Dealing with a crisis: How to handle the headlines

15 Mar 2018 In-depth

Charities are increasingly finding themselves in the glare of the media spotlight. Sarah Pinch offers some advice on how to respond when it’s your organisation in the news.

If I had a pound for the times I have heard clients, colleagues, friends and fellow volunteers say “Oh, it was a slow news day, that’s why we got the coverage” or “If only our press office had told them not to publish” or “this is a PR disaster”, I would be a very rich woman.

There is no such thing as a public relations disaster. No press officer paid Haitian women for sex, allegedly it was Oxfam’s country director. No media manager came up with the idea to bombard potential donors with letters and calls, that instruction came from the top of many charities. At VW it was exceptionally strategic, detailed plans that led engineers to try to ‘fix’ their emissions. And Gerald Ratner brought his own business down all by himself.

Crises generally occur in organisations because there has been a failure of governance somewhere; a failure to properly oversee the leadership, the systems or the culture.

In my experience, where I’ve seen good governance in action, every single board member understands the strategic requirements they must fulfil; in terms of fiscal and legal standards, but also having a handle on operational issues, being visible and building strong relationships inside and externally. A board with strong governance systems will not be surprised by anything that comes across the board table.

But if something does catch you unawares, it’s the quality of your governance again that will determine how it plays out. Governance is the only thing you can hold onto when the chips are down, and an issue has turned, quickly or by stealth, into a crisis. It is your port in the storm.

So how do you govern effectively when your charity hits the headlines, to minimise the damage?

Non-recent issues

If something comes to light from the past, you must ask some very hard questions. It is the role of a trustee to ask the uncomfortable questions. Do not be fobbed off; if you are given assurance that something was done, ask to see the records: you need to read it in black and white to have full assurance. If necessary, ask your audit committee to take a deep dive into the issue.

If there are no records, ask why was it not dealt with at the time? If there are records, keep asking questions: did we do everything we should have done; what would we do differently now? What must we do and what should we do? If that was me, my mother, my child, what would I want? If you can, ask those who have been wronged: what would they want you to do now?

Sorry is not the hardest word. Historic sexual abuse cases, for example, have the potential to destroy the reputations of any charity involved in the care of young people; be proactive, do not wait for the issue to become a crisis. Reputation is often the only thing keeping you afloat.

Emerging issues

Own and tell your story as it emerges. Even if you do not know all the answers, establish your organisation as the author of your story. If you do not, someone else will; social media means there are now hundreds of citizen journalists. Get on the front foot, get prepared and start being active. Issue a statement or a report that begins: “We have received a report of misconduct amongst some of our staff. These reports are of the utmost concern to us and we are investigating them immediately. We will provide regular updates.” In summary:

  • Acknowledge what has happened
  • Show concern
  • Take some action.

It’s not all about the money

Compensation has become a smokescreen for human emotion. Over the last decade, when I’ve worked with the NHS and families presented cases for compensation, in amongst the heartbreaking detail of what had gone wrong is often a desperate plea for human contact, someone to talk to, someone to listen. Systems have a vital role but hiding behind ‘computer says no’ is a disaster. Allow staff to respond with humanity.

Social media makes it worse

Social media is like having the local pub gossip, the school gate discussions and the volunteers’ tea break all broadcast live onto your desk. Listen, in the same way you would to all gossip. Ignore it at your peril but make sure you take careful decisions about when to respond and how. Some will be harmless, some will be shouted down by others, but some will stick. Social media experts can help you know the difference. But what are you saying? If you knew that your volunteers were getting worried about a change in policy, you’d write to them, or send an email; perhaps prepare a briefing for the volunteers’ team. Take the same approach with social media. Get into the conversation and ask your influencers and stakeholders to help you.

Do not bury your head

Oxfam has been doubly criticised. First, for the alleged behaviour of its staff in 2011 and for not following the necessary and appropriate procedures at the time. Second, for its attempts to cover it up. Oxfam did not inform one of its biggest funders (the UK government) at the time and its own staff were only told following the media reports. Journalists will always seek out the truth. I often ask colleagues and clients, ‘Is there anything else we should know? Tell me what is worrying you.’ Always plan for the worst and hope for the best.

When you are in the eye of the storm

Hopefully you will have made a plan in peacetime; a plan that details the different roles of both non-executives and executives and that identifies your communications leads – you will need more than one, as dealing with a crisis is exhausting and can take a real toll on individuals, so ensure your plan includes support, independent coaching, or counselling. Also, be clear on who is signing off your key internal and external communications and who are your key media spokespeople. What would you do if the chair and the chief executive are on leave? Be clear on the level of designated decision-making. Time is of the essence.

Lead and own the communication; be proactive and show that you are taking responsibility; your stakeholders and especially the media will become highly suspicious, quite rightly, of a silent organisation.

It is the role of the board to lead from the front. Be highly visible inside your organisation, and make sure your staff know first; no one wants to hear about their charity from the media, at the school gate or through their twitter feed. Remember if you get it right with your staff, they will become your advocates. Explain quickly and as plainly as you can; now is not the time to quote lots of statistics, policies or to over-complicate your message. It’s also important to give some thought to what actions you will take to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

It is vital that you keep your messages factual; never speculate, less is always more.

Being the source of the truth is vital, so ensure you have a regular communications update. Communicating regularly is vital and in each communication state when you will provide the next update; don’t overpromise, if you’ve committed to a daily update fulfil that promise. Don’t be afraid of repetition. Keep your communications channels open to listen and talk.

After the storm has passed

Make sure you undertake some evaluation. Debriefing and allowing people to talk is important. Ensure you capture what went well and what could you do better next time, and reiterate the offers of help to staff.

It may be useful for a leader to share their experience. The head of communications at Manchester Metropolitan Police said, in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, it was only when she said she’d taken up the offer of support that her team felt able to do the same.

As a board, make sure you are still visible to your staff and put in place a comprehensive action plan and supporting communications plan to rebuild trust with all of those who’ve been affected; service-users, customers, regulators, stakeholders et al.

Sarah Pinch is managing director of Pinch Point Communications and chair of the Taylor Bennett Foundation

Tips for solid foundations

Here are my ten top tips for solid foundations:

  1. Find out what people really think of you
  2. Take professional advice when you need it
  3. Get your own house in order by talking about issues and planning to avoid crises
  4. An organisation’s values and behaviours are its foundations
  5. Never underestimate the power of third-party endorsement
  6. Have a plan, that is regularly updated, reviewed and, when necessary, changed
  7. Demonstrate strong leadership and ensure and support those who have management responsibilities to fulfil those too. Look after each other
  8. The devil can be in the detail; get down into the weeds
  9. Always reflect and evaluate. Learn from what happened
  10. Speak out, communicate confidently; know your key spokespeople and provide them with media training and support.
Governance & Leadership is a bi-monthly publication which helps charity leaders and trustees on their journey from good practice to best practice. Written by leading sector experts each issue is packed with news, in-depth analysis and real-life case studies of best practice in charitable endeavour and charity governance plus advice and guidance straight from the regulator. Find more information here and subscribe today!


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