Community organisations, just like for-profit entities, must actively protect their reputation.
Not-for-profit organisations largely spend their time, and resources, “doing good”. It’s easy to think they have less of a need to invest in protecting their reputation when the public feeling toward them is generally favourable. Community organisations consistently rank higher  on reputation measures than Australian corporations, even compared with the strongest and most trusted corporate brands like Qantas.
But not-for-profits are as vulnerable as any other organisation to a reputational hit – and the very fact that the public holds them in such regard means the fall from grace can be dramatic. The financial consequences, too, can be disastrous given the dependence of community organisations on public funding, government contracts and corporate partnerships.
A look back over the last 18 months finds no shortage of non-profit organisations that have found themselves unwillingly in the spotlight, attracting negative attention from regulators, media and the general public.
One of the biggest scandals in the sector globally involved revelations that Oxfam aid workers were involved in “sex parties” with prostitutes – some of questionable age – while delivering humanitarian services in the wake of the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Oxfam appeared completely unprepared to handle the negative media, perhaps accustomed to more friendly media engagements over its many years of humanitarian work. What was never going to be a positive news story became even worse with damning media coverage drawn out over an extended period, not helped by the organisation’s initial failure to grasp the depth of public concern.
Reputational issues can arise at any time, and the exact nature will not usually be possible to predict. But if you can’t predict, you can still prepare to some extent. Not-for-profits need to be ready to manage issues quickly and effectively before they develop into a full-blown crisis.
What then can organisations do to prepare for an unexpected event that might negatively impact on their work and reputation? Here’s a start:
1. Have a Plan
Every organisation should have a simple crisis plan that sets out when it will be activated, who will be on the crisis management committee and what their roles will be; who needs to be informed and in what circumstances (eg emergency services; board; government/authorities; employees; related parties; donors; corporate partners or sponsors; sector peers); who will be the organisation spokesperson; who will hold the reins and daily operations while top leadership is managing the crisis etc.
2. Be prepared for media engagement
Ensure senior leadership and potential spokespeople understand how the media works and how they can engage with journalists most successfully. Basic media training would include an understanding of how journalists work (assume nothing is off the record unless this is agreed in advance), constraints and needs of reporters, what makes a story newsworthy, differences between different media (TV, radio, print, online, social etc), dealing with various interview techniques and challenging questions, and how to deliver key messages. Preparation and practice is key.
3. Know your stakeholders, and invest in them
This can be thought of as “reputational capital”. If an organisation has strong and trusting relationships with contractors, donors or corporate partners, it will be given more leeway to manage in a crisis – particularly if those same relationships mean the organisation is keeping stakeholders informed about what has happened and what they are doing to manage the situation and avoid similar occurrences in the future. Similarly, established relationships with journalists will assist in managing negative coverage, help ensure balance and accuracy, and give the organisation a better chance of delivering the message it wants stakeholders to hear.
Knowing your stakeholders also means understanding key risks to your organisation, their potential impact on operations and any steps you can take to manage them (a robust accountability framework, comprehensive training on safety issues, a unified vision and mission etc).
Finally, never forget the value of authenticity and of acknowledging when things have not been done as they should have been. People are generally much more prepared to forgive a mistake than a lapse of integrity. Especially if you have built your brand on having it.