Tim Toulmin: A PR crisis is preventable, but need not be a disaster

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Plan to prevent and to cope if the worst does happen, writes the managing director of Alder

PR crises can soon escalate
PR crises can soon escalate

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A PR crisis can damage trust, lose donors and invite political or regulatory scrutiny, and will represent a huge distraction from the main purpose of the charity. With the stakes so high, it’s no surprise that many still struggle to get their crisis responses right. Yet, with a relentless focus on prevention and planning, PR crises should at worst be perfectly manageable and at best entirely avoidable.

So what action can trustees and the executive take to minimise threats to an organisation’s reputation?

Prevention

The best sort of crisis is a non-existent one and, because trustees are responsible for the organisation’s reputation, strategy and regulatory compliance, it falls to them to take preventive action. They should:

  • Improve their understanding of the culture. Information about trends in complaints, beneficiary satisfaction rates, perception audits, insight from staff surveys,, turnover rates, exit interviews and so on will all help identify problem areas in their early stages.
  • Ensure adequate whistleblowing measures are in place. Better this than have a whistleblower go straight to the press.
  • Guard against group think. When organisations have a social purpose it can be difficult to believe that anyone "on the same team" has let the side down, but a such an approach can make for poor decision-making.
  • Ensure that the values of partners and suppliers are aligned with the charity’s, or at least are not actively in conflict.
  • Focus on governance. Do your structures help to identify difficult issues as well as support the smooth running of the organisation?

Before a crisis – plan ahead

If, despite this, a crisis does happen, having a robust plan in place is essential. The demands for information come thick and fast, but you need to show you are in control.

Your crisis communications manual will help with this by including useful information such as:

  • Checklists of activity: it’s easy to forget key things in a fast-moving situation.
  • Contact details of key people.
  • Resources you can draw on: for instance, legal and professional advisers.
  • A list of stakeholders and who is responsible for communicating with them.
  • A scenario plan including draft statements for media and social media.

You will also have:

  • Media-trained your key spokespeople.
  • Put a "people plan" in place for your internal audience.
  • Developed relationships with stakeholders such as regulators, emergency services and local authorities so that everyone is clear what to expect from one another.

During – stay in control

When bad news breaks it can feel extremely disconcerting, but the key is to stay on the front foot and communicate consistently and carefully. You can do this by following these five steps:

  1. Be visible The organisation’s leadership must step up and pledge action, even if that is just to find out what has happened and act accordingly.
  2. Be quick Even a small period of silence will be construed as incompetence or an acceptance of failure.
  3. Be human Don’t be scared to apologise – it’s the right thing to do and quickly changes the dynamic.
  4. Be realistic Don’t make assumptions, and respect the fact that at this early stage the media might know more about the matter than you do. False reassurances will aggravate the situation.
  5. Be aware Painful though it is, you must be highly alert to what is being said about you. You will need to take quick decisions about when to intervene to influence what is being said and when to let things go.

After – reflect

After a crisis is over it’s essential to reflect on what happened. A crisis can represent a powerful wake-up call that cultural change is needed. It’s a time for reflection and learning, both about the underlying causes of what happened and your response to it.

Conclusion

A PR crisis need not be a disaster. In fact, you can win plaudits for how you respond and it can help to drive necessary change. Just remember: get ready; respond; reflect!

Tim Toulmin is managing director of Alder, a management and communications consultancy that advises charities at times of crisis, uncertainty and change. A former director of the Press Complaints Commission, he is also a trustee of Stonewall and an adviser to public affairs specialist Pagefield Communications. www.alder-uk.com

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