Charity PR Analysis: Cifas’ “Data To Go”

Analysis of one or more charity, third sector, not for profit or community PR campaigns

It is claimed that “public relations practitioners create the most significant connections that a charity, social enterprise or voluntary organisation can have with its supporters” (Theaker, p.441, 2013). While the practice of public relations is extensively used in business (Johnston & Zawawi, p.10, 2004), often described as marketing’s “third arm” (Jenkins, p.69, 2006), it is essential to recognise the significant impact it can have during non-profit campaigns. Considered use of public relations techniques allow for non-profit organisations, charities, and awareness campaigns to effectively spread their messages to a target audience. As stated by Jon Snow, “non-profit organisations of all sizes and types need strong voices to help shape the societies in which we work” (Bruce & Garsten, p. XX, 2018). They can develop these ‘voices’ through careful planning of their objectives, targets and implementation of a variety of public relations techniques. Focusing on one particular case of effective campaigning from a non-profit organisation Credit Industry Fraud Avoidance System (Cifas) in their 2016 “Data to Go” digital campaign demonstrates this good practice in action (CIPR, 2017).

Cifas are a not-for-profit fraud prevention organisation, logging instances of fraud and providing advice on the issue. In 2016, Cifas launched a campaign, with the aim of elevating their status, alongside raising awareness of wider issues to those online. They demonstrated a plan with defined goals made with a target audience in mind; alongside employing digital content creation, this campaign produced clearly measurable results. The importance of planning is well noted in the public relations practice – as stated by Black “planning provides a structure and particularly agreed goals against which performance can be compared” (p. 59, 2014). Cifas’ proposal outlined three clear objectives; to raise awareness of how easy digital thieves can steal personal information online, to reaffirm their status as a leading source on the issue, and to engage directly with their partner organisations. These clear goals allowed the success of their campaign to be evaluated with ease when examining the legacy of the project, both by themselves and their stakeholders. Stakeholders are made up of those who are affected by and, in-turn, effect what an organisation “does or says” (Black, p.103, 2014). In this case, these individuals include their current supporters, several corporate partners and prior to the campaign, a limited audience online.

The goal of raising awareness required them to expand their stakeholder-base, and to do this they needed a target audience to direct their campaign efforts, in order to convert them from inactive publics to at least aware if not active public members (Hallahan, p.463 2001). Their target audience of choice was specifically 18-24-year-olds, and this decision shaped the techniques implemented by the campaign. The decision to consider the audience before making the campaign is supported by the view of Gregory, who stated it to be vital to carefully define the target audience before starting any form of communications plan (p.80, 2004). Studies at the time showed that this demographic are increasingly online, showing that those aged 16 and upwards had tripled their time spent online in a single decade, and those watching video clips online almost doubling to 39% of all internet users in 2015 (Ofcom, 2015). Thus, in order to specifically cater to this 18-24-year-old audience, they made the decision to design a public relations stunt focussing upon social media engagement and video-content. For their stunt of choice, Cifas took over a coffee shop, allowing customers to have a free coffee in exchange for a like on their Facebook page. Once the like was confirmed, they gave their team of researchers three minutes to gather as much personal information as possible from their public social media profiles, writing their findings on the cup in order to shock the customer. The entire reaction was filmed and edited into a short social media video (Cifas, 2016), which was circulated both organically and through paid advertising across both Facebook and LinkedIn.

Failure to research an audience effectively can lead to extreme negative backlash, even amongst charity campaigns. This can be seen in the 2017 Irish Cancer Society’s campaign. Their adverts and videos which were designed to be based around the phrase “I want to get cancer”, a play on words deliberately shocking in order to generate responses, before elaborating with phrases such as “I want to get cancer and wring its bloody neck” and other explanations. However, despite these clearly anti-cancer intentions, the public reception to the campaign was increasingly negative, receiving over 100 complaints at their launch to the Advertising Standards Authority of Ireland (Pope, 2017). One independent columnist would go on to describe it as “nothing short of sensationalistic and fear-inducing”, and the Advertising Standards Authority of Ireland stated that “care was needed when addressing such an emotive issue as cancer, particularly when using provocative copy” (Pope, 2017). This could be seen as a positive, Theaker acknowledging that for some all exposure itself is the “be-all and end-all of reputation” (p.277, 2013), especially as it could be argued that this reactionary press was intended due to the shocking nature of the campaign’s wording. However, this negative press can be seen to have risked the lasting reputation of the charity, going against the fundamental aims of a public relations practitioner, and thus a successful public relations campaign. This can be seen with the Chartered Institute of Public Relations defining  one of the key roles of public relations to be “the planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organisation and its publics” (Theaker, p.6, 2014). While the Cifas campaign also used surprise and shock as an element of their video, they were careful to tailor it to their audience using humour and avoided risqué elements to their messaging.

This direct exposure of an audience to the severity of an issue is a technique that has always been prevalent in the world of charity and activism public relations. This can be seen as early as the 1860s, where Dr Thomas Barnardo used explicitly graphic images of children in poverty to act as a call-to-action and emphasise the importance of his cause, allowing them to more easily create “both emotional and rational responses” (Bruce & Garsten, p.xxii, 2018) in those they spoke with. This can be seen to be more akin to the Shannon and Weaver communication model of public relations, where the information is presented to the publics with the campaigner ‘decoding’ the importance for the masses (Black, p.17, 2014). While useful for distribution and control of the message, this communication model lacks the ability to take feedback and direct engagement found in later models, such as the Grunig and Hunt two-way asymmetrical and symmetrical methods of communication (1980). As stated by Gregory, “awareness on its own does not guarantee success” (p.78, 2004), this direct engagement allows both the group and their stakeholders to see that the campaign is working. The translation of this technique to a digital platform allows them this engagement with their publics “directly and frequently” (Smith, p.256, 2014) along with expanding their reach exponentially beyond what could be done with physical or regional campaigning. Being aware of which are the appropriate channels to use is vital for any campaign. As stated by Black, different publics “require prioritisation, different communication strategies and will almost certainly be communicated with via different channels” (p.103, 2014). The importance of this choice is furthered when comparing the Texan ‘Break the Silence. Make the Call’ campaign from 2002 against domestic and sexual harassment to that of the 2017 Cambridge University ‘Breaking the Silence’ campaign (2017) against sexual harassment. While each were tackling topics of a similar nature and severity, they understood their distinct audiences, choosing platforms that are appropriate and appeal to each, along with the wider context at the time. ‘Break the Silence. Make the Call’ used extensive research to determine that Latinas and Hispanic women were particularly at risk from this abuse, and thus set their target at this demographic (Swann, p.322, 2020). They made use of radio personality Dr Isabel, a psychologist known for discussing these issues, who had a notable Hispanic audience along with other personalities in order to appeal to this audience effectively. Meanwhile, Cambridge University chose a digital approach, making an impactful video that reached over 9000 views, knowing their audience is predominantly young people from 18 to mid-twenties (Cambridge University, 2017). Cifas demonstrated this ability to modernise well, taking a concept that may have also worked on television acceptably, but choosing to focus it specifically on their digital platforms to allow for direct engagement and to best reach their target demographic.

Cifas managed to achieve all three of their targets by the end of the campaign’s run. In terms of online engagement, reaching over 986,000 impressions across Facebook, Youtube, LinkedIn and Twitter, demonstrating (CIPR, 2017). While these metrics could be criticized due to their use of paid media, they also achieved 277 pieces of media coverage, strengthening the value of their engagement being earned media. The video’s position on social media allowed users comment directly, reacting to the message instantly in a measurable and clear format. This feedback is vital, Black stating that “feedback enables us to check whether our messages got through, whether they were understood, and whether they were acted upon as we intended” (Black, p.105, 2014). Their status as a leading authority was supported following the campaign, being invited to bring fraud into the national curriculum as part of the Home Office Joint Fraud Taskforce. They were also able to successfully use the campaign to engage with their stakeholders, 20 organisations asking to create co-branded videos addressing the issues, along with record breaking statistics for their website. Notably their mobile users were up by over 180%, which they used as an indicator that they had indeed reached their target audience of young mobile users with the campaign (CIPR, 2017).

One key issue faced at the outset of Cifas’ campaign was their small team and relatively small online audience at the campaign’s launch. To circumvent these issues, they made use of their network of partner organisations to use their channels, calling them to action and allowing them to associate with the cause while sharing the message with their pre-existing larger partners, such as the City of London Police. This sharing of key messages and distinct “calls to action” are vital to gain the attention of both active stakeholders and unaware publics as a strong video is not enough for this to gain “effective PR traction” (PHA Group, 2015) without a core message. They also made use of paid advertising options through Facebook and LinkedIn in order to spread their message as wide as possible. These options, along with the lower cost of social media advertisement allow charities to share their content to those unaware of their existence, however this attention is to a lesser impact then that of earned media. Earned media is organically generated coverage, through impartial journalist coverage or engagement from the wider public. Despite being a small team, creative thinking and original campaign ideas allow for much more impactful content, creativity being marked  the “cornerstone of a winning pitch and sustained media attention” (Farmer, p.2, 2017) in public relations, and as stated by Bill Gates, “no company is too small to participate” (Silkstream, 2014) when it comes to content creation.

Other campaigns have faced the issues of a limited online audience and managed to overcome these obstacles through creative thinking and highly engaging content, without the need for paid advertorials. This can be very clearly seen in the case of the 2014 ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, which managed to reach viral status through an engaging challenge. Those tagged in the challenge were meant to either make a $100 donation to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or pour a bucket of ice water on their heads. This went viral when Chris Kennedy undertook the challenge, bringing his previously existing golfing colleagues and their audiences to the cause. The challenge reached record-breaking engagement, seeing hundreds of influential figures such as Stephen Hawking spreading the message for no financial cost, allowing $220 million to be raised globally that year (Swann, p.123-127, 2020). Both here and in the Cifas video campaign, the low-resourced groups were able to pair creativity in their content creation with social media’s lack of gatekeeping and low-cost nature in order to spread their message to a wide-scale audience.

Flexibility in public relations campaigns is another vital skill demonstrated by the Cifas team during the lead-in to the campaign’s launch. The project became at risk of being overshadowed when the group were made aware of the release of the Chilcott Inquiry Report was due to take place on their launch day. Due to their careful observation, they were able to move their launch back one day, to avoid being ignored by the media, earning them the title of “agile” from the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (2017). Charities who fail to react to obstacles or negative occurrences can lose the trust of their stakeholders and earn the scrutiny of the media. This can be seen in the Oxfam scandal, where following accusations against relief workers stating they had made use of sex workers during their campaign in Haiti. PR Week heavily criticised the reaction of their CEO Mark Goldring, who quickly responded with claims that “it wasn’t as if Oxfam had ‘murdered babies’” (Bold, 2018). This failure to effectively react to the situation effectively lead to Oxfam losing 7,000 donors (Elgot & McVeigh, 2018).

In conclusion, despite their limitations Cifas were able to create a very successful non-profit public relations campaign. They overcame their smaller presence and budget through careful collaboration with their corporate stakeholders, pairing their influence with a creative idea designed to appeal to a well-researched target audience. Despite feeling the need to use paid media, they backed up their credibility with extensive coverage in journalistic earned media, demonstrating that creativity prevails, seen in other campaigns like the ALS challenge (Swann, 123-127, 2020). Their credibility was indeed elevated, and in turn sustained as part of their legacy still remains in the national curriculum and in their role in the Home Office Joint Fraud Taskforce. Careful planning was critical to their success (Black, p. 59, 2014), avoiding negative backlash seen in the Irish Cancer Society’s “I want to get cancer” campaigns (Pope, 2017), allowing them to understand their audience and react quickly to changing circumstances.

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Published by James Sumner

Writer, reviewer & journalist. BA: Multimedia Journalism. MA: PR & Digital Comms.

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