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.

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Basil Clarke – a PR hero for our time

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It’s not often a new hero comes along, still yet one who was working on reputation management almost a century ago.

This PR Week article about Basil Clarke was a revelation and I can’t wait to read more about this remarkable man.

Almost a century ago Clarke was developing a way of working which would put many of today’s practitioners to shame. His ethical approach was not driven by codes of conduct or the risk of bad press in the trade media, but on a strong and practical understanding of what was right.

I try to impress on students that working ethically is not an altruistic choice – there are strong business reasons for working in a way which considers the needs of others. Clarke knew that his business relied on relationships and trust and the examples given in the PR week article show him to be a man of great vision and understanding.

Some of this, no doubt came from his experiences in the First World war and the picture of him is one in Uniform – to come through the carnage of the trenches must have made many men question the values of the society in which they lived, yet Clarke shows a down to earth understanding of fairness and honesty in business which many today fail to understand.

We can learn a great deal from men such as Clarke.

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.

Hats off to Hacked Off

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The Hacked Off Campaign, set up to draw attention to press excesses and call for a new way of regulating the newspapers, seems to have pulled off a significant coup with its campaign for greater accountability for journalists in the written media in Britain.

It’s been announced today that all the three main parliamentary parties have finally agreed a way forward establishing a new, more robust approach to press regulation (see here BBC report) and that the main thrust of the Leveson Inquiry may become a reality.

Whether the agreed way forward gets implemented is still up for question as the media are likely to fight tooth and nail for weaker oversight (much as they have now with the in-house, Press Complaints Commission which has been described as as much use as a one legged man in a backside kicking competition), however in the light of their recent activity, with more revelations still coming out about their lack of ethics in news gathering, the tide of public opinion is very much against them.

In my training I work with people ranging from business executives to academics and charity workers – I have yet to come across anyone attending my workshops who comes with anything better than a jaundiced view of journalists and what to expect from them. Indeed many come with downright hostility and suspicion. Truthful and honest reporting of the facts is rarely at the top of their expectations and it would be a salutary experience I’m sure for journalists to attend one of my sessions to see how low their reputation lies with ordinary people. So significant is this, that perhaps 30% of the work I do to help organisations work with the media is focussed on building some understanding and sympathy for the way journalists work to reduce the fear and suspicion people have of them.

The problem for most journalists (who do act fairly and ethically) is they fail to understand that the extent to which the excessive behaviour of some of their brethren has tainted the whole profession, and that the only way to regain public confidence is to clearly demonstrate that decency, truth and honesty are at the heart of their trade. Having a robust regulator is one way to reassure the public that the beast can be domesticated. But the profession has to accept that it also has to embrace these changes and adopt a more ethical approach to news gathering if it is to regain public confidence.

The truth is, straightforward honest journalists, even investigative journalists, have nothing to fear from tighter regulation and everything to gain – because once again their readers will have faith in what has been written, rather than viewing everything with cynicism.

So hats off to Hacked off – not only have they done all those who have ben abused by journalistic excess  a huge service, but they may well have done journalism itself a favour too by forcing the first steps towards it regaining public trust and support.

No hacking at BBC

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The Leveson Inquiry into media ethics and intrusions into privacy has heard today from the Director General of the BBC, Mark Thompson, that when the hacking of mobile phones become known at the News of The World he immediately ordered a review to establish whether this had been the case at the BBC too.

No doubt many BBC journalists were upset to be put under the spotlight like this by management – they value their journalistic integrity extremely highly – but the Director General was right.

There are times when even the most obvious fact needs pointing out and in this case it was essential to show the BBC holds the high ground and that it could prove it’s house was in order – and to show all this BEFORE it was asked.

As my favorite quote on PR by John Rockefeller says “Next to doing the right thing, the most important thing is to let people know you are doing the right thing”.