Give your communications teams 'a seat at the top table', charities told

Phil Hall, former editor of the News of the World, made the statement at Third Sector's Crisis Planning and Response Breakfast Briefing event in central London yesterday

Phil Hall
Phil Hall

Charities need to ensure their PR and communications teams have a seat at the top table, the former editor of the News of the World has said.

Speaking at Third Sector’s Crisis Planning and Response Breakfast Briefing event in central London yesterday, Phil Hall, who was editor of the now defunct newspaper from 1995 to 2000, told delegates it was vital that media teams had a strong relationship with the charity’s leadership.

Hall now runs the PR agency The PHA Group.

He said: "One of the biggest problems I have with clients is that they don’t put communications at the top table. I find it very difficult when the comms are way down the command structure of the organisation.

"And then, when the crisis comes, they aren’t able to communicate with the people at the very top in the way they should be able to because they haven’t got that relationship."

He said the communications team should have access to board meetings, and praised the RNLI for its emphasis on ensuring quick and effective communication with the chief executive when it was recently criticised on Twitter and in national media over its funding of work abroad.

Hannah Richards, head of communications at the development charity Care International UK, who also spoke at the event, said it was important that charities trusted their communications teams to make decisions.

She said she was part of a team of four people across Care International’s global operations who dealt with media on an international scale.

"What’s been really interesting from my perspective is that the group has been given the authority," she said.

Mark Flannagan, director of marketing and communications at the Alder Hey Children's NHS Foundation Trust, said press officers needed to be communicating with leadership even when there was no crisis so that the relationship was built up.

He recommended sending them regular articles that might be interesting to them and relevant to the organisation.

"The job of a press officer or a communications officer is to let the organisation know what’s going on," he said.

"You have to insert yourself into their daily consciousness, good stuff as well as bad stuff, giving them information, raising their awareness."

Sarah Miller, head of communications at NHS Clinical Commissioners and former head of press and public affairs at the Charity Commission, said that one way to make leadership see the importance of a strong communications team and crisis planning was to do a "dry run" simulating a crisis.

"If you are fortunate that you haven’t had a crisis situation and you’re not sure your trustees really grasp what’s at stake when something like that happens, think of the worst-case scenario, plan it and spring it on them," she said.

Miller said she realised it would take a lot of time and resources, but it often took only one such exercise to help get trustees on board.

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