Agony Uncle: Trevor Morris on trust in charities, comms careers and 'PR disasters'

PRWeek's Agony Uncle answers questions on how to rebuild trust in charities, whether PR is the right career and what constitutes a 'PR disaster'.

Was Pepsi's Kendall Jenner a disaster or just a PR disaster?
Was Pepsi's Kendall Jenner a disaster or just a PR disaster?

Charity begins with accountability

Q. According to the most recent Edelman barometer trust in charities is falling. Charities are undoubtedly a social good and should be lauded, not mistrusted. What can we as communicators do to reverse this decline?

A. The first thing you need to do is stop working on the assumption that all charities are good. No one would say all businesses are good, though undoubtedly business overall does good… providing jobs, life-saving drugs, paying taxes and so on.

Charities, like businesses, need to be held to account. Some are now large enterprises that try to extract money from people using techniques that corporations would blush to employ, while playing with personal data in ways that are rightly condemned. An increasing number have taken to responding to criticism like the worst kind of corporations, with evasive answers and a tone of self-righteousness. Others sound like politicians (albeit unelected), constantly demanding more money and policy change. The reality is that charities, like businesses, exist in a competitive marketplace. Just because charities are not-for-profit, this does not mean they are morally faultless.

People working in charity comms need to promote their causes effectively while keeping the organisation attuned to changing public attitudes and shifting political priorities; many of us would disapprove of at least some of the things that some charities stand for. Some charities are badly run. A few are corrupt. Others are sentimental indulgences or engage in virtue signalling. They need to be held to account, just like businesses. Comms professionals – for the sake of the generally very valuable charity sector – need to get used to it.

If the cap fits

Q. I graduated last year, since when I’ve been doing various odd jobs in PR, which I’ve quite enjoyed. I’m not really sure what I want to do with my life and fearful that I will end up working long term in PR without having given it enough thought. How can I tell if I’m right for PR?

A. PR is perfect for people who don’t know quite what they want to do with their lives – which is most people. Some know in their teens they want to be a doctor, teacher or journalist, but most don’t. You are quite enjoying PR, which is a good sign. If you get on with people, have broad interests – that is, you are a bit of a dilettante! – and don’t take yourself too seriously, you are likely to do well.

Speak out against received un-wisdom

Q. The Pepsi protest video, the United Airlines debacle, and now the McDonald's ad. Everything that ever goes wrong in business is called a ‘PR disaster’. Don’t you think this is grossly unfair because it is never the PR team that actually causes the disaster?

A. A ‘real disaster’ is when someone dies. A ‘PR disaster’ is when a company or organisation says or does something that doesn’t harm anyone, but is seen by most people as stupid or morally wrong. The Pepsi video is a classic case in point. In an ideal world, a PR person would have spoken up at some stage in the decision process and said: "Hey guys, this video might look a bit crass and bring a media shitstorm on our heads." Sadly, it is clear there were no PR people present, or they weren’t listened to, or were so junior they were frightened to speak out. This isn’t uncommon.

It can be difficult to criticise the prevailing groupthink.

Trevor Morris is the co-author of PR Today and Richmond University's professor of PR

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