What the sugar, horsemeat and doping scandals can teach charities about PR

While other sectors did not escape unscathed from their media scandals, charities can learn much from their reactions

We’ve read and heard scandalous stories of hidden sugar in food and drinks, horsemeat making its way into our food and doping scandals. Alongside these are stories of our own sector – charities being badly run, having unethical fundraising practices and paying high salaries.

The recent criticism of charities has led to tougher self-regulation and is believed to have contributed to a drop in fundraising revenue. While other sectors have not escaped unscathed, a united front, increased transparency and a reframing of the narrative has helped them weather the storm.

What’s your beef?

During the horsemeat scandal in 2013, traces of horsemeat were found in products sold in a number of UK supermarkets, including four of Tesco’s own-brand meat products. Like the charity sector, it led to a loss in profits and trust and the company introduced new safeguards. So how did the industry respond and could lessons be learned for the charity sector?

Retailers’ quick response, decisiveness and good communication with consumers helped them regain trust, says Neil Saunders, retail analyst at Conlumino, a retail research agency.

“Although financially disadvantageous, the industry knew it needed to take action and didn’t delay,” says Saunders. “It took products off the shelf. It quickly launched an investigation into supply chains and kept consumers updated. Tesco took out full-page newspaper adverts explaining to consumers what it was doing and underlined what they had done in terms of putting in safeguards to ensure standards were being upheld.”

Saunders believes this increased transparency can be applied to charities. “The public holds charities to a much higher standard than corporations,” he says. “They need to have an honest relationship with supporters and donors.

“When it comes to things like running costs, it’s very important to be clear. If something isn’t transparent it becomes a big issue. When people find out the money they donated to a charity wasn’t used for the purpose they thought it was, they feel misled.”

The importance of transparency is echoed by David Carter, director and head of issues and crisis at Ogilvy PR, who says charity operations have become a story because they’re not explained.

“With exposés, there is a sense that charities do good, but secretly they are also stockpiling money for remunerating executives and marketeers,” says Carter. “Unless the public is more aware of commercial realities, it’s more difficult for us to reconcile the money we give.

“People often see businesses that raise funds for charities as taking money from them rather than the positive commercial impact they have. Being more open, honest and educative about partnerships and how they help charities do more is important.”

Carter says charities can learn from commercial enterprises on being creative and bold in the face of criticism. “In a recent response to a sugar tax, Mars Group added to the labels of their products with a high level of unhealthy content that they are for occasional use only,” says Carter.

“It’s an incredibly clever way of showing they are eager to self regulate and prepared to take a stand apart from their own industry and take a lead.”

Be vocal about spending

While most charities would say they do a good job at demonstrating impact and talking about the positive nature of their work, Carter believes they could do more.

“Creativity gets people talking about issues in a more positive way,” says Carter. “Our relationships with consumer brands are often positive, so we are well deposed to them before a crisis happens.”

“Charity campaigns often are quite harrowing and guilt us into donating, but by focusing more on positive impact through personal and emotional success stories, it builds good will into the bank so charities are better perceived when a crisis occurs,” he adds.

The same sentiment is offered by Saunders: “Charities need to be more vocal on why they do what they do and engage people more positively. Fundraisers on the street want money without offering anything. Share a story; educate supporters on why it’s important to get the money.

“Charities should be more vocal about how they spend money. Many charities are large organisations helping people live better lives. It’s reasonable that a confident and effective person should be remunerated fairly; otherwise, you will be an ineffective organisation.”

Beat them too it

Accepting responsibility for wrongdoing quickly in a crisis situation is paramount, says Raymond Notarangelo, director of Holyrood PR, who extols tennis star Maria Sharapova’s handling of the doping scandal that threatened to end her career. Instead of waiting for the media to approach her, she held a conference and broke the news herself.

Former tennis world No1 Maria Sharapova announced that she had failed a drug test at this year’s Australian Open in a live press conference.

“Her handling of the initial announcement is a textbook object lesson in crisis PR,” says Notarangelo. “Go public to get ahead of an inflammatory issue and work fast to starve it of the oxygen of publicity as quickly as possible. Fill the vacuum and leave the media with no where else to go with the story.”

It’s fair to say charities lacked speed in responding to charges of misconduct over the last two years, resulting in a plethora of stories often limited input from the charities being criticised. Notarangelo says charities often don’t realise that their wider communications and cause marketing strategies have helped lay the groundwork by creating a network of passionate, engaged and loyal supporters, and it to these people they should turn to when in crisis.

“Listen to them. They will be vocal in telling you when your organisation is doing something wrong or that they disapprove of. That gives you a chance to squash the threat while it is small,” say Notarangelo.

“When it’s too late and the crisis is out there, they will also be the people to forgive and to spread the message, when you say a heartfelt ‘sorry’.”

A charity’s reputation is at the heart of its ability to fundraise and deliver services to those who need them. While every sector comes under criticism at one time or another, it’s the way they deal with it that decides their future.

For more news, opinions and ideas about the voluntary sector, join our community.

Olivia McGill

The GuardianTramp

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