Enduring media scrutiny when something goes wrong is pretty high on the list of worst nightmares for any organisation. How much worse, then, when you’re a charity – an organisation set up to help people, to do good, to effortlessly occupy the moral high ground? Some of the UK’s best known charities, such as Age UK and Help for Heroes, know exactly how that feels, following allegations, relentless media coverage and confirmation that they’re being investigated by the Charity Commission.
When it comes to media coverage in the wake of actual (or alleged) wrongdoing or incompetence, charities need to be just as prepared and just as pro-active about their media activity as any profit-making corporation. More so, in fact. Charities rightly enjoy huge affection and respect for the amazing work they do and benefit from unparalleled loyalty from donors, staff and volunteers, not to mention immense gratitude from beneficiaries. So when something goes wrong, the resulting disappointment and anger can be overwhelming, making a compelling story for the media. Imagine a bank is behaving badly and a charity is behaving badly. Which of these would be considered more unexpected and, therefore, more newsworthy?
Within minutes of a negative story breaking, politicians, case studies, victims, outraged parties, experts and commentators are bound to appear online and across broadcast and social media. The intense focus of journalists can last a long time. Remember Kids Company. Ten months after the charity closed in February 2016 it was still making headlines. So it’s absolutely essential for charities, who have their precious reputation at stake and so much to lose, to eloquently and convincingly put their case in the media at the earliest opportunity. Failure to do so can lead to damaged reputations, reduced income from fundraising, bequests and grants and, most importantly, a negative effect on a charity’s good work and beneficiaries.
Here are five top tips for dealing with a media onslaught
An organisation can only build resilience if it understands its vulnerabilities, be they human (rogue staff), technological (data loss/hacking), financial (insufficient income) etc. Face your worst case scenarios. Ask the question “What if…?” and work out your strategy for responding.
2. Consider contagion
One unfortunate consequence of any charity under scrutiny by the media, is that other charities become more vulnerable because when a story takes off, journalists cast their net more widely. So, in the wake of Kids Company, interest in the governance and commercial activities of all charities (most recently Age UK and Help for Heroes) is greater. Every story like this should prompt your organisation to review its activities and media strategy.
3, Understand the broadcast media
It’s amazing how many organisations don’t understand the broadcast media, which has quite different needs, timings and content to print. Boost the knowledge and operational capability of your press and communications staff with a team session on Media Handling.
4. Make sure your spokespeople are trained
In a media storm, the person or people who are the face of your organisation are your best asset. Getting your messages across and being able to project confidence, reassurance, credibility and empathy under the onslaught of a rampant media takes skill. The good news is, these skills can be acquired with high-quality, journalist-led media training.
5. Communicate quickly
Time really is of the essence when the media comes calling. Often organisations struggle to respond and quickly become overwhelmed because they have no strategy in place. Every press office should have a rapid response plan and a crisis response team. If something goes wrong, or is alleged, don’t let hours tick by before you start to communicate – these hours will be filled by your critics. Have your messages and your spokespeople ready for action, so you can get ahead of the story via press statements, interviews and social media.