When Sir Tony Hawkhead interviewed for the role of chief executive for Action for Children, he had to impress some of the charity’s most qualified experts – a panel of young people, who had used its services and had been given a voice in such a vital decision by an organisation which is committed to putting its stakeholders at the centre of its communications.
On a visit to the central London offices of CorpComms Awards 2014' ‘not-for-profit in-house team of the year’, this commitment becomes even clearer.
Walls in the conference rooms are decked with colourful photos of real children using their services, keeping the charity’s mission to act early so children get the care and support they need, and to speak out fearlessly on their behalf fresh in employees’ minds.
A new strategy, developed last year and launched in December, underpins all the efforts of the communications team to ‘pro-actively involve stakeholders in the design and delivery of our work’. The strategy was brought to each of the charity’s regions individually via a leadership tour across the country, in which heads of departments answered any and all questions from its 6,000 employees and 4,000 volunteers.
Director of communications Paul McDonald believes this approach ensured the charity’s workforce support the new strategy and work together to achieve it. ‘We’re one charity,’ says McDonald. ‘Not 650 different projects.’
But with so many projects under its hat, McDonald concedes that the charity is a busy one, with a lot of issues to deal with, from organising Royal visits to making sure each and every one of the 300,000 children and families it helps ‘has the love, support and opportunity they need to reach their potential’.
‘We’ve become much better at keeping young people at the heart of what we do,’ says events manager Rob Fenton. ‘It really helps everyone understand the value of what we do.’
Keen to find new ways for its messaging to hit home, Action for Children replaced an internal magazine that was poorly read with four videos a year. Entitled Lights, Camera, Action!, the videos, which are presented by outgoing head of public relations and engagement David Hamilton, as well as other staff members, keep employees and service users up-to-date with events and activities of the past quarter. One video, for example, included a visit from the Duchess of Cambridge to one of the charity’s community-based projects in the Midlands, as well as footage of the annually-held Stephenson Awards, an awards scheme named after the charity’s methodist founder, Thomas Brown Stephenson, which rewards the hard work of Action for Children’s staff, including foster carers, volunteers and supporters. The 200 or so nominations are judged by young people who formerly used the services it provides.
But the recent decision to prioritise the voice of young people has led to a change in the format of the staff-led Lights, Camera, Action! videos by internal communications manager Susie Huxham in favour of a more inclusive approach. Former BBC journalist Huxham is keen to make sure the ‘story is about the children, not about us’ by changing the narration, but film remains an important medium due to its ability to ‘be understood on any level by multiple audiences’.
One video was recently presented by a young autistic boy, whose enthusiasm was both infectious and inspiring, according to Huxham, who is now toying with the idea of taking such participation even further by giving children the camera.
Everything in the organisation is subject to a hugely collaborative process. The charity has recently worked with Barclays on its new Skills for Success initiative, where the bank’s staff volunteer to run workshops that equip young people with the skills they need to get a foothold on the career ladder. Not only has this involved working closely with the charity’s services in the local areas where the workshops will be held, the charity has also spoken directly to the young people they support, to understand the issues that they face and the help they need.
Day-to-day business in the communications team works in the same vein. On the day of my visit, the first meeting I attend is between McDonald and the four heads within the communications team (digital, brand, media relations, and public relations and engagement). They are preparing for Action for Children’s biggest annual fundraiser, Byte Night.
Established by members of the technology and IT industry, Byte Night involves members of the public sleeping out in the open air to raise money to tackle the root causes of homelessness and keep vulnerable young people off the streets.
Launched in 1998, when 30 people slept out on the streets of London, raising £35,000, Byte Night has now spread to eight locations across England, Scotland and Ireland, raising more than £1.1 million last year. This year’s Byte Night, which takes place on 2 October, has received a significant boost with the announcement that investor and former Dragon’s Den panellist Richard Farleigh will be joining the fundraisers. Farleigh was fostered as a child.
Last year’s Byte Night received 300 pieces of media coverage, up 120 per cent on the previous year, and reached a potential audience of four million through celebrity tweets alone.
The communications team is responsible, says head of news and media relations Ruwani Purcell, for creating news stories, sometimes with the support of surveys which help identify common and relatable issues, to raise awareness of the support the Byte Night funding provides, from helping young people adjust to independent living to providing them with emergency housing.
Social media, as well as traditional media, also plays an important part in developing the story of Byte Night. There is a ‘story screen’ that shows tweets from participants and supporters of the event, accompanied by video content and photography. It is part of a wider digital media strategy, led by head of digital Katie Smith, to give stakeholders a voice and remove the barriers to communication.
The digital team, primarily based in Action for Children’s head office in Watford, recently launched a brand new website, designed to be streamlined so it is more user-centric than its six-year-old predecessor which is ‘in website terms, archaic’, according to Smith.
The development process was long, and Smith admits that there were times when their deadlines seemed impossible. The team started planning with a complex card-sorting exercise, in which they detailed every requirement of the website to ‘crystallise’ them in order to simplify these for users.
Each page underwent a ‘content audit’ to track how useful the content was, how much it was used and how closely it fitted with the charity’s work and aligned with its brand. ‘How you are online is how people experience you,’ asserts Smith.
‘Everything we’re doing is about making user journeys as easy as possible,’ she adds. With its new, clearer and simpler messaging, Action for Children is able to ‘reach out to great people who can be great carers.’
Byte Night’s current website will soon be incorporated into the charity’s new site. Smith wants to ‘bring to life all the ways people can get involved’ as part of a process to ‘digitally enable’ the charity, putting technology into all services.
The charity has accounts on four social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Google+), but staff, led by Hawkhead, are also encouraged to tweet. Smith says Hawkhead, who tweets from @SirTone, has ‘prioritised digital strategy’ within Action for Children to the point where the organisation is ‘on the cusp of something really brilliant’. Part of the digital team’s role is to help staff become more confident on social media.
‘Having a Twitter account is the first hurdle,’ says Smith. ‘It’s feeling confident [being on it] too.’
Today, Action for Children is also planning for its presence at Glastonbury Festival in June. Having secured a well-positioned tent near the world-famous Pyramid Stage, creative services manager Chanah Debson and campaign manager Liz Fenwick are discussing ways that their branding will be visible whilst drawing potential donors into their tent.
Despite being unable to fundraise at the festival, the team is keen to do some important data capture, such as gauging opinions on new messaging with the use of tokens which can be placed in boxes, akin to those used in supermarkets. The team is also toying with the idea of branded periscopes for children to see above the crowds and wristbands on which parents can write their phone numbers in case their child gets lost. Everything is brought together in a value exchange between the festival-goers and the charity. It’s about putting the ‘brand in their hand and the brand in their home’, says Debson.
Back in the ‘Ideas’ room, planning for the Byte Night evening is similarly creative and meticulous. The team communicates with a varied number of stakeholders from potential participants in the technology industries to the regional committees who helm the event in various cities. The team has to place its ‘key messages consistently against all channels and all audiences.’ This can mean using trade media, blogs or even LinkedIn, which is particularly successful at recruiting participants.
This focussed approach is something that has been developed recently. The communications team works from a planner whose success, according to Hamilton, lies in its simplicity. The scrupulously organised Word document plans the months ahead in a way that has ‘really focussed the team’.
Helen Lavelle, public relations and engagement manager, looks after the ‘old boys and girls’, a group of people who once lived in any of the organisation’s children’s homes, back when the charity was known as National Children’s Home. It rebranded in 2008.
Today’s focus is on community-based projects, rather than formal institutions, but Lavelle notes that those who keep in touch are often very positive about their experience. She publishes a biannual magazine for the group and the charity holds an annual reunion for them to share their experiences with others who understand what it’s like to grow up in a children’s home.
Engaging with those who have used the service in the past is vital when it comes to sourcing case studies, because despite Action for Children’s commitment to making the voices of their young people heard, it is not always appropriate for vulnerable children currently in its care to be put in front of the camera. These concerns are constantly at the forefront of all planning, whether it’s demonstrating the value of Byte Night or whether it’s for a campaign designed to show how rewarding and important fostering can be.
Farleigh, who was recently appointed an ambassador for the charity, is just one of the many celebrities who work to raise its profile. There is a department within the communications team dedicated to making the connection between the charity’s objectives and their celebrity ambassadors seamless. When Farleigh was fostered, he was separated from his siblings, which provided a celebrity hook for last year’s Keep siblings together campaign by Action for Children, after its research found that one in three children in foster care were separated from their siblings. Farleigh’s involvement helped secure 785 pieces of media coverage, including on BBC Breakfast Time and in The Independent.
Seeking such important patrons is a ‘measured process’, says celebrity manager Karen Chisholm. ‘We need a celebrity who’s going to match and resonate with our audiences.’
Indeed, the connection between celebrity ambassadors not only matches and motivates external audiences, it can also be an ‘empowering message for young people’, explains Chisholm. Children who see adults like Eastenders actor Larry Lamb (who had a turbulent childhood) and Farleigh supporting their future through the charity are inspired by their stories and success. It is yet another example of the spirit of collaboration which filters down through the organisation continuously.
Ask anyone at Action for Children what the best part of their job is and they will answer The people but it is clear throughout my time spent with the communications team that the real answer is rather more precise. The best thing about working for Action for Children is the young people.
‘Some of my best days have been spent visiting our services,’ says McDonald proudly. ‘It really helps to keep it real.’