Comic Relief not smiling over investments

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We’ve seen a big PR hic-cup, for Comic Relief today with the news that Panorama have discovered that it invests money in companies such as arms manufacturers as well as the  alcohol and tobacco industries. It’s an issue which highlights the need for Charities to understand the value of their reputation and that PR thinking has to enter every dimension of an organisation’s operation, not simply saved for its marketing output.

The revelation has attracted considerable media attention (see The Guardian, The Independent, BBC News ) most of which is critical and most of which will damage the reputation of one of the UKs most powerful charity fundraisers. Yet it seems no-one in this giant in the charity world appears to have seen this coming, despite the fact this very issue has been one which the sector has been dealing with for decades.

I personally recall discussions at one Charity I was involved with 20 years ago regarding where it’s funds should be invested and the very clear outcome being that it had to take an ethical approach if its reputation was to remain spotless. The returns might be lower than other open funds, but the risk to the relationship between the organisation and its existing and potential supporters outweighed the financial aspect.

What we understood then and what hasn’t changed today is that Charities trade on their name – how donors feel about them is essential, literally the difference between the hand going into the pocket or not. Surely someone in a charity working with projects in countries torn apart by war, providing support to people with drug and alcohol problems in the UK and schemes to support people with health issues must have seen the negative implications of being  investing in the very industries at the root of some of the issues it deals with?

The response too has been lack lustre – in an interview on the BBC the CEO of Comic Relief tried to place the blame on the Charity Commission’s guidelines on charity funds investment, clearly a prepared line to try and spread responsibility. Unfortunately the previous interviewee, a specialist in charity fund management and investment had already made it quite clear that Charities can invest in ethical schemes with lower returns when it is in line with their operational delivery.

Comic Relief are in a hole now and just about the only thing in their favour is that they have almost a year to dig themselves out before they once again ask the British public to put their hands in their pockets. By then they could have sorted out an ethical investment portfolio and/or they can hope that the public will have forgotten.

My advice would be to start shifting the money now and to do it in a very humble and public manner.

The Biter Bit

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The BBC’s Panorama programme is in a terrible tizz this week, defending its use of covert filming in North Korea and the involvement of a group of students as cover. The story seems to revolve around the issue of the consent of the students to what was happening around them and the role of their University, The London School of Economics.

I’m sure there must be many PR people quietly smiling at Panorama’s predicament having been on the receiving end of their attention in the past.

I speak here from personal experience, and whilst scadenfreud is a rather dirty thought process I can’t help feeling the biter is now being bit. My own experience of Panorams was in relation to a programme in which the organisation I was PRO for wasn’t the main focus of their story, but a key associated player. It was clear that they had decided what the story was before they gathered the information and did their filming with my organisation, and that they were quite happy to play fast and free with some of the facts to make them fit their storyline.

Both this, and much of what has emerged during the Leveson enquiry has made me question the power balance that exists between the media and the corporate bodies they report on. The public image the media like to promote is that as journalists they are the guardians of truth, that they are in some way special and that only they can be trusted to act on behalf of society as a whole.

The breakdown in media standards we have seen emerge into the public glare over recent months has tainted this image and as a result the power balance, which has in fact been heavily weighted in the media’s favour, may be shifting as the moral highground they have claimed for so long sinks to the level of any corporate body or profession trying to get along in the world.

Perhaps at the very least some journalists are now recognising that picking fault is easy – getting it right in the first place can be very very hard.

Taking the rap.

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I feel a bit bad rating the BBC’s handling of the Jimmy Saville allegations a miss – because I’ve been there and know how hard it is, as a corporate body, to take the rap for the behaviour of an individual employed by you.

Loyalty between an organisation and its staff, and staff to an organisation is a laudable trait – but it has a dark side for people working in PR tasked with protecting an organisation’s reputation.

The gradual shift of approach by the BBC in response to allegations about Jimmy Saville reflects many an organisation’s reaction to a member of staff being the focus of criticism, not about their corporate behaviour (ie their actual work on behalf of the organisation), but their personal behaviour.

The initial response is to protect the individual (in the BBC’s case an individual with a high public profile and massive public appeal who had been an employee for decades), this protection becoming more and more difficult and strained as more information emerges (as it always does in crisis situations) until they have to respond with a commitment to investigate.

Of course by then the damage has been done, the corporate body has been seen to be slow / reluctant to act and therefore becomes implicated in the story – a passive accomplice to the personal actions of the individual.

Now, clearly in the case of the BBC there are other issues – some of the allegations are said to revolve around activity carried out on BBC premises and with other BBC staff “in the know” – but the general pattern of response is a common one.

Organisations do not like to turn on their own.

Yet people who care about organisational reputation need to be able to push the pace of response, and have to be prepared to cut individuals loose early on if necessary. The truth is no organisation sets out to have staff doing the kind of things Jimmy Saville is accused of, and the organisation’s trust in him as an employee has been betrayed. In reputational terms the organisation becomes another victim.

When an allegation like the Jimmy Saville stories breaks it’s like a bottle of ink being knocked over – the stain spreads quickly and over a wide area if it isn’t blotted up at once.

What the BBC are saying now, some three to four days after the story broke, is correct – it’s a Police matter first and after they have investigated the BBC will look at their own failings. It appears as though  they have now “cut loose” Sir Jimmy.

The problem is, the stain has already spread, and there will be an awful lot of people wanting to look into a great many areas of the organisation to see how deeply tainted they are.

As always speed is of the essence in crisis comms – but it’s not just communication response time that matters in these kind of issues. It’s the will to act, and act quickly against individuals who threaten your corporate reputation, distancing the body corporate from their personal behaviour and acts that really matters.

The biter bit?

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On this morning’s “Today” programme on BBC Radio Four we had the interesting experience of hearing a seasoned broadcast journalist drop himself well and truly in it.

In an interview about the Abu Hamza extradition BBC Security Correspondent Frank Gardner dropped in to the interview  that, at the hight of Hamza’s notoriety,  he had had a conversation with The Queen in which she had commented on the fact that Hamza had not been arrested.

The moment he said it you knew the interviewer, James Naughtie would pounce – and pounce he did.

There was also a moment where, if you are a seasoned interview listener, when you could hear Frank Gardener’s mind saying “Oh no why did I say that”, as clearly the almost off the cuff comment was going to open a can of worms consisting of Royal protocol, journalistic respect of off the record and private comments.

Before the Today Programme had finished the comment was lead item in the news and only an hour or so later the BBC was back tracking with Frank Gardner, to apologise for revealing something which was not intended for public consumption.

A couple of PR lessons here. First it’s worth bearing in mind that even if you don’t expect something you say to a journalist to be published or broadcast, remember they may end up revealing it by accident – even years later. My advice has always been never say anything you wouldn’t want to see in print.

Second, it shows how even skilled, seasoned broadcast journalists can get caught out by their colleagues, particularly when they become commentators rather than reporters.

True Naughtie could have spotted the hole Gardner was digging and helped him out, but his nose for news was too strong – but Gardner could have spent more time preparing what he was going to say, just as I would advise any client going to do an interview.