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How to avoid a PR crisis

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In the light of last year’s negative media coverage of fundraising practices, Becky Slack guides us through the fundamentals of managing reputational risk

 

Once upon a time, charities and their fundraising activities rarely received any negative media attention - it was implicit in their charitable status that they were saintly organisations that never put a foot wrong.

Sadly those days are no longer with us. Charities are under the media microscope like never before and, as we have seen recently, their fundraising activities are increasingly at the centre of criticism and suspicion.

The response charities have given to these stories has not always been effective, veering from overly apologetic to downright defensive, or worse still – completely silent. Meanwhile, charities have reported that the coverage has been unexpected or that they have had difficulties persuading journalists of their case.

So what do charities need to do to manage reputational risks?

 

1. Consider your vulnerabilities

 

The most effective way to prevent a media crisis, or to stop it from escalating should one occur, is to plan. You can't prepare for every eventuality, nor do you want to be so risk averse that it paralyses you and prevents you from achieving your goals. But there are risks that can be identified and mitigated against, be it fundraisers putting undue pressure on vulnerable people, or the misuse of data etc. So think about what the impact of those risks could be on your brand, and your long-term ability to raise funds, and then take appropriate steps to prevent those risks being realised.

 

 

2. Make sure everyone understands fundraising

 

The entire organisation has a collective responsibility for fundraising. Trustees and senior managers need to understand why specific techniques are used, the value they add and the risks they present. Fundraisers need to deliver consistently positive donor experiences, and should abide with the Institute of Fundraising’s Code of Practice. And all other staff should be mindful of how money is raised and spent, and their role within that – including protecting the brand.

 

3. Plan for the worst, and if the worst happens, respond quickly

 

News travels fast. Thanks to social media, by the time you’ve realised there is an issue, the whole world could be commenting on what’s gone wrong. Additionally, journalists will want responses to questions in hours, not days. By putting systems and processes in place, such as incident reporting procedures and fact-finding protocols, and by having holding statements ready and waiting for the media, you can ensure a swift, decisive and appropriate response.

 

4. Have spokespeople ready and waiting

 

If and when a crisis comms scenario occurs, having media-trained spokespeople available can be a big advantage, as they will be able to effectively answer a journalist’s tough questions. Advocates such as donors, beneficiaries and patrons (the more high profile the better) should also be on hand to add their voice in support. On no account should you ever say “no comment”, as this only serves to create more suspicion.

 

5. Use all communications tools available

 

To get your side of the story across, don’t rely entirely on journalists running comments from your organisation, as quotes may edited down or even cut completely. Make sure you use the full armoury of tools available, such as your website, social media channels, newsletters and donor letters, to clearly and transparently communicate all the ins and outs of the issue in hand.

 

6. Be good, but be brave

 

As we have seen recently with the Daily Telegraph article about charity cost ratios, journalists do get stories wrong. If you are confident that your fundraising practices are ethical, and that you appropriately balance the needs of the donor with the needs of the beneficiary, then do not be afraid to defend yourself. If something has gone wrong, apologise and demonstrate how you will learn from the experience. Either way, be mindful of tone – aggressive, arrogant responses will not be well received by journalists or their readers.

 

The scrutiny charities have faced recently is not going to go away. Preparing for potential negative coverage is essential if public trust and confidence – and ultimately donation levels – are to be protected.

 

Becky Slack is managing director of Slack Communications. Her team has been working hard to help charities prepare for and respond to crisis comms situations, including the recent Daily Mail exposé of telephone fundraising practices.

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