Fawcett Society's crisis is a lesson to integrate communications

Reputation, the perception of a business's trustworthiness or integrity, is increasingly important in today's world of consumer ethics.

Rebecca Scully is the managing director of Smarts PR
Rebecca Scully is the managing director of Smarts PR
A loss of reputation can and does have a marked impact on the ability of a brand or business to ‘persuade’ as well as a negative impact on sales or share price.  

The maturation of social media and the power of ‘shareable’ content has understandably seen a massive increase in charities using visual calls to action to communicate a message and raise funds.  

For example, the no-makeup selfie reportedly raised £8m for Cancer Research in six days and the ALS ice bucket challenge was powerful enough to even engender support from world leaders.  

But, as the phrase goes, with great power comes great responsibility and the question marks around the ethical production of the Fawcett Society’s ‘This is what a feminist looks like’ T-shirts is a case in point.

While the Fawcett Society has now refuted claims made by the Mail On Sunday that the T-shirts were made in a sweatshop, the correction came late and, to some degree, damage has already been done.

Reputational crises happen and to a certain extent they are inevitable. However, brands are judged by how they respond to such situations – and how quickly.

In this case, the Fawcett Society has been slow to put the record straight, which could suggest it didn’t have a close handle on the situation.  

While everyone accepts that in the real world bad things happen, all brands need robust issues management plans in place that enable them to co-ordinate an effective response at both an operational and comms level.

For charities and organisations that hang their hats on ethical standards and champion the vulnerable, and that are asking the public to join them in this commitment, this backdrop of reputational management is even more important.  

Clearly the vast majority of third sector organisations do their very best to live and breathe their ethics throughout all layers of the organisation – making sure everyone understands what the ethical commitment means and how it should underpin what they do.  

But this is not enough. Often companies have business response plans in place but don’t get comms leaders involved.  

In the case of the Fawcett Society it is looking like the supply chain processes were all in place but not visible enough with the communications team.

Most organisations are good at preparing for high likelihood, medium risk scenarios but de-emphasise the high risk, low likelihood crises, simply because they believe they will never happen.

Ideally, the Fawcett Society should have gathered supply chain information in advance and prepared draft holding and reactive statements in the event of anyone questioning its ethics.  

And let’s face it, if you’ve got politicians and celebrities wearing your T-shirt the media are certain to dig around and ask questions.  

While the preparation wouldn’t have stopped the negative headlines, it would have meant a more instant response and potentially less damage. 

However, hindsight is clearly a wonderful thing.  

What we really need to do is learn from this and similar reputational crises and understand that now more than ever before, if you are going to stick your head above the parapet it is an absolute certainty that someone, somewhere will try to take a pot shot at you – and you had better be ready.

Rebecca Scully is MD of Smarts Illuminate

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