Charities, like any other organisation, can find themselves in the middle of a public relations nightmare. It could be a scandal involving a high-profile figure, financial mismanagement, or a poorly executed campaign. Whatever the reason, when a charity faces negative publicity or public backlash, it is important to respond in a way that is both effective and ethical.
Public opinion can even make it difficult for some charities to operate. For example, the media has stirred up a lot of distrust and misinformation about refugees and migrants coming to the UK. From my connections with a charity that works closely with them when they arrive here, I know that the organisation has received a severe lack of ‘buy-in’ from donors and volunteers, as well as a measure of animosity and negativity from their local community.
The following are some tips on how charities can handle bad PR and/or a public backlash:
Acknowledge the problem
The first step in handling bad PR is to acknowledge that there’s a problem in the first place. This means being open and transparent about what has happened and what steps are being taken to address the issue. Hiding from the situation or pretending that it didn’t occur will only make the situation worse. Acknowledgment, then taking responsibility for it, are the first steps to regain public trust.
Respond quickly and effectively
When facing negative publicity, it’s important to respond quickly, but not so quickly that you don’t think through your response. It’s a good idea to have a plan in place for handling negative situations. Think about all the things that could go wrong or be misconstrued as you go about your work and tailor hypothetical responses to hypothetical fallout.
Though problems, if and when they arise, may be slightly different to those you’ve forecast, at least you will have a rough idea of what needs to be said and done in response.
Your plan should include a chain of command, and the nomination of who will be responsible for responding to media enquiries, social media posts, and other forms of communication. The charity should also be prepared to provide regular, accurate updates as the mop up continues.
Apologise if necessary
If the charity has done something wrong or has been involved in a scandal, it’s important to apologise and not just skate over the issue. A sincere apology can go a long way in helping to restore the public's trust. The apology should be heartfelt and it should take responsibility for the situation, as well as provide some transparency with regards to the steps that are being taken to prevent a repeat occurrence.
Take corrective action
It’s imperative that you identify the root cause of the problem and take steps to fix it, however uncomfortable these may be. This might involve firing employees, rewriting policies, or making changes to programmes and campaigns.
Use social media wisely
Social media can be a powerful tool for charities, but it can also be a double-edged sword at times. When a charity faces negativity, it’s important to use social media wisely. This means avoiding the temptation to engage in arguments or responding to negative comments. Don’t try and explain or engage with people who only want an outlet for their vitriol; it will backfire!
Engage with stakeholders
In such a situation, it’s also imperative that you engage with your organisation’s stakeholders. This means reaching out to your trustees, donors, volunteers, and other supporters, to explain what has happened and how you’re rectifying things.
Learn from the experience—when the dust has settled, it’s a good idea to conduct a thorough review of what happened and identify any vulnerabilities. The charity should also be open to feedback and suggestions from its stakeholders on how to improve its operations to prevent similar occurrences.
It's rare for small charities to render the wrath of the country; however, it only needs a few negative Nancys, militant keyboard warriors and/or bad-mouthing amongst locals to damage the reputation of your organisation within your community.
Everyone makes mistakes, and charitable organisations are not immune to them. How you acknowledge and address a problem could actually work in your favour, if people are able to judge for themselves that you’ve handled the situation well.