Third sector issues: On managing risk and reputation of a brand

This morning I attended one of the many excellent brand breakfast sessions organised by Charity Comms. Today’s session, on managing risk and reputation, was led by Jill McCall, senior brand manager at Cadbury’s, and Adrian Thomas, head of external relations at the British Red Cross (who hosted the event and provided some delicious bacon rolls to boot).

Jill discussed how important it is for organisations to stay close to their product, citing the recent horse meat scandal as an example of a company that took its eye off the ball and is now suffering the repercussions. She also talked about the halo versus horns effect, the phenomenon whereby consumers (and indeed the media) are more likely to forgive indiscretions of liked and/or trusted brands and more likely to vilify those they deem unlikeable or untrustworthy.

The key take-outs of Jill’s session for charities were to:

  1. Keep product at the heart of all marketing activities
  2. Make sure you have clear brand values that are lived throughout the company
  3. Build an open and diverse culture where colleagues feel comfortable highlighting risks, rather than pressured to keep quiet

Something else Jill touched on was the importance of being open, honest and responsive, particularly in the event of a crisis situation. Richard Branson was used an example of a CEO with notable credentials for crisis management, his success lying in the fact he shows great empathy for those affected.

Adrian’s session focused on charities’ relationships with the media and the public respectively. “Brand,” he said, “is what people say about you when you’re not in the room” – a true and insightful statement, especially in the digital age where “stories travel globally in seconds.”

Adrian’s top tips on reputation management were:

  1. Rapid rebuttal of unfounded/untrue reports
  2. Demonstrate accountability – take a ‘nothing to hide’ approach
  3. Don’t get drawn into squabbles you can’t win (particularly relevant for organisations that have trouble with trolls on social media)
  4. Condemn genuinely inappropriate behaviour – take swift action

He also highlighted the importance of being responsive rather than defensive, being transparent at all times and apologising if necessary – because, as Jill mentioned, it’s the human touch that people appreciate and that are more likely to improve brand reputation.

Having worked for one of the most well-known charities in the UK for the past sixteen months I was struck (not for the first time) by the similarities of the challenges faced by large corporate organisations and large charities. In these times of austerity it seems consumers and supporters alike are, understandably, less prepared to blindly pledge their allegiance and more demanding when it comes to knowing what their favourite brands and charities really stand for.

In some ways large charities have a better time of it during tough financial periods simply by virtue of the fact they are better known, but the challenge of that is the high expectations of their supporters, not to mention the ‘corporate effect’ that Jill touched on in her presentation where they risk becoming so big that they’re no longer able to stay true to their core values – though of course size alone is not an indicator of integrity, it’s governance that ultimately determines whether an organisation adheres to its values or not.

The challenges are greater still for smaller charities like the one I’m soon to join; not only do they have to fight tooth and nail to wrestle their rightful share of the ever decreasing fundraising pot from their larger counterparts, they also have to strive (on comparatively miniscule budgets) to build their brand and keep their heads above the third sector parapet, or risk disappearing forever beneath the swirling waters within.

Challenges, then, all round, which makes the lessons learned in today’s brand breakfast all the more pertinent.

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