It is vital that charities understand how they can manage and protect their reputations. In this article, Tabitha Cave and Ben Holt examine some key issues that charities should consider.
We know that serious incidents, complaints, grievances and disputes all pose reputational risk to charities which should be managed carefully. In today’s litigious society, and with the widespread use of mobile technology, it can be difficult to manage communication about such issues.
Effective communication with stakeholders is key. Measured communication with appropriate groups which seeks to address identified issues and manage expectation is best.
This will involve careful consideration of the matter and its context, a review of what information (if any) can be shared and care in assessing how the proposed correspondence may be perceived on receipt and as the matter develops.
It is human nature to be curious, especially if it relates to an issue involving you or your family. Charities are however bound by obligations of confidentiality and data protection which may restrict their ability to provide information and this can create considerable frustration. It can be helpful to explain these restrictions from the outset. It may also be helpful to liaise with your regulator for support and guidance and/or to engage specialist PR and/or legal advisers so that they are on hand to support you with reputationally-sensitive issues.
If the charity is approached by the press for comment on a particular situation, it is sensible to designate a specific person/team to field those enquiries, and for all charity personnel to know that any requests should be directed to them. By way of risk management, we suggest that charities prepare for the fact that details about reputationally-sensitive issues may get into the public domain, even if they are confidential, and plan accordingly. This may involve the preparation of statements ‘just in case’. VWV generally recommends against ‘no comment’ responses but it is usually sensible for initial statements to be short, simple and reassuring.
The manner in which a matter is handled can impact the charity’s reputation more significantly than the issue itself. An example of this is a suggestion that issues have been covered up by current management and not handled appropriately. We recommend care in the management of issues with reference to current procedures and measured communication with third parties.
With this in mind, early consideration should be given as to whether a serious incident report to the Charity Commission or a report to any other regulator should be made.
Charities should review their management delegation system to ensure that if reputationally-sensitive issues are raised, they are identified as such quickly, and reported internally so that they can be managed at the right level and with a proportionate level of professional support.
Charities should note that their own investigations and internal communications may be discloseable to regulators and third parties in the context of complaints or litigation and they should be planned and drafted carefully with this in mind.
Insurance will often include cover for professional costs and it is sensible to explore cover for this, so that you are aware of the cover that is available and any restrictions which may apply, if an issue arises.
Proactive monitoring of a charity’s reputation will enable you to react quickly if a situation does arise. This can be done by the charity or outsourced. The time and costs associated with monitoring should be assessed carefully with reference to the charity’s business to decide on the level of investment in this context. A relatively easy basic tool is to set up an online search alert that notifies you by email when something is published online that mentions the charity by name, but there are more sophisticated products and services available.
If you become aware that an adverse comment about your charity has been published (whether orally, or in hard or soft copy), there may be a number of options available. The key is to act quickly to seek to manage the risk and to minimise any damage being caused.
This can range from:
For a comment to have been defamatory, it needs to have been published to a third party and have the effect of lowering the charity in the ‘estimation of right-thinking members of society generally’. The statement will also need to have caused, or be likely to cause, the charity serious harm.
Action may be more appropriate by the individuals concerned (particularly if the issues relate to privacy or data protection breaches). The charity will want to consider the extent to which it needs - or wants - to support such claims.