How charities can reach new audiences by live-tweeting TV shows

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What did you watch on TV last night? How did it make you feel? Did it make you want to find out more about the topic? Did it raise more questions than it answered?

People are talking about TV all the time – in every workplace and home, at breakfast, lunch, or dinner, over a cup of tea or a G&T. Television has the power to move us to act and start a conversation.

There’s a captive audience of people who want to talk about what they’ve seen on the box. Charities can be a part of this conversation, and use it to spread their messages and encourage people to act.

In this blog, we’ll use a programme called War in the Blood as an example to show how charities can use TV programmes to reach new audiences through Twitter.

A synopsis of War in the Blood

War in the Blood is a documentary which aired on BBC2 in July 2019 about an experimental treatment for leukaemia, a cancer of the blood. Sadly, as of August 2019 the documentary is no longer available on BBC iPlayer. But to bring you up to speed, here’s a brief synopsis.

The programme focuses on two men, Graham and Mahmoud, whose cancers are at the stage where all other treatments have failed. They are undergoing a type of experimental treatment known as ‘CAR‑T cell therapy’. At the time of filming is being tested in humans for the first time.

We follow Graham and Mahmoud and their families through the ups and downs of their therapy. It’s gripping and heart-breaking story, beautifully and intimately filmed, about modern cancer treatment and the people involved. The clip below gives you a flavour, and features Graham talking about his feelings after his cancer comes back.

Before we look at how charities responded, let’s first answer the big question – why bother?

Why should charities respond to TV programmes?

A woman watching television

The reason why charities should be considering talking about TV programmes is about the audience.

It’s all too easy for charities to fall into ‘broadcast mode’ on social media, only talking about what ‘we as the charity’ are doing. “We’re raising money for X”, “we’re funding Y”, “we were featured on the news”, and so on. But as Lisa Clavering pointed out in a recent CharityComms blog, the problem with only broadcasting on social media is “it’s not all that social”.

Though it’s trite to say it, your charity’s supporters are in fact real people with lives of their own. Yes, their interests overlap with yours; yes, they care about what you do; but they are not only interested in you. And there’s a whole bunch of people out there who might be interested in your charity, if you didn’t only ever talk about yourself. No one likes someone who just talks about themselves all the time.

So how can you engage with people about their interests? Well let’s start with TV. Recent figures suggest that people are still watching nearly 3h30 of broadcast TV a day. And on science topics, 3 out 5 people say that that TV is one of their top sources of information, according to a survey by the British Science Association (pdf).

As a charity, you’re in a unique position. Not only are you experts in your subject area, you bring together people who care about that issue. So if there’s a conversation happening about That Thing You Do – you are in a great position to contribute towards it, meaningfully and positively.

Why use Twitter to talk about TV?

TV and Twitter are a match made in heaven” according to Joe Freeman during a conversation we were having (on Twitter, of course). The quick snappy messages that Twitter encourages are just like how you chat with a friend during a show you’re watching together. Sometimes this commentary is a spectacle in itself; for example, follow #UniversityChallenge the next time the show happens to be on TV – it’s a hoot.

Broadcasters know this. Twitter knows this. Every prime-time TV programme, every soap opera or documentary series, every binge-worthy boxset like Killing Eve or Game of Thrones – they all have a hashtag for people to share their thoughts online during and after the show.

Your charity has something important to say to the public about your cause. Joining in with a hashtag for a relevant TV show is a great way to spread that message.

Explaining this in his blog, Joe believes that “charities should absolutely be better at live tweeting TV programmes containing cause-relevant content…  people generally tweet about TV they watch, so why not tap into that ready-made, interested and relevant audience?

How charities can respond to television programmes

After watching War in the Blood, I shared a few examples of how charities responded to the programme. We’ll explore them in a bit more depth below.

1) SUPPORT

Charities can help viewers deal with the questions and emotions that watching TV can present.

For some of those watching War in the Blood, the documentary will have hit close to home. They may have been in a similar situation to the people in the programme – either as patients themselves, or as family members. It’s inevitable that watching the documentary would have raised questions or bring up difficult memories for them.

One of the key things charities like Bloodwise did was to remind people that their phone lines are open to offer support.

2) INFORMATION

Charities can provide helpful and easy-to-understand information for viewers who want to find out more. 

The treatment which features in War in the Blood, CAR‑T cell therapy, is very new – it was only first approved for use on the NHS in November 2018. It’s likely that for many viewers, the programme may be the first time they’ve ever heard of the therapy.

Anthony Nolan, Bloodwise, and Myeloma UK, all took the opportunity to post on Twitter links to blogs on their websites. These covered how the treatment works, how successful it is, and possible side-effects.

3) OPPORTUNITIES TO GET INVOLVED

Charities can provide a compass for those who want to take the next step, whatever that might be.

War in the Blood followed two men with advanced cancer taking part in clinical trials. Some of the people watching it may have been in a similar position, and as a result are then wondering if there are trials open to them. But navigating clinical trials can be a challenge. It can be difficult to find them and to work out whether they are eligible to sign up.

That’s where charities can step in with their expertise and patient-focussed language. For example, Lymphoma Action shared a link on Twitter about their ‘Lymphoma TrialsLink’ which provides more information about clinical trials and what they involve, as well as helping people find one that is right for them.

4) HIGHLIGHTING RELEVANT WORK

Ok, we started this blog with how charities shouldn’t always talk about themselves all the time. But clearly, if a TV programme discusses a problem which your charity is aiming to solve, then there’s plenty for you to talk about.

War in the Blood made it clear how there’s a lot more research left to do to make treatments like CAR-T cell therapy a success for everyone.

Luckily, plenty of charities are funding research into CAR‑T cell therapy, to improve it and ensure more people have access to it. Children with Cancer UK and others took the opportunity to highlight an example of relevant research they are funding. It reminds supporters why your charity needs their help, but it also reinforces that your charity’s work is relevant and ‘on the pulse’.

5) SHARING MOTIVATIONS

Charities can use TV programmes as an opportunity to remind the public why they exist.

Many people will take Twitter to tell their followers about how they feel. Your charity’s supporters and staff are no different. Cure Leukaemia took the approach of re-tweeting the thoughts of their staff and supporters. The same message kept on coming up: “this is why we do what we do”. Sharing messages like this brings people together, and gives people hope whilst acknowledging the challenges faced.

It doesn’t matter that your charity doesn’t ‘own it’

It’s worth noting that (as far as I’m aware) none of the charities above were involved in War in the Blood. They didn’t feature in the programme, they didn’t fund the trials, and the men at the centre of it weren’t ‘case-studies’ or ‘ambassadors’ for the charities (or at least they haven’t mentioned if they were).

To put it in other words, the charities had no ‘ownership’ of War in the Blood. But it doesn’t matter. The purpose of talking about TV on Twitter is not about the charities broadcasting to everyone about what they do – it’s about engaging with that programme’s audience.

These charities recognised that someone watching War in the Blood is likely to be care about the things that they do. And so they responded to the questions and feelings that they knew a programme like that would raise. This in turn raises awareness of the charity and its goals, and in turn will attract more supporters.

Also consider this: for Myeloma UK and Lymphoma Action, the programme wasn’t even about their charity’s area of focus – the show was about leukaemia, an entirely different blood cancer. Again, it doesn’t matter. These charities correctly recognised that the programme is still relevant to their audiences, who will have the same questions and feelings after watching it.


Imagine that you find out that there’ll be a programme on TV tomorrow evening, focusing on a topic related to your charity’s work.

What could you share on Twitter which could achieve some of the five aims above?

What other examples of charity’s turning to Twitter to talk about TV have you seen?

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