Britain's 'most colourful' charity boss should tone it down in Westminster hearing, PRs advise

Camila Batmanghelidjh, the charismatic founder of the collapsed charity Kids Company, faces a grilling from a Westminster committee hearing tomorrow - and PRs say she needs to keep calm and concentrate on facts when questioned by the MPs.

'Colourful': Batmanghelidjh pictured in 2008 (Credit: Garry Knight via flickr)
'Colourful': Batmanghelidjh pictured in 2008 (Credit: Garry Knight via flickr)

Batmanghelidjh will give evidence to the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee alongside Alan Yentob, chair of the charity, responding to a raft of questions about the administration, governance and financial management of the charity.

The Charity Commission has an open investigation into the charity that went live in August, and will be following Thursday's hearing.

A number of questions remain unanswered about the charity, which announced its closure in August, including allegations of misappropriated funds, cash handouts and a failure to handle alleged instances of sexual misconduct among the 36,000 children it has helped every year. That 36,000 figure, claimed by the charity in 2011, has also come into question.

Not 'textbook'

Vicky Browning, director of CharityComms – a membership network for comms staff working in charities – said: "I don’t think you would describe as ‘textbook’ Kids Company’s handling of the PR around its closure. Both Camila Batmanghelidjh and chair Alan Yentob have come across as reactive and defensive and their responses often seem to have raised as many questions as they’ve answered."

When Batmanghelidjh previously appeared on BBC radio and television, she played the victim card, blaming Prime Minister David Cameron and "ugly" political games.

Becky Slack, MD of charity sector PR firm Slack Communications, said this may be a case where "there is a limit as to what PR can achieve".

Slack said: "There have been so many accusations made – from sexual abuse to tax fraud – that what is needed now are the facts. If this were my brief I'd be looking to find as much evidence as possible to counter as many claims as possible, and I'd be coaching both Camila and Alan to within an inch of their lives to make sure they answered Thursday's difficult questions calmly and accurately."

Batmanghelidjh, who has won numerous awards and honours as a UK humanitarian, including Businesswoman of the Year, is often described as a 'larger than life' figure and is seen as a something of a celebrity, garnering attention and contributions from individuals including Coldplay, Richard Branson and Prince Charles.

However, her charisma could work against her on Thursday, another PR suggests.

Tone it down

Another charity sector PR, who has had experience with preparing colleagues for select committee hearings, but preferred to remain anonymous, said: "Camila is under tremendous pressure. The advice I’d give her is to confound expectations – she’s well known to people for being flamboyant, larger-than-life, but she would benefit right now from toning it down."

He said: "TV and newspaper editors will be after those stills from her in front of the Select Committee, so how she looks and behaves is at least as important as what she says. I'd be suggesting that she dress all in white or grey, something that shows things are going to be less exciting than normal."

"Combine this with some real humility about things gone wrong, along with her usual advocacy for helping vulnerable children, and she can make it that little bit harder for her detractors in the press."

Slack agreed, saying the hearing allows Batmanghelidjh and Yentob to take the spotlight off of themselves and focus on the children. Slack said: "Let's not forget that at the heart of all of this are exceptionally vulnerable children and so I'd also be looking to emphasise the great work the charity did and the impact it had on the lives of those it supported."

Browning is in agreement with Slack that Batmanghelidjh can only improve her image if they address the questions posed to them directly and carefully.

Browning said: "There’s been a distinct lack of clear messages, both in terms of rebutting negative coverage and setting out positively exactly what Kids Company did and the impact it had. I think for Thursday Camila will need to have clear and concise lines of response to the areas where she’s likely to be challenged."

Batmanghelidjh has previously received media advice from 6 Hillgrove, although this was on an ad hoc basis, with no formal arrangement.

The committee, chaired by Bernard Jenkin, the Conservative MP for Harwich and North Essex, begins its session at 9.40am on Thursday.

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