Charity leaders 'must be more visible to protect the sector's reputation'

Donald Steel, a reputation and crisis management consultant, tells the NCVO's Evolve 2014 conference that leaders who lack visibility cannot connect emotionally with the public

Donald Steel
Donald Steel

Charity leaders must be more visible in order to protect the sector’s reputation, a reputation and crisis management consultant has told the National Council for Voluntary Organisations’ Evolve 2014 conference.

Donald Steel, former chief media spokesman at the BBC, was speaking during a panel discussion called "How can charities manage their reputation in an era of scrutiny?". He said: "The future of PR isn’t in social media; there is a growing view that all reputation in the future will be built by leaders.

"Chief executives need to be very visible leaders. I do not think that chief executives in this sector are visible enough, and invisible leaders cannot connect emotionally with the public."

Being a visible leader meant being good on TV and being able to present an argument that worked at both an intellectual and an emotional level, he said.

Responding to last summer’s media coverage about chief executive salaries was a particularly tricky issue for charities to respond to, Steel said. "When people see those kinds of salary level, they don’t have an intellectual reaction – they have an emotional one," he said.

But he executive pay was one of several issues, Steel said, on which trustees, rather than the chief executive, should step up to the media plate. "I do raise my eyebrows sometimes when the chairs of charities remain silent," he said.

Given the goodwill, donations and tax breaks from which charities benefited, the voluntary sector should accept that it would be scrutinised, Steel said.

"The media loves bad news," he said. "That’s just how it operates, and there’s a side of me that thinks we shouldn’t complain if the media comes knocking at our door with some tough questions – so they should."

Other panellists rejected fears that recent bad headlines had damaged the sector. "It’s not hard to find negative headlines and you might expect that to affect public trust," said Bobby Duffy, managing director of the polling company Ipsos Mori.

But there was little evidence that this had done much harm, he said, citing evidence presented earlier this year that trust in charities had marginally improved.

Duffy said that the report on public trust and confidence by the Charity Commission and Ipsos Mori, due to be published next week, showed "the same sort of patterns" in public views of the sector.

Beth Breeze, director of the Centre for Philanthropy at the University of Kent, said: "It might look as if there is a lot of criticism out there, but there isn’t really evidence of a crisis of confidence."

Breeze said that scrutiny of the sector was new, citing the example of the Foundling Hospital in London being subject to intense criticism in the 1700s.

She said that criticism of the sector as a whole was not necessarily relevant to individual donations by individual donors. "People say to me ‘I don’t just give to charity; I give to certain charities because I know what is going on there’," she said.

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