The charity sector found itself at the centre of an exceptional media storm in the first few months of 2018 with the President’s Club and Oxfam scandals featuring heavily in the headlines. In April, we asked journalists to share with us the advice that they would give to a charity media team on how to respond to a public crisis or scandal as part of our Journalists Attitudes and Awareness research. This blog will reflect on the key themes and insights which were shared by 144 journalists, including some verbatim comments.
It is unsurprising that transparency was one of the strongest themes to come out of the research on suggested responses to crises and scandals. With young people increasingly sidestepping charities and charity financial reporting remaining firmly under scrutiny, transparency continues to be an issue of paramount importance for the third sector.
Be up front and transparent from the start. Senior leaders must make difficult decisions early, in order not to be seen to be trying to save their jobs or those of their friends and colleagues who are guilty of misconduct or incompetence.
Journalist from The Guardian
Be as open as possible, as quickly as possible. Giving incomplete or evasive answers only antagonises those who are asking the questions and can make them less receptive to any explanations that are subsequently given. It also rarely prevents the information emerging eventually.
Journalist from the Evening Standard
A journalist from the Daily Record mentioned the charity SCIAF specifically as an organisation who they believed responded transparently to public crisis/scandal. SCIAF Director Alistair Dutton spoke out about two cases of sexual impropriety in February 2018 ‘amid scrutiny of the UK aid sector after the Oxfam sexual misconduct scandal’.
Message and Spokespeople
Numerous journalists stressed the importance of charities maintaining a ‘joined-up response’ – but just as important as the response are the people who give it. One journalist suggested that charities ensure ‘media training takes place at least once every two months throughout the year’, adding ‘don’t let CEOs persuade you they have already had it or don’t need it. It needs to be a constantly updated skill’.
Put up spokespeople regularly and often - means that the media get answers. regular access means people feel spoken to and interviews become less a build-up of resentment or a lot of questions, and more manageable in terms of content. Gives more opportunity to actually put your point across.
Journalist from Sky News
Oxfam didn't seem to have a crisis management plan. Their message needed to be more consistent rather than appearing to change under the strain of fresh allegations.
Journalist from ITV News
Get as much out there as possible to avoid being accused of changing your story or allowing media to find it out for itself and say "it has emerged" etc don’t let emotional execs give interviews. The pressure in these situations is intense and it is so easy to say something unwise…
Journalist from The Times
This BBC Newsnight interview with former Oxfam boss Dame Barbara Stocking does not make for comfortable viewing. Dame Barbara Stocking appears defensive of the much-criticised actions taken by Oxfam in 2011 to deal with the claims of sexual impropriety, only to admit under pressure from the interviewer that she ‘might now, seven years later and with hindsight, do something different, but at the time that seemed like the right thing to do to make sure that this whole thing got closed down as fast as we could possibly do it’.
The advice given in the following quote recommends a more apologetic approach, arguably similar to that of Oxfam International Executive Director Winnie Byanyima in excerpts from this Reuters TV report.
Make leading figures available for interview at the earliest opportunity, and make sure that person doesn't try to defend the indefensible. Make it appear that you are concerned, sorry and drawing up plans to fix things/make sure they never happen again.
Journalist from STV News North
Speed of Response
‘Get on the front foot’ – ‘get ahead of the curve’ – ‘own up as quickly as possible’. Closely linked with points about the consistency of messages and performance of spokespeople was ensuring the speed of response.
In May 2018, the Daily Mail published an article about the RNLI titled ‘Lifeboatman with 15 years' service is one of two sacked after their 'jokey' tea mugs showing naked women were branded a 'safeguarding risk' in case visiting school children saw them’. According to the RNLI, this article contained ‘inaccurate statements’ and ‘included comments from a small number of former crew who want[ed] to discredit the RNLI as well as unattributed quotes which [couldn’t] be verified’.
The RNLI published a public response on the same day for staff and volunteers systematically unpacking what was said in the Daily Mail article and giving ‘a more balanced account’; they also emailed all of their supporters with their ‘own account of [the] story about dismissed volunteers’. The speed and detail with which the RNLI responded to the Daily Mail’s article is commendable, and could have saved them further negative coverage.
Get your response out quickly. Full facts, full disclosure, full apology - then constant reminders that this was a "bad apple" and there is much good work being done.
Journalist from The Evening Standard
Always be on the front foot in tackling the issue.
Journalist from Metro News
Relationships with Journalists
A few journalists highlighted the importance of maintaining contact and relationships with them preceding and during potential media crises:
Find out the journalist covering the story on each publication and ring them up individually. Ask how they plan to cover the story and who else they are speaking to. Explain your case clearly and give them ample time to get your comment in - late comment often doesn't appear as prominently. Be open and honest - journalists will eventually find out if you are not being and may be less open to your side for later stories. Keep up your contact with journalists - don't wait for an emergency/crisis.
Journalist from Media Wales
Speak to journalists in confidence about how they see the story playing out. There are sympathetic ears and those journalists will have a far better insight than most charity press officers, and definitely a better insight than senior executives at charities.
Journalist from the Daily Mirror
Some journalists called for charities to invite investigation from independent organisations should a crisis occur:
Admit failures, appoint external independent reviewers to investigate impropriety. Don't threaten journalists who work to expose scandalous and often illegal behaviour.
Journalist from The Guardian
Come clean early. Full disclosure. Sense of a clear path of accountability and what will happen next. Credible, independent person to investigate why it happened and make recommendations.
Journalist from the BBC
The breadth of journalists and publications responding to our research provides invaluable insight into how charities can get on the front foot when the media blizzard strikes. Overall journalist’s advice can be summed up as:
- be prepared
- be honest
- be pro-active
- be consistent
- and be humble
But remember - whilst all of the above are key aspects of media crisis management, prevention will always be better than cure. One journalist from the BBC stressed the need for charities ‘to have governance policies in place’ to prevent crises from happening ‘in the first place’, adding that ‘when it comes to charities, the public find it harder to forgive and forget.’ The CharityComms article ‘Reputation management is more than crisis response’ lists 6 ways charities can work towards maintaining a solid reputation even in the face of adversity.
One thing is for sure - we will have another media onslaught before too long, so journalist’s advice is something that all charities would do well to take notice of.
Do you think the journalists missed anything? Please share your opinions on how charities should respond to a public crisis/scandal in the comment box below.
If you would like to find out more about our research with journalists, please download the briefing pack attached. You can also contact the research team at JAAM@nfpsynergy.net, or call us on 0759 360 8888.
 ‘Presidents Club to close down after claims of harassment at ‘hostess’ gala’, Rob Davies, Matthew Weaver and Heather Stewart, The Guardian | https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/jan/24/great-ormond-street-ret…
 ‘Timeline: Oxfam sexual exploitation scandal in Haiti’, Damien Gayle, The Guardian | https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jun/15/timeline-oxfam-sexual-exp…
 Question wording:
“What advice would you give to charity media teams on how to respond if their charity experiences a public crisis or scandal such as this?” [previous question referring to the Oxfam media crisis], nfpSynergy Journalists Attitudes and Awareness Monitor, April – May 2018
 ‘Lifeboatman with 15 years' service is one of two sacked after their 'jokey' tea mugs showing naked women were branded a 'safeguarding risk' in case visiting school children saw them’, Lara Keay, Mail Online | http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-5684991/Two-Whitby-RNLI-lifeboa…
 ‘Daily Mail response – Q&A for staff and volunteers’, RNLI | https://rnli.org/support-us/become-a-volunteer/volunteer-zone/volunteer…
 ‘RNLI emails all supporters to debunk 'one-sided' Daily Mail article’, Alice Sharman, Civil Society | https://www.civilsociety.co.uk/news/rnli-email-supporters-with-own-side…