Do not be afraid to say sorry in a crisis, says PR expert

Charities need to be human when things go wrong, Tim Toulmin told Third Sector's event on crisis planning

Tim Toulmin speaking at Third Sector’s event on crisis planning
Tim Toulmin speaking at Third Sector’s event on crisis planning

Charities should not be frightened to make a public apology if something has gone badly wrong in the organisation, a PR expert has advised.

Speaking at Third Sector's event on crisis planning yesterday, Tim Toulmin, director of the PR firm Alder, said that during a crisis a charity should be "human" and make an apology as soon as possible if the situation warranted one.

"When something has gone wrong, when someone has been inconvenienced or hurt or let down, it is just a pure human need to be apologised to," he said.

"So don’t be afraid of doing that, if that’s the case, and don’t be afraid of doing that quickly."

He said many charities were nervous that any apology for their mistakes could lead to consequences with their lawyers or insurance firms, but added that most of the time insurers and solicitors would be supportive.

Toulmin said charities should accept that, in the early stages of a crisis, the media probably knew more about the situation than the charity.

Therefore, Toulmin said, communications teams and senior staff should be aware that "any false reassurances at this point make hostages to fortune that will come back to make matters worse".

Charities must also ensure they respond to any allegations during a crisis, even if this is a holding statement while staff try to ascertain allegations put to them by journalists.

"You hardly get any time before you are defined as incompetent or complicit," Toulmin said. "In fact, silence is taken as an acceptance of the issue, even if that is totally unfair."

Also speaking at the event, Polly Kettenacker, deputy head of external affairs at the Charity Commission, said charities’ attitudes to crises could have an impact on the regulator’s response.

She said that if a charity was seen to be cooperative and trying to deal with the situation, "that will determine in part our regulatory response", and sometimes the commission’s response was prompted by concerns about the charity’s reaction to an incident, rather than the incident itself.

Kettenacker told charities to ensure they demonstrated that they recognised the gravity of an incident, and avoid putting it in the context of their other work when discussing the incident in public.

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