Charities must prepare for attacks on reputation, says PR expert

Trevor Morris tells the Charity Finance Group's risk conference that charities need a crisis team and a greater awareness of the 'aggressive and fast-moving' news cycle

Trevor Morris
Trevor Morris

Charities must be prepared to face more attacks on their reputations over the coming years, delegates at the Charity Finance Group’s risk conference heard today.

In the opening session, called Risk, Reputation and Crisis, Trevor Morris, visiting professor in public relations from the University of Westminster in London, said he thought charities and NGOs were increasingly open to criticism.

Morris, former chief executive of Chime Public Relations, said: "While charities are broadly appreciated and have far more goodwill than politicians and businesses, I get a very real sense that charities and NGOs, particularly campaigning organisations, are not seen as so innocent any more. They are more open to criticism, and reputational and moral crises.

"I think attacks on charities, over the next few years, will increase because there are so many charities and because they are powerful. There has been a huge increase in charities and NGOs over recent years."

Morris said people have historically trusted charities, but he could sense a change in the media and among the "chattering classes" that meant charities were not always seen as unquestionable any more.

His advice was to prepare for "a moral crisis", in which a charity’s actions or goals are questioned in a way that might lower public trust, and also for physical crises, such as someone getting hurt at an event. 

Morris advised charities to set up a crisis team and a crisis manual, carry out staff training and to be prepared for the "an aggressive and fast-moving" news cycle.

How charities responded to crises was crucial, he said. "The public are quite tolerant, provided you have not been grossly negligent," he said.

He said in a moral crisis, it was important to deploy allies and ambassadors and address the reasonable person, rather than the "über-critic". 

"What would a neutral, reasonable person think? Those are the people you need to be addressing," he said.

"At the end of the day, a crisis can be a good thing," he said. "It can make you rethink and re-energise. A well-negotiated crisis has often led to an enhanced reputation for an organisation, so don’t be too fearful."

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