A badly handled crisis is one of the greatest risks to any organisation’s reputation, so how can a charity avoid catastrophe when stories break? Four experts have their say
Vicky Browning, director of CharityComms:
A good crisis plan, thoughtfully prepared and skilfully executed, can stop a crisis becoming a catastrophe.
So, be prepared. Spend some time thinking about potential reputational risks to your charity and the impact they have: think of your areas of operation and brainstorm any negative stories that might arise – from the death of a beneficiary in your care, to accusations of fraud, to a member of your trustee board acting inappropriately. Then document how you would respond if the worst should happen.
If negative stories do arise, make sure you have senior, well-trained spokespeople who are properly and regularly briefed on the situation as it unfolds.
Your response needs to have integrity: it should be appropriate, proportionate and as honest as possible. Act fast, but think carefully: British Heart Foundation's mantra is “tell it all, tell it fast and tell the truth”.
Finally, use your own channels (website, social media) to tell your side of the story in your own words.
Guy Clapperton, journalist and media trainer at Clapperton Media Associates:
If David Cameron’s experience over his tax issue tells us anything then it’s that you need to get all of the bad news at once. Drip-feeding the story will only keep it in the headlines.
A full and contrite declaration when something’s gone wrong is always going to work better than an attempt to hide it.
Last year we had the tragic case of the death of Olive Cooke. There may have been any number of factors in her taking her own life, and it may only be a tiny minority whose details are abused in this way, but the self-regulating body the Fundraising Standards Board handled it as well as it could simply by being contrite, expressing sympathy and assuring people that it wanted their details protected.
Even when you feel you’re right and are tempted to hit back, remember: people will notice the hitting more than they notice the power of your argument.
Becky Slack, managing director of Slack Communications:
Investing in a proactive media strategy will help secure positive coverage of your work and the difference it makes.
Not only will this serve to increase donations, it can also provide a softer landing if and when a negative story occurs – a strong reputation can help fend off accusations from journalists, and minimise the impact on public trust and confidence.
Invest time too in building relationships with key internal and external players. This way, you will have already built trust and confidence, and will have (hopefully) willing allies who are prepared to stand up and defend you. The use of advocates during a crisis can add weight to your argument and help (re)build your credibility.
Many of the ‘shocking’ revelations within the tabloid press about salaries, admin costs and fundraising techniques stem from a lack of understanding about how charities operate in the modern world. It is every charity’s responsibility to address these issues at every given opportunity. It is your job to normalise what you do, and to remove all elements of shock and surprise.
Rupert Earle, partner and head of media litigation at Bates Wells Braithwaite:
Respond promptly, and ideally with specifics to any media inquiries. If there is good evidence of some political or personal animus behind the story, say so, but don’t try to evade the allegation being made.
If the story is likely to take off, be ready to be proactive with other media, if necessary with PR help. If things have gone wrong, it may be worth being upfront and identifying what is being done to put matters right.
If what is published is substantially inaccurate, complain to the editor concerned. They will be under an obligation under their regulatory codes to correct any substantial inaccuracy.
If they decline, then complain to their regulator – eg Ofcom, the BBC Trust or the Independent Press Standards Organisation.
In extreme situations, where what has been published is likely to cause serious harm to the reputation of the charity, its trustees or management, then provided a charity is an incorporated entity, it can sue for defamation.
CharityComms has produced a free guide to crisis communications. In it you can find lots of case studies of charities who have handled potential reputational crises well.