The effect that media coverage has on a charity's brand is an important consideration for many voluntary sector organisations. This is the the first of a monthly series of Third Sector articles looking at fluctuations in public opinion about a chosen charity – Anne Gammon from YouGov examines how perception of the RSPCA was affected by coverage of its successful private prosecution of the Heythrop Hunt. The research company will focus on a different charity each month.
YouGov’s CharityIndex questioned a representative sample of 125 different people each day over a six-week period from early December on subjects such as the charities they have talked about with friends and family and the charities they had heard of. The results were compiled to generate scores for the 'buzz' about an organisation, which takes into account the positive and negative mentions to generate a positive or negative number, and the organisation's brand value.
It is safe to say the RSPCA is entering new territory. Last month, it successfully prosecuted members of the Heythrop Hunt for fox hunting, the first such prosecution in the UK. However, there was a backlash after it emerged the RSPCA had paid £326,000 in legal costs out of its own coffers. Furthermore, the punishment for the two members of the hunt was a combined fine of less than £7,000.
Much of the subsequent media coverage was negative, with The Daily Telegraph accusing the organisation of having "badly lost its way" under the leadership of chief executive Gavin Grant, while Owen Paterson, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said the charity should be wary of mixing charity and politics. In a climate in which charitable donations are being squeezed, what impact has the RSPCA’s strident and more campaigning style had on the way the public views it, and what does this mean for the organisation’s future?
The buzz around the RSPCA
We have tracked the public’s perception of the RSPCA as part of our Charity Index. Since the start of December, the buzz around the organisation – a composite score based on the percentage balance of people who reported hearing good versus bad news about the charity – shows a clear and steady decline. The high point came on 19 December – just after the Heythrop Hunt judgment – when the RSPCA had a buzz score of 8.7. However, as information about the legal fees and subsequent media stories about the organisation came out, the buzz score declined until it reached its low point of -0.1 on 16 January.
The value of this buzz
This decline in the buzz around the RSPCA had a short-term impact on the charity’s brand value – that is, whether the public would consider donating to the charity. From a peak of 5.9 just after the ruling, the organisation’s brand value went into steady decline, reaching its lowest point of 0.3 during the first week of January. While the buzz score fell in the early weeks of 2013, the value score started to increase, but it is still significantly lower than it was early in December, before the Heythrop case. This mild improvement in value suggests that while the criticism over the case initially affected their thoughts of the RSPCA, the organisation is slowly regaining public support, even as people continue to hear bad things about the charity.
RSPCA Buzz and Value Scores, 3 December 2012-17 January 2013
What does attention do to reputation?
But has all this attention had an impact on the RSPCA’s reputation? The furore around the Heythrop judgment snowballed and over the last two weeks of 2012 the RSPCA was put under the media spotlight. We measure reputation as the balance of people that would be proud or embarrassed to work for an organisation. Our figures show that as the charity gained attention from the hunt judgment and subsequent media coverage, its reputation declined in almost equal measures. Attention increased by 9.6 points between 10 December (13.1) and 8 January (22.7) while reputation fell by 8.6 points between 14 December (19.4) and 4 January (10.8).
RSPCA Attention and Reputation Scores, 3 December 2012-17 January 2013
It remains to be seen what impact all of this will have on the public’s views of the RSPCA in the long run, especially among the charity’s key demographic groups. However, the short-term impact among women shows that for much of the time since the ruling the RSPCA has had a lower buzz score than its close competitor, the PDSA.
RSPCA and PDSA Buzz scores among females, 3 December 2012-17 January 2013
Furthermore, when it comes to those with high incomes, the PDSA’s buzz score has risen steadily while the RSPCA’s has fallen off. During this time, the papers favoured by middle England – notably The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail – started publishing unflattering articles about the organisation.
RSPCA and PDSA Buzz scores among people with high incomes, 3 December 2012-17 January 2013
One of the main criticisms among the media is that the RSPCA has used general donations to fund the Heythrop prosecution and, if the public thinks that their money is being put towards "political" causes, charitable contributions suffer. To combat this, the RSPCA has announced a separate "fighting fund" to help pay for expensive prosecutions in the future. Whether this delineation between charitable and "prosecution" donations to the RSPCA will be clear to the public remains to be seen, as does the impact this has on the perception of the organisation. Only time will tell if all publicity is good publicity for the RSPCA. However, the negative stories it has generated over the past month in the aftermath of Heythrop suggests that it isn’t.