Seeing red: Charities are not helping their cause by ducking criticism

Charities need to face up to criticism and communicate more effectively, says Russell Hargrave, media manager at NPC

The other day I went for a drink with a journalist. It was three parts social to one part work: amid grumbling about useless football teams, I chatted about projects I was working on. Some interested him, most didn’t.

So far, so normal. Then my journo friend asked: "You don’t do this job to write press releases and chat over coffee, though, right? Surely the exhilarating bit is when things go wrong?" He had a point. And it reminds me of why, sometimes, I get mad at my own side.

Like most PRs, I know that the basics – press releases and all those hours selling-in stories – require more expertise than might appear. But the real test comes when fires need putting out. When colleagues have turned pale and it’s time to manage a crisis.

The think-tank where I work examines UK charities, which have had a tough time of late. ‘The new shame’ of fundraising tactics, said the Daily Mail. ‘Charity cash could end up with terrorists’, warned The Times.  

Charities have responded poorly. Public statements have involved anaemic-sounding procedural talk about fundraising rules and regulators. Acknowledgments that things have gone wrong, couched in the language people use, have been thin on the ground.

I’ve always believed that, caught in a crisis, this is the foundation from which to build. A note of genuine empathy is the least you need. But it is seldom there.  

This isn’t just a question for charities, of course. A business caught doing wrong needs to make its PR response work for the press as well as customers and shareholders. The same is true for politicians and voters.

To be frank, the private sector and Whitehall have become good at this. They’ve had plenty of practice. Charities, with public trust more precarious and social missions increasingly important, need to step up.

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