How can the charity sector get better at responding to criticism? Four experts give their advice on how charities should handle negative publicity.
Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of NCVO
Over the past year, charities have seen increased scrutiny and criticism over their campaigning activities, chief executive pay, and the use of internships, to name but a few.
It is right and proper that organisations which rely on public support are scrutinised, and we need to deal with it with integrity. It’s important that when we receive criticism we consider it rather than dismiss it, and use it as an opportunity to raise standards even more. We can do this by being open and accountable, following and sharing best practice, and being self-appraising.
A recent report by the Charity Commission shows that the public still has very high levels of trust in charities - but we cannot be complacent. That is why NCVO has produced clear guidance on setting and communicating executive pay, and why we will shortly be consulting on best practice guidance for campaigning. This will make us more transparent, strengthen our reputation, and help to protect us from future criticism.
Trevor Morris, professor at Richmond University and co-author of PR Today
Charities increasingly look like a cross between businesses and political organisations. They attack and argue with politicians. They provide services that directly, or through taxes, the public pay for. In turn, they must expect criticism like anyone else.
The special dispensation that the media and public used to give charities has weakened. We are not surprised when business or government underperforms or is less than transparent, but we are surprised and disappointed when charities do. The bar has been raised.
Charities need to:
• analyse reputational weaknesses and threats;
• develop a crisis plan;
• respond quickly and openly; and
• learn how to say sorry
…just as business and government have to.
Lawrence Simanowitz, partner in the Charity Department at Bates Wells Braithwaite Solicitors
Charities, like all organisations, will inevitably make mistakes. Some lawyers counsel that you should never apologise, because that is an admission of guilt. I believe that is too simplistic. A timely apology can often bring a complaint or criticism to an end, though of course sometimes remedial action may also be needed.
And, although less true than in times past, in most cases there will still be public sympathy where the charity sector is on the receiving end of aggressive criticism. Despite this, most criticism should be taken seriously (and indeed in many cases welcomed – since no organisation is beyond improvement).
Critics should rarely be ignored. Of course, if the criticism is seriously damaging then that may be libellous and it can be countered by legal action. But, while it is often worthwhile seeking legal advice at an early stage, court action, generally, is a last resort.
Dr. Peter Sandman, consultant at reputation risk management consultancy RL Expert and the godfather of ‘outrage management’
Nearly all criticism is a mix of valid (though often exaggerated) grievances and nonsense. It’s tempting – it’s human – to ignore the valid grievances and rebut the nonsense instead.
But if you want to make peace, not fight a war, it’s far wiser to acknowledge the valid grievances.
The process in a nutshell:
• Let critics vent their grievances.
• Then echo the grievances (even the false ones) to show you heard.
• Then validate the valid grievances.
• Then talk about improvements you have made or will make, giving your critics credit for pushing you.
If you need to rebut some of the nonsense, do it almost in passing: “While I think they got X wrong, they have a point about Y and Z." This is the optimal approach vis-à-vis both the critics themselves and the stakeholders watching to see how you respond.
It’s not optimal for bystanders – people who have hardly noticed the controversy and knew nothing about Y and Z until you “admitted” them. But it’s almost always a mistake to focus on bystanders instead of critics and stakeholders.