My applause for last month’s Budget on this blog looks more out of touch by the day. The Budget has led to a string of PR difficulties, for which the government seemed ill-prepared. First it was the age-related allowances, then hot takeaway food, and now it is charitable giving. Perhaps the back-and-forth of coalition deal making leaves the PR behind. But what the last week shows above all is just how skilled the charitable sector is at public relations and lobbying. There is quite a bit of fuss about corporate lobbying in politics, but businesses look flat-footed by comparison.
The wave of protest from charities over the government’s proposed minimum tax on income is building into an overwhelming tsunami. How have they achieved this, over a relatively obscure rule that affects only a few people?
Inevitably, truth is one of the first casualties in a battle like this. It’s not that anybody is putting out lies, it’s that a concentrated smokescreen has been built up, so that few people have any idea what is really going on. There are a couple of fine examples from last week’s radio coverage on the BBC. One was a survey conducted by one of the lobbyists of charity chief executives asking them whether their charity might be seriously affected. This was a bit like asking them “Do you want tax relief on charity giving to be restricted?” – not surprisingly nearly 90% said that they were. This 90% figure quickly did the rounds to give the impression that 90% of charities would be in serious trouble. In another case one senior person from one of the lobbies was asked how much charities would lose; she replied correctly that this was very difficult to estimate, and then proceeded to give a rather large and rather precise estimate – which quickly got quoted all over the place. Very quickly the impression has been raised that charities’ income is going to be affected drastically, with the result that all sorts help to the poor and needy was going to get cut back. Since then a steady stream of charity, arts and university types have piped in to add to the overall impression of impending disaster.
Meanwhile the government response has been a bit weak. Some Customs and Revenue types were allowed to air their prejudice that most charities were tax dodges – but this idea was no more based on substance than the charities’ claims, and didn’t really help.
And as for the truth, I await some rather calmer analysis from the rather limited number of purveyors of calm, like The Economist. For now what interests me is the pattern of the PR effort. The basic idea is common enough from ordinary business PR. A new regulation or tax is proposed that might force your business to change the way it does things. So you scream murder and claim that the change will bring an end life as we know it. Sometimes these claims may be grounded, but most often they are not; the thing is not to think about it too hard. Anti-pollution regulations offer an instructive example: these are usually opposed vehemently by the industries that they affect; and yet the air and water gets cleaner while the economy continues to prosper (the most widely quoted example of egregious protest was against sulphur dioxide pollution, in the 1980s, I think). The general idea is that policy is developed through an adversarial process, like the British legal system. Make your case as effectively as possible: the truth is somebody else’s concern.
How have the charities been so effective? First of all they succeed in creating the impression that what they do is for the benefit of poor and needy, both here and abroad. The huge amount of marketing expenditure by big charities like Oxfam and Cancer Research, plus all those public sponsorship campaigns involving celebrities (like the recent Sports aid) help here. Of course the picture is more complex than this: a lot of charities are about providing elitist education and entertainment (i.e. art) and some are downright nefarious extensions of rich egos.
Given this complex picture, the key thing is to keep solid and keep the message simple. The supporters of poverty charities have not fallen into the trap of criticising their elitist fellow travellers – as this would fatally complicate the message, as well as opening a can of worms. A second important point is timing. The charities waited for the fuss over age-related allowances and Cornish pasties to calm down, before launching an onslaught. And that onslaught looked well coordinated. Whether or not their was much coordination I don’t know – but all that’s really necessary is to play follow-my-leader, which needs very little pre-planning.
Positive image for a few key leaders and low profile from the rest; simple oppositional messages; solidarity. Can that PR disaster that is the British banking industry learn from this? Banking, after all, has done more to alleviate human poverty than the charities ever will, through easing the path of trade and investment, the two real enemies of poverty.
I don’t think so either. They don’t care enough about their image, and are too rivalrous to do the solidarity bit properly. Better stick to their usual strategy: passive resistance – the slow, patient picking apart and undermining of reform when the politicians are looking elsewhere.