Stephen Cotterill: RNLI’s handling of criticism over the summer was a masterclass in comms

08 Sep 2021 Voices

RNLI’s handling of criticism seized on a media moment, grasped the polarisation of opinion and used it to its advantage

RNLI Portrush crew member. Credit Nigel Millard.

Over the summer, the RNLI came under fire from Nigel Farage for being a “taxi service for illegal trafficking gangs”. It’s a typically ill-informed and pointlessly provocative thing to say but no doubt will have had some support from right wing nationalists. There is also a danger of comments such as these highjacking any nuanced debate about immigration, particularly in light of what is unfolding in Afghanistan.

The RNLI recognised this, and within 24 hours had rebuffed Farage’s comments by posting a video of its volunteers rescuing vulnerable people and saying that it “made no apology” for the lifesaving work that it does. In response, the general public gave more than £200,000 in one day, which is around 30 times the RNLI’s average donated income of £6,000 to £7,000 per day, and a 2,000% increase on the previous day.

Shortly after, one quick-thinking supporter created a GoFundMe fundraiser to buy a new RNLI hovercraft and name it The Flying Farage. At press time, 8,500 donors had raised £121,850, smashing the initial £100,000 target. The fundraiser’s creator did admit that it “is going to be tricky” to actually name the vessel after the former Brexit Party leader, but this is clearly stated on the GoFundMe page so no-one should be giving under any misapprehension.

I have written about the RNLI’s comms and fundraising teams previously when they defended the organisation against attacks in the tabloid press in 2019. But from a fundraising point of view, this time it was more than just coming out fighting; it seized on a media moment, grasped the polarisation of opinion and used it to its advantage. By doubling down, it galvanised its supporters to give, along with new donors who had never given before but who believe in the charity’s work (or just hate Nigel Farage). Hats off to RNLI for turning a potentially damaging scenario into one of the most successful fundraising campaigns of the summer.


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