Peter Stanford: Beware the PR offensive if you get bad publicity

All you might achieve is to remind people about what once went wrong

Peter Stanford
Peter Stanford

The chair of Butterwick Hospice Care, Judith Hunter, has been speaking of her charity "standing tall and moving forward" after its chief executive, Graham Leggatt-Chidgey, was sent to jail for four years for defrauding the organisation out of £85,000. At first glance, it seems an odd thing to say.

But I know what she was trying to get across. Butterwick Hospice Care had been through the fire, she was saying, but had now emerged on the other side, its financial systems improved and its reputation enhanced by the way in which it had worked with the authorities to tackle the crime when it was uncovered.

So far so good, but donors don’t always see it quite so logically. "That’s the charity where the chief executive was dipping into the till to fund the high life," some will say when they hear the name again. And they will keep their wallets closed.

It is the old issue of our good name. Charities – as I have said here before – are held in higher esteem by the public than most other public bodies, but that good name is not a birthright. The higher we are, the further we have to fall, and a few bad headlines take longer to fade in memories than if we were simply businesses. How then as trustees can we help a charity to recover its reputation after it has been tarnished?

Well, those at Butterwick Hospice Care seem to be on the right road. They have made plain their commitment going forward to greater transparency under a new chief executive. And you can rest assured they will be on their guard as never before when it comes to scrutinising the accounts at trustee meetings.

As charities, we are repeatedly told that we have a lot to learn from the commercial sector about how we run our organisations. Bringing a more businesslike ethos into the third sector is the rallying cry of many a social enterprise. And the business answer would be to hire someone to drum up some good PR, or invest in a change of name, or do some meeting and greeting in the local community to explain what the organisation is planning to do.

All perfectly reasonable, and all tried and trusted in the commercial world – though Cambridge Analytica’s recent last-ditch efforts to draft in the former BBC reporter Clarence Mitchell to reverse the tide of criticism it had faced over data misuse lasted only a few days before it called in the receivers.

Tread carefully

My instinct is always to tread carefully when it comes to a media offensive. In
today’s 24-hour media frenzy, the attention span of the average consumer is getting shorter and shorter. So if you stand up and start brandishing your clean pair of hands, you might just find that all you manage to achieve is to remind those who have already forgotten that the same hands were once dirty.

I’ve been working as a journalist now for 35 years, and my invariable advice when people come to me and say "we’re getting bad publicity; how do we make it stop?" is to counsel doing nothing in public. If you start giving out more details of what went wrong, it will only prolong the coverage by opening up new lines of questioning. If you offer to give an interview to explain all the positive things you are doing to put past troubles behind you, the interviewer will naturally spend more time raking over old ground.

Least said, soonest mended should be our maxim. Play to your strengths as a charity, concentrate on doing what the public likes you for doing and let the work do the talking.

Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster, and was a charity chair for more than 20 years

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