The closure of Kids Company will leave thousands of young people without support at a time when public services are being cut. A wealth of interesting analysis has already been provided on how the financial problems of Kids Company could have been averted. But as I’ve watched the drama unfold, it has occurred to me that there is also much to learn from a PR point of view.
Both before and during this crisis, a coherent PR approach has been lacking. Could the devastating impact of closure have been averted with good PR? Financial issues have clearly been the heart of the problem, but with a strong PR plan, and with media advice and support, the furore could have been avoided, and perhaps some of the services could have continued.
A number of PR lessons can be learned by other charities from what has happened, both in how to avoid crises and how to react when in the midst of one.
First, clear messaging is key. Listening to Camila Batmanghelidjh getting hauled over the coals on the Today programme, I was struck by the absence of clear messaging and the inability to articulate fundamental points on what her charity did and what the impact of its closure would be. At any time in a charity’s journey, the ability to articulate in clear and concise messaging who you are and why you exist is essential – for raising funds, for speaking to the press and for a shared, organisation-wide understanding of what it is that you do. During a crisis this is more true than ever: clear, concise and agreed lines of response on the areas under attack will be your lifelines.
Second, it is important to know when not to react. The Daily Mail is populated with videos of Batmanghelidjh speaking through car windows to journalists, making ill-advised and seemingly nonsensical comments about the situation and claiming ignorance of the allegations. Generally speaking, no comment is better than a poorly thought-through comment; what is recorded on camera or in ink can continue to resurface and haunt you.
Third, beware the cult of personality. Kids Company and Batmanghelidjh are almost interchangeable, and the reputation of the organisation has been preceded by her fame. This has been a huge strength in the past, but has turned into a colossal weakness in recent weeks. Identifying key spokespeople within an organisation who, when fully briefed on key messages and lines, can speak instead of the chief executive or founder could have helped to mitigate this.
Fourth, there are accountability and responsibility. When in the midst of a crisis, self-victimisation is a response that will only ever garner temporary support and can quickly turn the public attitude sour. It could be argued that Batmanghelidjh is being scapegoated to some extent. But in the face of evident mismanagement and allegations of financial misconduct, accepting some responsibility is a far stronger response than decrying your opponents or claiming prejudice.
Finally, look after your stakeholders. Make sure these key relationships are strong, nurtured and, above all, informed. Your board should be the first to know about crises and the first to advise, and your investors, friends and allies should be briefed on developments and informed of the organisation’s line to the media and public. Support and coherence in messaging from these groups could be an additional lifeline.
The Kids Company closure is a terribly sad ending for an organisation that has had both a quantifiable and intangible impact on the lives of thousands of London’s young people and communities. It appears that little can be salvaged from the wreckage, but if other organisations can heed the warning and take note of the PR lessons, similar situations could be avoided in the future.
- Stuart Skinner is director of PR and business development at PHA Media