Ann is a co-founder of PR Academy, a leading provider of public relations and communication education. Her special areas of interest are internal communication and project communication.
Ann leads PR Academy’s CIPR internal comms certificate.
What is the right crisis communication strategy for a charity under attack? With our next CIPR Crisis Communication Diploma starting soon, it is top of mind. So I have been thinking about what went wrong for AgeUK.
It is not difficult to imagine the shock waves that must have gone through AgeUK’s headquarters following the call from the Sun on Wednesday. The Sun would have given the charity only a few hours’ notice of a major ‘expose’ of its relationship with energy giant, E.ON, accusing AgeUK of pushing ‘expensive energy deals’ to pensioners and pocketing a ‘bung’ of £6 million in the process. What happened next gives us an insight into how not to manage a crisis.
Predictably, BBC Radio Four’s flagship ‘Today’ programme decided to follow up on the story and asked AgeUK to put up a spokesperson - they refused and that was a big mistake. As Justin Webb, the ‘Today’ interviewer retorted if AgeUK really did want to be ‘transparent’ about their commercial dealings as they were saying in their statement then why were they not on the programme? However, bad the situation your organisation is facing choosing to put up a high profile spokesperson gives you a real chance to recover some credit and shape the crisis outcome.
Sir Stephen Bubb, Chief Executive of ACEVO, the charity leaders group, did bravely agree to pick up the baton for AgeUK and in the interview galloped through a range of image repair rhetorical devices, none of which worked. Firstly, he tried ‘attack the accuser’ questioning the Sun’s credibility and even raising the issue of its controversial coverage of the Hillsborough disaster over 25 years ago. This strategy is often top of the list with under-siege management teams but unless your organisation is the victim of mistaken identity (unlikely) or has really been maliciously set-up (rare) our job as PRs is to cross it off the list pretty swiftly.
Secondly, Sir Stephen tried what is known as ‘bolstering’. Again a recognised strategy whereby the crisis-hit organisation reminds its stakeholders of its past good reputation. This can work if the transgression is a minor one (but we are talking about 150,000 pensioners possibly paying over the odds for energy.) Bolstering works well as part of a contrite apology but as there wasn’t one from AgeUK it did not work this time. Thirdly and finally, Sir Stephen tried ‘transcendence’ or flipping up the issue and putting it in context. Another one worth considering as often issues that become crises appear simple but are actually much more complex and symptomatic o f a wider problem that it can be worth reminding stakeholders of. However, the bigger issue Sir Stephen chose to latch onto was that of a number of recent charity transgressions and accusing the media of putting charities in the ‘dock’ generally. All this did was remind us that the AgeUK story could be seen as one in a line of charities that had fallen short - from Kids Company to Macmillan Cancer Support, the latter being recently accused of ‘hounding their donors.’
So what should AgeUK have done? The obvious advice is to be present in your coverage. You will get credit for it. Secondly, once you have stepped up on the platform have a very clear strategic message. There are two issues: are charities right to enter into commercial agreements? There is an argument to be made that given the magnitude of the challenge for charities then it is their duty to explore such link-ups to continue their good works. Secondly, was this particular deal with E.ON really the right one? I doubt whether AgeUK had the time to fully investigate the details of the Sun piece. But saying this and explaining how they do evaluate such options carefully and how they will now have to look again would have been infinitely more successful a media strategy than hoping it would all just go away.