Recent years have seen significant scrutiny of charities such as in the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse and the Runnymede Trust being examined after concerns were raised about the charity's compliance with lawful political activity. Managing reputational matters properly from the outset is vital for charitable organisations.
As the impact of COVID-19 continues to unfold, there will undoubtedly be more media and regulatory scrutiny to follow. There can be grave consequences for charities that do not effectively manage their reputation and take the necessary measures to protect it. We all know that negative press can be hugely damaging, and for charities in particular it can harm the public trust and confidence placed in them, which in turn can affect relationships with beneficiaries, donors, regulators, potential trustees and employees, partner organisations etc - all of which are crucial to the operation of a charity. It is far more sensible to actively seek to manage a reputational issue as and when it arises (even if, after careful consideration, that means taking no action) than to try to restore reputation after the event.
Last year, the Charity Commission was critical of Save the Children UK's response to allegations of workplace harassment against two former senior staff members (including the former CEO) in 2018. The charity had sought to publicly address the complaints to protect the charity's reputation, but the Commission said that statements made by the charity were "not wholly accurate" and criticised the "unduly defensive" approach taken.
Here are some practical steps to help charities protect reputation and respond to a reputational crisis:
Do not be pressured into making a statement on the spot or feeling the need to give a detailed response to initial enquiries. First statements to the press are almost always bland for very good reasons - not least because the full picture may not yet be clear, and saying anything which later turns out to be incorrect or inaccurate needs to be avoided. If the incident is serious enough to result in legal proceedings, the initial response may impact upon those. A more detailed response can always be given later, potentially with input from a PR advisor. At the outset, less is often more.
If a particular senior individual within the charity is named in any complaint or allegation then it is important to consider any conflict of interest or any perceived conflict of interest. A named individual should not be the person leading the response to the issue, to protect both the charity and the individual's position. Avoid having people marking their own homework.
Plan for situations posing the risk of reputational damage and when an incident does arise, ensure your internal team is organised appropriately and that there is a consistent message being given (and that all the relevant people know about it). Make sure that enquiries are directed to the appropriate individuals. Also consider tasking someone to monitor adverse comment in relation to the charity and set up search alerts so that you become aware of any adverse issues relating to the charity.
Consider putting together a draft response or press statement. If the incident attracts wider attention, you will not be given much time to consider your response. This will also be helpful for planning the message that you want to send out. It may have an effect on your wider strategy for handling the incident. Plan your strategy before contacting third parties. Although you should prioritise compliance with legal and regulatory duties, care should also be taken to ensure that communications are effective. Carefully consider whether you want to be pro-active in communications as it may draw more attention to the issue.
Upon becoming aware of a potential issue, consider whether an investigation is needed. Consider what the charity's policies and procedures require and, if appropriate, follow them. Even if any allegations may appear spurious, the charity is likely to be expected to have considered them and be able to document that consideration. This will help the charity make informed decisions. Retain all relevant information and take care when creating new documents relating to the matter (in any form, including email) as these could potentially become disclosable further down the line.
Bear in mind any obligations to report incidents to insurers, the Charity Commission and other regulatory and public bodies (and consider the timing of such reports). It is sensible to review your insurance arrangements so you are aware of the available cover if needed and also so you can consider whether it is necessary to purchase further insurance to cover reputation damage and any associated PR and / or legal costs. Unless and until the charity's insurance position is confirmed, nothing should be done which may prejudice the insurer's position.
Regardless of whether proceedings may be initiated (either against the charity or by the charity), understanding any potential claim is important. Essentially, you do not want to do or say anything that may have a negative impact at a later stage - having a strategy helps with this. Even where false and/or vexatious allegations are made about the charity, careful consideration should be made before threatening or commencing formal steps such as litigation.
Asses the need for PR and legal expertise. Experts can help you respond to the situation and also help you consider any potential weaknesses which may leave the charity open to media and/or regulatory criticism and how best to defend those. While many charities will have excellent comms teams, crisis PR often requires a different skill set and external support can be hugely beneficial. Given the short timescales often involved in responding to a reputational issue or media enquiries, expert input should be considered at an early stage on contentious and sensitive matters.
Review and monitor the situation on an ongoing basis, bearing in mind all competing interests and any deadlines.
From time to time, things will undoubtedly go wrong for charities, but responding effectively can help minimise damage to reputation.