How the RNLI turned the tide on a national media storm

Faced with criticism in the national press over funding projects abroad, the RNLI did something unusual - it refused to apologise, and over four days its defiance transformed a wave of criticism and cancelled donations into a 'sharp rise' in income. Rebecca Cooney reports

When a journalist from The Times called the Royal National Lifeboat Institution claiming to be working on a story about the work the charity was doing abroad, strategic media engagement manager Isla Reynolds was surprised but not especially worried. The newspaper had written about the charity’s international work before, with a 2017 piece headlined "RNLI teaches youngsters on Africa’s coastlines how to swim" praising the charity’s projects in Tanzania.

However, on this occasion the journalist was also asking why the charity, which is best known for its rescue efforts in the coastal waters of the UK, had chosen to spend money on creches in Bangladesh, and the ensuing headline read: "RNLI funding burkinis for Africans while cutting jobs". Within 24 hours The Mail On Sunday had picked up the story and run a similarly negative article about its international spending, and the charity found itself in the midst of a social media maelstrom.

"Experience tells you that, once one paper has covered a story, another one probably will and, if it’s a tabloid, it’s going to be a bigger issue," Reynolds tells Third Sector, reflecting on events.

The criticism faced by charities in the national press and online in recent years has led to a depressingly familiar chain of events. After being criticised, the charity issues a statement mentioning its good work and intentions, but promising to review the situation. After a Twitter storm and further rounds of stories, the furore dies down, the charity assesses the damage and hopes it can move on.

The most striking recent example of this happened in June, when in response to online criticism from journalists the children’s charity the NSPCC cut its ties with Munroe Bergdorf, a transgender activist, just days after appointing her as an ambassador. After the initial statement, the charity refused to comment further, evidently hoping the issue would go away. The move backfired: people rallied round Bergdorf and the charity was forced to apologise.

This time, however, the story played out differently. The RNLI stoutly refused to apologise and what initially seemed like a PR disaster evolved into an outpouring of support and donations, reaffirming its position as a much-loved British institution. But how did it rescue the situation? And what made it decide not to cower in the face of media attention?

In some ways, the charity was in a strong position. For a start, it had been here before: last year it faced criticism in the Daily Mail, The Sun and on social media over its decision to sack two volunteers for keeping a pornographic mug at its Whitby lifeboat station. On that occasion it also stood its ground.

Under pressure

The RNLI is an organisation that understands working under pressure. At its headquarters in Poole, Dorset, all new staff members, whatever their position, get the chance to try out the charity’s state-of-the-art simulator, which mimics the inside of an all-weather lifeboat in rough seas.

Their ability to personalise in a crisis was bloody staggering. We have to justify our position. Stuff like this can redefine who you are

Rita Chada, chief executive, Small Charities Coalition

Crucially, what gets tested in the simulator is not just the use of equipment, but also how well crew members talk to each other when in the eye of the storm.

These communication skills were central to the charity’s response to the latest tabloid story: after the call from the MoS, Reynolds phoned the chief executive, Mark Dowie, and the international director, James Vaughan, to discuss strategy and ensure that she would be able to contact them as things unfolded. She then braced herself for the impact.

On Sunday morning, after the story broke, Reynolds contacted the charity’s duty press officer at about 8am to find out where the charity stood. It wasn’t good. "RNLI buys burkinis for Africans as it axes 100 UK jobs," the headline blared, while the story quoted the Conservative MP Nigel Evans as saying: "99 per cent of the British public giving money to them have not the faintest idea it’s being diverted to projects overseas."

The comments were coming in fast, hundreds every few seconds, Reynolds says. Twitter users were complaining that donors were being "conned", that volunteer lifesavers were being "betrayed" by the charity’s overseas spending and that RNLI management was wasting the charity’s precious funds on a "PC agenda".

It could have been enough to unsettle even a social media department as well versed in scrutiny as Reynolds’, but the statement the team devised was utterly uncompromising. At 9:35, the tweet went out.

The tweet also included a link to further information on the charity’s website.

"People need to feel like this is somebody talking to them," says Reynolds of the statement. "A woolly corporate tweet doesn’t help anybody. It’s Twitter, so you’ve only got so many characters. It’s about being really clear with people so there’s no ambiguity."

And she says that it’s easier to take a strong stance when you’re standing up for your values and haven’t done anything wrong.

Emily Rogers, chief executive of the PR specialist Uprise, says the RNLI statement made her punch the air with joy. Many charities have a tendency to go quiet when faced with attacks on social media because they worry that whatever they say will be wrong, she says. But in her experience, Twitter mobs often behave much like playground bullies and silence risks strengthening them. "If someone isn’t going to respond, you can pretty much say anything you like because you’re never going to be put back in your place, so it gets worse," she says.

Nevertheless, Reynolds was painfully aware of the risks. "It’s easy in hindsight to say it all worked out in the end," she says. "When you push that button, all your experience and skill is saying this is going to work, but it could very easily not work."

And the initial effect appeared to be negligible. On Sunday morning, Reynolds estimates, for every tweet in support of the RNLI there were about 40 criticising the charity. The most common response was from people saying they were planning to cancel donations, although it’s unclear how many of these people were donors in the first place.

Reynolds is hesitant to give figures for the cancellations. The situation is still in flux, she says, and direct debits are only part of the picture. But was the number of cancellations on the level suggested by the comments on Twitter? "No," she says, firmly.

Only the beginning

Issuing the statement was only the beginning for Reynolds and her team. As many as six people at any one time were logged on to Twitter, responding to accusations and questions. Where there were legitimate queries about international spending, they responded, saying that, yes, the charity did indeed spend money overseas and linking people to the relevant page on the charity’s website.

"We didn’t just put the tweet out and leave it," Reynolds says. "We have a responsibility to our supporters and the public to answer their questions. People see that there’s a consistent message, that you’re taking to time to answer that legitimate challenge clearly and robustly – not saying ‘you’re wrong’, but ‘here’s the information you need to make up your mind’."

And it is this, she says, this "dogged refusal" to be cowed, as much as the response, that began to turn the tide. It took, Reynolds reckons, between six and eight hours from the statement going out for the mix of responses to change. She estimates that by about 5pm the incoming tweets were 40 per cent positive to 60 per cent negative. The weekend, she says, was mostly about "just getting through it", although staff were already beginning to strategise, sharing through a WhatsApp group which responses they were finding effective.

On Monday morning, the team was back in the office. The communications and marketing teams are housed in a squat, brutalist block across the road from the college. Over the entrance, a statue of the charity’s founder, Sir William Hillary, looks towards the bay, scouring the horizon for a gathering storm. Inside the building, the communications team were doing the same thing.

"We had a 9am meeting, going over what was going on, what was working, what wasn’t, and working out what the strategy was until noon, when we had another meeting and a review," Reynolds explains. They decided to stop responding to questions that had already been answered, focusing instead on the positive comments – and, as time went on, more and more positive comments appeared.

The journalist Caitlin Moran wrote on Twitter:

Her sentiment garnered more than 23,000 likes and 6,000 retweets.

What started as a trickle became a flood. A hashtag, #RNLIdisgrace, had been started by critics, but was quickly hijacked by the charity’s supporters, who said the disgrace was actually the way the charity had been treated. And it turned out that they were willing to put their money where their mouths were.

"You’re always hoping for the tide to turn, but I think a reasonable expectation is that it quietens down and people are satisfied with your answers," Reynolds says. The idea that people would proactively defend and advocate for the charity was overwhelming, she says.

"It’s going to sound twee, but you get quite humbled by seeing that outpouring of love when you’ve just had up to 10 hours a day of being bashed over the head," she says.

People began to share personal stories of their experiences with the charity, including funny anecdotes and tales of dramatic rescues. And with the stories came the donations.

Jen Shang, director of the Institute for Philanthropy, who specialises in the psychology of giving, says people might have been prompted to donate by the sheer confidence the RNLI had demonstrated that weekend. "Its response projected professionalism, credibility and expertise in that area, so people felt they were giving to an international expert, someone with integrity that was doing good work transparently," she says. "People want to be associated with someone who is proud of what they do and who defend themselves."

Shang says the nature of the charity’s attackers might have had something to do with the wave of generosity: many of the positive comments about the charity expressed disdain for the Mail. "So-called ‘rage philanthropy’ has been suggested as one reason behind an increase in giving to some organisations in the US after Donald Trump was elected president," she says. "Planned Parenthood, for example, saw huge increases in donations – there might be some of that going on here."

Tweets and donations continued to pour in throughout the week. Stephen Fry observed:

Four days after the story broke, the worst of the storm had lifted. The good feeling towards the RNLI far outweighed the bad. The charity won itself another round of goodwill by sending handwritten cards to celebrities who had expressed their support, thanking them, which many of the celebrities duly tweeted about.

Many had taken a potential reputational risk for the charity, Reynolds says, and the cards were about offering a genuine, human response. By the end of the following week, the charity announced that it had experienced "a sharp rise" in donations.

Not just celebrities

And it wasn’t just celebrities who were offering vocal support in the face of the Twitter mob. Other charities and people within the charity sector came out in solidarity too.

Alasdair Roxborough, director of  communities and networks at Friends of the Earth, says the charity did consider the possible ramifications of publicly supporting the RNLI, but he adds: "Whatever an organisation says, there’s always a risk someone won’t agree with it, but when it’s saving lives it should be confident in standing up for that. And it was.

"We felt compelled by our values to stand up alongside the RNLI and were really quite inspired by its response."

Kirsty McNeill, director of policy and advocacy at Save the Children UK, says the charity views the RNLI as part of the same "wider movement for humanity". She adds: "Sometimes we talk about other organisations as competitors. They aren’t; they are partners. As an organisation you should be able to assume other organisations will stand with you if you’re doing the right thing."

And she says the episode illustrated something Save the Children UK has long believed: "Never bet against the British public: given the chance to do the right thing, they always will."

John Thompson, director of fundraising and recruitment services at the consultancy Changing Business, was among those to defend the RNLI on Twitter. He describes the RNLI response as "absolutely brilliant", having the sort of energy that "the sector has been lacking in the last couple of years".

The charity’s response to the crisis might have been a resounding success from a reputational point of view, but Reynolds says the long-term financial impact on the charity is more uncertain. "We saw people setting up memberships; we saw people cancelling memberships," she says. "It’s very easy to get carried away and say ‘look at all the online donations’, but the sobering thing is that one person not leaving a legacy could wipe that out."

But no one can complain they don’t know about the charity’s international work again, Reynolds says, and the fuss might have brought new, younger supporters on board, although whether they will stay with the charity remains to be seen.

She says that, aside from the strength of the statement, what she thinks made the difference in keeping the charity afloat were seemingly small, practical things. Good connections between the communications department and people at the top of the charity are vital, she says, to ensure any statement does not contradict the charity’s strategic plans.

"Stupid things are important, such as making sure the chief executive and the international director have their mobile phones on them in case you need them to sign something off,"
she says.

The devil is in the detail. One source of frustration was that she had two separate WhatsApp groups on the go to communicate with staff. Having one would have streamlined things, she says: "Little tactical things can make your life a lot easier."

As an emergency service, the RNLI is used to working out of hours. For other charities, Reynolds advises practising what would happen if a news story came up over the weekend.

"Think about preparing the organisation to deal with that and then being confident to let them get on with it," she says. "In a crisis response, physically managing this stuff is possibly harder than what you actually do. You can have a lovely statement, but if you can’t get it out there, or you can’t check it with somebody, you’re stuck."

Intense crisis

This crisis was longer and more intense than previous ones. In four days the charity received the same level of Twitter traffic it would normally expect over eight months, so resourcing became a key issue.

"Your initial reaction is to get everybody in to help, but you need to think about who’s going to be knackered on Thursday and whether you will have a fresh team," Reynolds says.

Rita Chada, chief executive of the Small Charities Coalition, says this continuous response over the three or four days was what impressed her most. "Their ability to personalise in a crisis was bloody staggering," she says. "We tend to think as charities that we shouldn’t be criticised, but I don’t think that’s really good enough. We have to justify our position. Stuff like this can make you redefine who you are and really can reinvigorate you."

Reynolds says this might actually have been one of the lasting side-effects of the whole sorry episode. "Internally, it’s really galvanised people," she says. "Funnily enough, a crisis like that can bring people together and actually make them really proud of what they do."

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