Following broader scrutiny of charities' fundraising methods in recent months, a series of articles in the Mail at the start of this month accused GoGen, which raised money for major charities including the British Red Cross, Oxfam and Cancer Research UK, of exploiting loopholes in the Telephone Preference Service, using "hounding" tactics on potential donors and other bad practice.
Two weeks later, PRWeek broke the news of GoGen's closure, with the firm saying it had been "impossible" to cope with a "reduction in business resulting from recent misleading media coverage".
In a PRWeek opinion article earlier this week entitled ‘Why silence, not fundraising tactics, sunk GoGen’, crisis comms consultant Emily Dent said the agency’s demise was "a stark reminder of the need to act fast when a crisis hits". Dent wrote that GoGen had "said nothing of any real substance" in responding to the stories, nor offered any insight into the case or the context around it.
"The media don’t stop covering a story when no comment on the facts of a case is offered; quite the reverse," she wrote, going on to say: "The only thing that would have stopped the public outcry in its tracks was a response from the company, addressing the issues head on."
Becky Slack, managing director of Slack Communications, who was taken on by GoGen on 7 July, the day the first story ran in the Mail, has responded in writing to PRWeek with three reasons why she disagrees with Dent.
The first is that GoGen was "not silent". Slack said that the Mail sent more than 48 questions to GoGen in the course of its coverage, "the majority of which were based on unfounded, inaccurate claims", and that there was intense media interest from other sources. "Everyone who asked for information received it. At no point did we ever respond with 'no comment'. We provided very clear insight into the particulars of the case," she said.
Slack's second reason is that the story also involved GoGen's clients, saying that the coverage those charities received – over which GoGen and Slack had no control – also contributed to the agency's decline when the charities immediately withdrew their custom. "We can appreciate why they did this but it doesn’t make the outcome for GoGen and its 485 employees any easier to stomach," she says.
Thirdly, Slack said the traction the coverage gained demonstrated that many members of the public and the media appeared "not to have the foggiest about how charities operate and the challenges they face when it comes to funding". She said that the story was damaging because of that "chasm" between public perceptions of charities and the reality, and that that mismatch "needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency" by the charity sector and its suppliers. "If we don’t do this then there should be no surprise when similar stories hit the headlines," she said.
Giuseppe Iantosca, the former director of GoGen, told PRWeek he agreed with Slack’s comments. "It was an incredibly busy period and every effort was made to communicate as fully as possible with staff, clients and the media," he said, going on to say that he was currently working with the administrators – who were appointed on Tuesday – to "ensure the best possible outcome for all stakeholders".
CharityComms, a membership network for charity PRs, has recently been addressing the gap between public understanding of charities and the reality with its Understanding Charities Group – which will also create an early warning system for charity PRs to alert each other when negative coverage of the sector is expected.