Charities must be more proactive in handling their public relations if they want to safeguard their reputations, according to Ian Bruce, founder of the Centre for Charity Effectiveness at Cass Business School.
Speaking in London last night at a Chartered Institute of Marketing event exploring non-profit PR strategy over the next five years, Bruce said PR professionals and charity leaders needed to be far more aware of issues within their charities that could pose a reputational threat if they were reported in the press.
Once potential issues were identified, he said, people within the organisation needed to be prepared to take internal criticism on board and make changes.
Bruce, a former director general of the sight-loss charity the RNIB, told the audience of mostly charity public relations employees that if he was still a charity chief executive he would want to be more proactive in his approach to PR over the next five years.
"I would be wanting to say ‘where is the next attack coming from?’" he said.
He said he would want the organisation’s PR staff to be "walking over every inch of that charity so that they knew about everything that was going on and nothing came as a surprise".
This would mean ensuring PR people built up strong relationships within the organisation and were seen as being there to help by front-line staff.
"As a PR person you are the guardian of the brand, and if you see something that’s going on you’ve got to feed that into the system in a way with which a person will not be upset," Bruce said.
He added that charities needed to encourage the same mentality as that displayed by airlines, where, he said, the attitude was that admitting a mistake would allow the organisation to put it right and prevent others from making the same one.
"It is not seen as a huge failure to admit there’s a problem," he said. "It’s seen as a heroic, proper thing to do to make the organisation more effective."
Michaela O’Brien, course leader of the MA in media, campaigning and social change at the University of Westminster, who also spoke at the event, said that in order to proactively anticipate and counter any issues that might pose a reputational risk, charities needed to be aware of anywhere where there was a failure to meet the standards expected by beneficiaries, supporters and trustees, as well as any changes to the campaigning environment.
But she also warned that success could make a charity a target for criticism.
"The thing about success is that if you do something well it can make you vulnerable," she said.
"Whenever you see a charity or social enterprise or a not-for-profit having an impact, getting some traction with the media, getting a bit of a reputation, making a difference, that success can attract attention."
Charities needed to be aware of power dynamics, she said, and non-profits that challenged power-holders risked being challenged in turn.