die at his own flat, some miles away in Preston. The rest of the family weren’t convinced this was the best place for him to be and couldn’t imagine how they would sort out the logistics, but a Macmillan nurse arranged that the following day he would be transported from his hospital bed to his flat. He was clear what he wanted: a chips and gravy dinner; a glass of his favourite tipple; and his favourite TV programme. He died that night in his sleep.

His family now have peace of mind to know that he was lucky enough to have been given the choice as to where he wanted to die and how he would spend the last few hours of his life – because they talked.

The health care professionals working in specialist palliative and end of life care also talked about where they see the biggest hurdles for them in providing the high quality care they feel their patients deserve. Many of them were humble enough to say one of the most difficult aspect was being able to have the right conversations at the right time with the right people and with the right tone.

So, while choice was a key message, the most important thing was communication. Professionals should feel empowered to be able to steer and facilitate those conversations.

This doesn’t just mean conversations between doctors and patients, but also with carers and loved ones. Clinicians need to be trained with the right communication skills to be able to have those difficult discussions with patients at the end of life and their families.

If people understand what is happening to them and why, what drugs to take and when, they could manage their symptoms more effectively and avoid the stress and confusion which exists in the current system. So effective communication facilitates choice and hopefully a dignified, pain-free death in the patients’ preferred choice.


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Getting the image right

However strong your story is, there is usually a need for an image to support and enhance the wording. Yet sourcing the right image in the first place can, in some instances, be a tricky and long-winded journey. Now I’m not talking about image copyright, that’s an article for another day.

Over the last 10 years I’ve worked with countless photographers, picked up a camera or two myself, trawled through never-ending stock images and had endless meetings with colleagues (all of whom, shared vast quantities of mocked-up posters using images ‘acquired’ from Google – back to a copyright issue again!)

Ok so it’s not a complicated job, but it is important – if you get it wrong it can ruin a perfectly rounded and edited piece of content. Most audiences, in my experience, judge publications by their cover, so the right images are essential to do the content justice.

Making sure images are in context to the audience and promotional material you’re using is key.


As I’ve said, copyright is a bigger topic than I have time to cover in this blog post, but that’s not to say you shouldn’t acknowledge the creator. If you’re using a stock image, then it’s essential that you check the permissions before downloading as some of the images have a restricted use. Or if you’ve commissioned your own photographer, ensure that you determine image rights at the start of the process. Finally, always get permission of the person being photographed, use a media clearance form and obtain their signature. Keep this on file and keep a record of when and where this image has been used.


I’ve seen so many low-resolution images that have been scaled-up to fit into a space the image lost focus and lacked the integrity it had originally (I’ve been guilty of this myself in my early career I hasten to add).  Ideally, print images should be 300dpi or more and web images no less than 72dpi.

Images can speak a thousand words

Part of the challenge of selecting or creating the right image is making sure it supports what you’re trying to say. The right image can add so much context to your narrative and in many cases add value to your message. So try and be creative, look at what you’re trying to say and choose an image that helps you to deliver the message. In many cases, using faces and expressions can really help.

Stir feelings

The right balance of text and imagery can also stir a reaction in the reader, mobilising them to act in response to your message. We’ve all seen strong imagery in support of hard-hitting messaging, particularly around awareness campaigns and fundraising activity.


If you’re not sure that you’ve got the image right then ask someone or if you’re fortunate enough to have a reader panel, ask them to look at the image in context to the message. If you’ve got the picture selection right, then it should speak volumes alongside your text with the reader easily repeating the messages back to you. If not, then offer alternative options and ask the same questions of the reader.

Dog on the beach

A great image (in my opinion), but does it add context to the piece? No.

How do you choose your images? Do you have any useful hints and tips that you can share?


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When to bring in the comms team?

Comms‘You don’t need to know about it yet, we haven’t recruited to the service/it hasn’t started yet/it’s too early to talk to the media*’

These words often fill me with dread. I want to make my own decisions about when I need to know about a programme of work. Over the last few years, the range of service projects we have been supporting as a team has broadened hugely, and it isn’t now just a question of telling us about a good story, or new service, when it’s time for a press release. This is great news, but it does mean that we need to be brought in earlier than perhaps might have previously been the case.

So often I have been in the situation whereby I have thought ‘if only I had known about this at the beginning, we could have forseen this issue and taken steps to avoid it’.  Maybe working with more than one partner, or with a partner who is also fundraising on their own behalf, where service relationships may be fine, but once we start talking about a project it can become difficult. Experience tells me that it’s better for the comms team to be involved as early as possible, particularly with more complicated projects, so that we can look at the project from a communications perspective, and perhaps spot some challenges that our service colleagues haven’t seen. After all, they wouldn’t expect us to be experts on service development, so it’s a little unfair for them to have to be aware of all of the potential comms and engagement pitfalls. We can also start to develop some great relationships with the partner comms team, and discuss tricky issues such as branding as early as possible.

The good news is that in CSWE, we have developed a way of working which allows the comms team to input into new service development bids so that we can help ensure that the comms, engagement and branding aspects are taken into account. It’s still early days, but this definitely seems to be helping and means that there are not too many unwelcome surprises waiting for us. Now that we seem to be funding larger, more complicated programmes of work, alongside multiple partners and often requiring behavioural change, comms and engagement are being seen as an integral part of service development activity, not just something that is nice to have, when we want to see a story in the local paper, and this has had benefits all around. Of course, this then leads to the challenge of how we evaluate and demonstrate our impact, but that’s another blog…

*delete as appropriate



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Engagement – Is It Just All Talk?

Time was, when “to be engaged” meant you had met the person you wished to spend the rest of your days with, a diamond was proudly displayed upon a woman’s left hand, all manner of homeware was collected in a “bottom drawer” and a myriad of arrangements were made for the “big day”.

These days the phrase frequently takes on an entirely different meaning.  That of being interested in and actively participating in something, possibly a community project of some kind, education or politics.  The reason for wishing to engage people may be to seek out opinions, influence opinions, get things done or make improvements of some kind, whether for the benefit of the individual or a wider community, and in order to shape the way things are to be done.

But, as communication professionals, how do we go about getting people involved in whatever the issue is we wish to engage people over? And, is “being engaged” different from simply “engaging with”?

The answer to the second question is, surely, “yes”.  “Engaging with” could be just a one-way process.  That is, we send out a message to our target audience and don’t necessarily expect any response.  If we do get a response, whether it’s positive or negative, the respondent has become engaged.

So, what methods do we use in an attempt to engage our audience?  Some people might argue it’s just about talking to people, whether at meetings or public or private events, possibly with the aid of a Powerpoint presentation.  But, that can be limiting.  If you have sought out a group to address, you’ve effectively chosen your audience.  To achieve talking to Joe Public, you need to stand in the middle of a supermarket or a town centre and stop people in the street – in itself it can be no mean feat, because stopping total strangers can be nervewracking and many of them won’t want to talk, so you need something to catch their attention so they are looking your way – banners, an information stand or things to give away.

There are, however, various other ways of engaging with people, all of which are part of a regular marketing mix: PR, paid-for advertising, social media, newsletters, focus groups, exhibitions and surveys.  As suggested, not all will elicit a response and some may produce a negative one, in which case you must have answers ready for your critics and be prepared to meet them head on if necessary.  You won’t win over everyone, but occasionally you will turn a negative into a positive.

Once you’ve managed to engage people, there’s a whole lot more work to do then, depending on whether you wish to continue engaging with them, or simply wanted to get a one-off response to a specific issue.  If you want to keep up the engagement, you’re entering into the territory of customer relationship marketing and will be looking at continued activity, which might include setting up a group that meets regularly, or it could become an online community, for example.  Key, though, is ensuring you keep it fresh, keep asking for their input and updating them with news on what is happening with the issue or project at the heart of the engagement.

And, there’s one other piece of advice.  Keep records! It’s all very well to do all of this engagement activity, but if you don’t keep records of people (possibly anonymously in order not to fall foul of data protection) or groups you met, what was discussed and the outcome, you’ll have no evidence to show what opinions are and how you’re using them to shape the project or issues, in which case you’ve disengaged the process!

Now, are you engaged?