The six principles of reputation-friendly charity campaigning

Many charities agonise about their reputations. They know that some of the loudest, most effective charity campaigns go hand-in-hand with newspaper denunciations and disillusioned donor groups.

So how can they be effective and vocal campaigners without causing damage to their reputations? Well, there are six simple principles which will help charities get the best campaign results and keep their standing, too.

The first principle is that people like those people who like them. Politicians worry about whether they are liked and they instinctively prefer listening to those people who seem to like them.

The psychologist Dr Robert Cialdini wrote a book called Influence in which he tells the true story of a car salesman. The salesman sent greetings cards once a month to all of this past customers with just one sentence in them. They read: “I like you”. What do you think the result was? Well, he sold more cars than any other salesman in America. And he was recognised by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s greatest salesman.

It’s easy for campaigns to get frustrated with government policy and lash out in press releases, but often a more constructive approach is to welcome the parts of government policy that you agree with, and encourage politicians to do the right thing on the rest. Bashing the government should be a last resort, not the first tool in a charity campaign’s toolbox.

The second principle is that, early in the planning of a campaign, a charity needs to analyse the effect the campaign will have on all its major stakeholders. After all, a strong reputation is vital for helping charities to achieve their objectives – such as raising more donations, changing government policy and securing volunteers.

Will a campaign you’re proposing to do help improve your reputation with the stakeholders you care about, or will it tarnish your reputation?

Now you may say that your key stakeholders have the wrong views. That’s sometimes the case. In the case of the RSPB, they have received criticism for being in favour of wind farms. Very negative newspaper headlines have appeared, such as “RSPB gives the go-ahead to bird-killing windmills”. It would not surprise me if some individual donors – clearly a vital stakeholder group – have cancelled their direct debits as a result. But it’s worth noting that the RSPB’s turnover is higher today than it was five years ago, so it’s possible that the people who hate the RSPB’s policy aren’t donors and aren’t really part of a key stakeholder group after all.

In fact, the charity happens to be right – wind farms are good for the environment and the idea that they are especially bad for birds is wrong. Actually, modern wind turbines represent an insignificant fraction of the total number of bird deaths caused by man-made objects or activities. If critics really think this is an important worry, they should also ban the construction of new buildings, the existence of electricity pylons and they certainly they should ban all cats.

The third principle is that there needs to be a balance in the tactics used by charity campaigns. Andrew Griffin, author of a couple of major books on reputation, says that NGOs can be categorised on a scale between “shouters” at one end and “thinkers” at the other.

The shouters make a great noise, but the thinkers are easier for politicians and companies to interact with. It’s why if you’re a company that’s got some environmental problems, you’d much rather deal with the WWF than Greenpeace.

Charities will disagree on where on that spectrum a charity should place itself – but the decision will clearly affect how a charity will be perceived.

The fourth principle is that the best campaigns offer implementable, rather than ideological, policies – Ted Heath got elected on a free-market platform but achieved little, while Margaret Thatcher got elected on a similar platform but actually implemented her agenda.

The difference was that while Ted Heath had ideas, no thought had been given to how to implement them. The civil service was simply able to bring objection after objection which showed that the ideas could not be made to work.

By the time Thatcher got elected, the centre-Right in British politics had created independent think tanks which acted as detail-focused rivals to the civil service. They were able to show how ideas could be implemented in practice, with the difficult negatives already sorted out. Adam Smith Institute reports at the time looked almost identical to civil service reports – one even contained a draft act of Parliament in the back.

The fifth principle is to use spokespeople, charity ambassadors and outlets which challenge perceptions – if you’re a lobbyist for the Royal Opera House, it might be helpful if you speak in Estury English.

If you’re an environmental charity, it helps if you can put forward someone who’s been successful in business. Yet I find that some charities run away from this – they’d much rather stick to people they see as “one of us” – and stick to newspapers – such as The Guardian – and other media outlets that they see as favourable.

The sixth principle is that charities need to have a full crisis and issues management programme in place. Most crises and reputational threats are predictable – for example, a newspaper could run a campaign against your policies. An executive could steal money. You could be denounced in the House of Commons. Meanwhile, organisations frequently have things in their past that they would rather not go into and which don’t represent the general reality of who they are. Disclosure of these can all be prepared for, and the most effective organisations at dealing with a media crisis are those that role-play crisis scenarios.

Alex Singleton is Associate Director at The Whitehouse Consultancy and author of The PR Masterclass (published by Wiley)