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With charities under unprecedented media interest in recent years, the consequences of not dealing with reputation matters well are myriad. Negative press coverage threatens the faith that the public have in a charity which can result in a significant downturn in donations and affect recruitment and morale. Any charity’s reputation once damaged can be difficult to restore. The resources a charity must commit to responding to media enquiries and to any regulatory inquiry can be significant and is time spent away from pursuing the objectives of the charity.
A Charity Commission report, which considered whether trustees had made decisions around public handling and reputation management appropriately, provides some guidance for other charities about how they should be handling media enquiries. It made clear that while reputation is an asset that trustees must protect, it is the long term future of the charity that is the priority. The regulator stressed the importance of a charity’s immediate media response and in particular noted that “Public and media lines must not conflict with findings of any of your internal investigations or reports.” This is no easy task for charities where matters are often complex, there can be competing interests and journalists are seeking responses within short timeframes. However, the clear message is that not dealing with allegations effectively causes immeasurable harm, which casts a long shadow over a charity’s reputation and affects not only its reputation but the reputation of the sector.
In view of the Charity Commission findings, we set out below some practical guidance for charities on how they can best prepare for and respond to media enquiries to protect their reputation and comply with regulatory requirements.
Ensure you have a rapid response crisis team in place, both internally within the charity and with external advisors who can assist in responding to the situation. Newspapers can seek responses to serious allegations within very short timeframes. It is usually necessary to respond very quickly and you will be on the back foot if you first have to search for a reputation management lawyer to instruct, which can cut into the valuable response time.
In some instances, charities do not have the right to sue and therefore the strength of any legal arguments refuting allegations could be diminished. It is important to know that from the outset.
There can be divergent interests within an organisation, particularly where the allegations concern senior management. Have clear lines of authority within the organisation about who is giving instructions.
If you have forewarning of any potentially harmful reputation matter, brief your reputation management lawyers as soon as possible. It is highly advisable to frontload any potential reputation issue by providing all relevant documentation.
Consider carefully if you have any weaknesses in your systems, structures and processes, which can leave the charity vulnerable to criticism and that you will have difficulty defending.
For example, perhaps the greatest damage to the reputation of a charity can come from allegations of sexual misconduct and it is highly advisable to obtain input from criminal, regulatory or employment lawyers at an early stage. An authoritative external investigation of a complaint, whose recommendations are implemented by the charity, can be the right response from a reputation management perspective as well as a regulatory, employment and criminal one.
While there may be a desire to protect the organisation or individuals in the short term, this omission could cause greater reputational damage and regulatory intervention in the longer term.
It is an important component of a public interest defence for newspapers that allegations are put in advance to the charity and their response included in any article. In any reputation crisis, you want to be putting out statements that cannot subsequently be contradicted. With charities, it is imperative to do so. Omissions, obfuscation and inaccuracies are likely to be subject to criticism by the regulator.
A statement that downplays an incident or the concerns of complainants will again be open to criticism. In addition to exacerbating the hurt and distress to complainants, in our experience it also raises the risk of subsequent litigation.
Allegations may be false and can sometimes be vexatious. They can derive from outside the charity from those morally, philosophically or politically opposed to a charity and who seek to involve the Charity Commission for any perceived infraction. It is important to put down a marker that the organisation will push back strongly in appropriate cases in order not to invite the repetition of such a strategy.
Similarly, charities must also show resolve where newspapers are threatening to publish false and defamatory allegations. A charity’s reputation is better protected where newspapers are provided with the true position and persuaded not to publish false and defamatory allegations rather than seeking corrections and apologies after publication.
Where the publication of false allegations strike at the heart of a charity’s reputation, litigation to restore reputation is a proportionate response.
It is important to recognise that things will sometimes go wrong but that an effective response will best protect reputation. As the Charity Commission says “An incident is less likely to damage a charity’s reputation if trustees can show that they handled it well”.
Should you have any questions, please contact a member of our team . If you require urgent advice, please call our 24 hour support line +44 (0)20 7814 1200.
Our reputation management and media team are well positioned to assist charities through a time of crisis. We regularly advise charities on all aspects of reputation management and media law, including protecting charities who have had sensitive information published in the media or elsewhere and providing reputation management advice to charities who may face serious allegations. We also have expertise in providing reputation management advice to charities who are the subject of an investigation by the Charity Commission. We can also draw on expertise from colleagues in our criminal, regulatory, public law, dispute resolution and employment teams.
Kingsley Napley LLP has extensive experience conducting internal investigations on behalf of organisations and provides a multi-disciplinary service, drawing on expertise from our employment, criminal, dispute resolution, public law, regulatory and company commercial teams. We advise on all aspects of an investigation and are well versed in liaising with the authorities to achieve the best outcome for our clients.
Helen Morris is a highly experienced media litigator who has specialised in this field since 2002. She has acted for claimants and defendants in high profile defamation, privacy and harassment cases including obtaining and resisting injunctions. Helen has provided pre and post publication advice to a broad range of clients including charities, celebrities, politicians, companies, pressure groups, regulators, newspapers and publishers. She also provides advice on data protection matters.
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