The more worrying the apparent explosion of post truth slogans, fake news and alternative facts, the more carefully charities must think about their own messaging: its tone, accuracy and long term (as well as immediate) consequences.
In a recent blog, I described how important the contribution of many charities is to the infrastructure of truth-seeking, fact checking and evidence-based discourse in our public life. I suggested that this impressive contribution deserved greater recognition and support in current circumstances:
Now for the other side of the story. We should also consider honestly whether charities might sometimes be part of the problem rather than the solution. This should come as no surprise since the charity sector is so diverse. There are a number of reasons why many charities do not prioritize rationality, scrupulous fairness and objectivity in their public messaging.
Many charitable causes are based on strong moral and religious beliefs that transcend reason and facts alone. About one in six charities has the advancement of religion as a charitable object. Depending on the religion in question, truth for many of these depends on revelation, tradition or spiritual insight as much as, or more than, reason. Many secular charities are motivated by a burning sense of indignation about injustice, or cruelty to animals or people, or by a deep seated faith that every human being is equally precious. To arouse support and advance their cause, their currency must include appeals to emotion and to belief, not reason alone. The Charity Commission has given up on the efforts made in the 1980s and 1990s to impose a rule of “rational” discourse, because the case law does not provide a robust basis for defining this and because emotions, including enthusiasm, indignation, joy and compassion, are recognised as an enduring and proper part of charitable communication. The Slave Trade (like the targets of many campaigns for charitable causes ever since) was not abolished by people being non partisan and objective.
Messages must indeed be effective and appropriate to their intended purpose and audience. You will not persuade many members of the public to get their wallets out, nor inspire and motivate your mass support, by carefully nuanced and qualified essays. Charities are competing for attention and for funds, with each other and with innumerable commercial and state advertisers, and then trying to retain and motivate supporters to act and give repeatedly. They cannot ignore the need to be effective and to stand out in a demanding, crowded communications scene.
Moreover, many charitable causes are fiercely contested. Some of the worst excesses of Breitbart fake news and alternative facts stem from the mentality that its followers are engaged in a war, or multiple wars (as Steve Bannon repeatedly emphasises): and we all know what the first casualty of war is. Many charities may also, to some extent, think of themselves as in a war: against developers threatening the countryside, against endemic cruelty to animals, against international corporations and their governmental cronies capturing a disproportionate share of wealth and power, against patriarchy, racism and homophobia, against vested interests putting profits above the environment, against a perceived godless immorality. And if you feel part of a war, one of the tempting instruments is propaganda – to sustain the motivation and morale of your troops and strike fear into the hearts of your enemies.
So many charities will be drawn towards emotive, simple, striking, one-sided and motivational messaging. In addition, every communication has to be selective. Even if the selected facts are all true, many facts with a possibly different implication will necessarily be omitted. The presentation of ostensibly objective facts rests on an implicit, if not explicit, value base, enabling even the Institute for Fiscal Studies or Full Fact to be accused of bias by some of those who do not like what they say. Indeed, part of what the charity sector contributes to democratic life is the presentation of alternative facts: not in the topical sense of lies, but of facts pertinent to excluded groups or to a particular charitable interest that would otherwise be lost to public view. For it is not the charity’s job to present all the facts, but facts that advance the charitable cause. Thus, the facts presented by the Campaign to Protect Rural England will be different, or alternative, facts to those presented by The Housebuilders’ Federation, enriching public debate along the way.
The dilemma is that selective messaging with a particular result in mind – fully justified as it may often be – can share a blurred borderline with the divisive slogans of the post truth echo chambers. We face the danger of slipping over the line into a race to the bottom where truth seeking, fact checking and an awareness of other views get left behind. This is how William Moy, Director of Full Fact, puts it: “Someone at the BBC once told me that one of the first things they say when delivering their in-house statistics training is ‘Don’t trust statistics from charities’. Charities have been known to put results above rigour when it comes to communications and if everybody keeps pushing the line just a bit, if standards gradually slip, or if the public starts to think what journalists already do, we risk one day realising that the trust charities sometimes take for granted has slipped away.”
How many times do some charities suppress or ignore survey results that do not say what they want to hear? Base a survey on leading questions? Uncritically repeat the results of poorly constructed surveys or polls because they support the charity’s line? Highlight what a minority of respondents say – because it supports our messages – rather than what the majority say? Does any of this sound familiar?
After the Brexit referendum vote, Sir Stuart Etherington called on civil society to accept the challenge of helping to overcome the acute divisions revealed during the campaign. The downgrading of fairness, truth (as opposed to half truths) and respect for other people’s views had played into a sense of mutual incomprehension, as if people in the same country were living in parallel universes, two gigantic and completely separate echo chambers. So how can charities heed Sir Stuart’s challenge in their messaging, without compromising their long term effectiveness?
Trustees and their senior staff have no good option but to try to square the circle: they must communicate effectively in the world as it is, but without sliding into a divisive echo chamber, misusing data and contributing to post-truth degradation of public discourse. The answers will of course differ from charity to charity, depending on whether they are at the IFS, King’s Fund, Royal Statistical Society and Full Fact end of the spectrum or one of those who feel at war against threats to their beneficiaries, or somewhere in the middle. Here are some key points to have in mind.
Firstly, let us recall that, even in such a contested area as the abolition of the Slave Trade, the quality, depth and conscientious checking of research and evidence played an indispensable part in the success of the campaign. Vested interests would have pounced on inaccuracies and they could and did produce their own equivalent of fake news that had to be knocked down. One reason for care and accuracy in communications by charities has always been that they work better: if you are caught out peddling inaccuracies, exaggerations or half truths, respect for what you say tends to decline and you have less influence for your cause. Beware the topical trope that fact-checking doesn’t work. Yes, it matters how true facts are communicated effectively, and combined in compelling narratives,but the facts themselves are stubborn: even all the money and effort thrown by the tobacco lobby at raising doubts about the link between smoking and cancer, or the current well funded efforts to question man-made global warming, have failed in most places and communities across the globe, and will surely fail everywhere in the end. By contrast, the fact that the best charitable think tanks and small campaigning charities have influence far above their size and money depends on a reputation for accuracy, reliable expertise and integrity.
Secondly, if a charity is caught out pushing half truths or inaccuracies, Brand Charity (as well as the particular charity) suffers, public trust may dip (as explained by Will Moy), and the public consensus behind your charitable privileges becomes just a little less secure. The sector waited until a scandal in the newspapers before acting to raise its fundraising standards. Shall we wait in the same way for a scandal about our standards in the use of data and evidence? There are lots of excellent politicians and journalists of great integrity, but when others habitually drag them down they find themselves bumping along the bottom of public trust indices.
Thirdly, the ominous consequences of post truth and fake news now constitute an additional reason. If we are tempted to join in a competition in the currency of sensationalist half truths and partisan oversimplifications, we shall probably lose to the zenophobes, sexists, racists, and self righteous ideologues who do it much more ruthlessly than we ever could. On the whole, it is not charitable causes that benefit from coarse public dialogue, acute social divisions, unmediated anger and mutual incomprehension.
Trustees and senior staff therefore need to ensure that their charities have their own internal fact-checking and testing mechanisms for fairness and accuracy, so that they do not become part of the race to the bottom. This can be very difficult. It is one of the most sensitive areas for staff/Trustee relations, as staff do not want Trustees to be crawling over every message in draft; yet Trustees are responsible for safeguarding overall values and standards, knowing that even one misleading piece of communication can have a major impact for ill. It is also easy to trigger tensions between teams – for example, fundraisers versus policy teams, who have different jobs to do – or dampening the morale and effectiveness of campaigning, communications and fundraising through an excess of caution. So it is far from easy, but is nevertheless essential.
A second implication for Trustees was highlighted by Karl Wilding of the NCVO in an acute comment to my previous blog on this subject (referenced above). Should civility be an explicit value of more charities? It implies that we are willing to engage, rather than just write off, people who may disagree with us, that we try to persuade without abuse, that we try to understand the legitimate interests of those who are affected by our recommendations for change, that we can disagree robustly without being rude and self righteous, that we can challenge the threats to our beneficiaries without the mentality and tools of war and propaganda. Should there also be more frequent mention of truth and accuracy? Look at your own mission and values statement: it is robust for the “post truth” era?
In the “post truth” age, surely Trustees and senior staff will want to consider both their official statements of values, and the mechanisms for assuring themselves that they are being honoured in practice in the tone and substance of their communications and their use of data – however pressing the need for short term impact and results?