Handling a PR crisis is often uncharted territory for those working in the charity sector. Whereas commercial organisations can brush off bad press, the impact on charities is far greater. The general public expect charities to be trustworthy and responsible, which makes any kind of negative publicity more damaging than in the for-profit sector.
Most charities will suffer a PR crisis at some point. Allegations of wrongdoing, even if they are proved to be unfounded, can cause reputational damage that ultimately hits your charity’s bottom line. However, trustees can handle most crises by following these eight tips, illustrated in this short video featuring PR crisis expert Robin Swinbank:
Eight steps charity trustees should take when handling a PR crisis:
Trustees can provide valuable experience and advice during times of crisis, when the executive can get so caught up in the details of a situation that they will forget the bigger picture. Trustees are able to provide careful guidance to the executive that will keep the crisis management strategy on track and prevent matters escalating.
Offer a ‘sounding board’ for the executive
The trustees can act as a sounding board for the executive on press releases, comments to the media or proposed actions to fix the crisis. Executives need to be confident that what they are doing is the right course of action and trustees can give them this support.
Review and approve the crisis plan
Every charity in a position of trust should draft a crisis plan. It doesn’t have to be extensive – 10 steps is likely to be enough – but having a well thought-out list of actions can provide valuable guidance to an executive at a time when he or she is under intense pressure and might not be thinking clearly.
Offer the objective opinion, both to the executive and to the media
The media are likely to ask probing and difficult questions that an inexperienced executive could struggle to answer, possibly even incriminating the charity. Trustees can use their experience to handle these situations and state what the charity is doing to put matters right. By providing an objective opinion to the media, they offer a balanced view that shows the public they understand the severity of the situation and are taking action.
Act as the senior spokesperson or figurehead
Having an experienced, calm figurehead shows that the charity is in control of the situation, and trustees are the ideal people to be in this position. By appearing alongside the executive during press conferences or interviews, the charity gains credibility and gives the impression that matters are being handled properly.
Mentor the executive
The chances are that, unless the executive is very experienced, he or she won’t have handled a PR crisis before. A trustee, on the other hand, might have sat on several boards in the past and experienced similar scenarios. By mentoring the executive through the crisis, trustees can not only work with the executive to achieve the best outcome for the charity, but also share vital knowledge that could prove invaluable if a similar crisis occurs in the future.
Bring in external expertise if required
Many trustees have experience in the commercial sector, so they are likely to have a network of contacts – such as public relations consultants or solicitors – who can advise the charity during a PR crisis. Trustees will also know the right time to bring them in – something that an executive might not.
Remove or replace a dysfunctional executive
Certain crises are caused by executives and others, and aggravated by their poor handling of the situation. Trustees are in a unique position to judge when things are going wrong for the charity and step in to remove the executive before it’s too late for the charity to recover from the situation.
Robin Swinbank is managing partner of the Counsel House, an independent consultancy that supports Markel Insurance policyholders in the event of adverse press, publicity or media attention
This article is the third in a three-part series from Markel Insurance to help charities manage reputational risk in a crisis. Part one looked at ‘What is a charity crisis?’ and part two listed ’10 steps to managing a charity crisis’.