Published: 12 June 2018

Reputation management is more than crisis response

Reputation is the watchword of charities and businesses everywhere these days. Like it or not, we live in a reputation economy, where the perceptions of other people matter hugely. But in an era when we’re being constantly judged, how can charities better protect and enhance their reputations?

Just over the past six months, there have been a whole host of reputation crises, both within the charity sector and beyond. Many have cost tens of millions of pounds to recover. That in itself is a great incentive to manage reputation positively before a crisis hits.

Therefore, multiple stakeholder opinions and expectations matter, if you are to maximise the chances of success in your charity’s mission. In our fully-connected world, employee perceptions matter just as much as those of politicians or the general public. Fail to understand and deliver against each of these different expectations, and the reputational damage can be equally profound. 

Secondly, each stakeholder creates their perceptions based on three different groupings: our behaviours, our competencies and our values. I call this the BCV framework. Simply put, behaviours are how we portray ourselves; competencies are what we’re good at; values are why we do what we do – our purpose in life.

Charities rarely struggle in communicating their values, given the life-enhancing purposes so many of them are founded on. However, if you lack a reputation for competency, such as efficient service delivery to end-users, it can cause real problems. So too can a gap in expected behaviours. Arguably, this was the epicentre of Oxfam’s reputation issues earlier this year: behavioural expectations around transparency and accountability were not matched, and the crisis spread from there.

Too often, perception beats reality. Your organisation’s reputation – your most important intangible asset – is never truly owned by you. Based on 25 years’ experience helping public, private and third sector organisations to measure and improve their reputations, here are my top tips to ensure charities actively manage their reputations:

  1. Draw up a stakeholder map. This may sound daunting, but it is just a list of those people – both inside and outside your charity – that help you achieve your goals. Examples include employees, donors, media, local communities, regulators, government and corporate partners. Each group will have different expectations of your charity; think through what these expectations are likely to be, and plan for how you can match or exceed each one.
  2. Think BCV: behaviours, competencies and values. The best organisations thrive when they do the right things, for the right reasons, and in the right way. Reputation is shaped not simply by the values and purposes charities are so great at committing to, but also by demonstrating clear, consistent competencies in the work they do and how they are run. Most importantly, consider the expected behaviours you should be demonstrating to stakeholders. How do you demonstrate ethical and fair practices? To what extent are you seen to be open and transparent? How are you demonstrating clear leadership on sensitive topics within the sector, such as marketing practices or executive pay? How does your charity stack up on BCV?
  3. Place reputation on your charity’s risk register. We’ve all seen the damage done by organisations that do not protect their reputation. You can get one step ahead by putting reputation as a risk to be considered whenever important decisions are being made. How will the decision affect your reputation? How does it meet or exceed the expectations of your stakeholders? If it’s bad news, what mitigation strategy have you got in place to ensure your reputation is protected?
  4. Plan for a crisis. Bad news travels at the speed of light these days, and without a crisis communications plan in place, most organisations struggle to ‘get ahead’ of negative news and give themselves the best chance of a speedy recovery. Think through at least five real-life scenarios and ask what systems and response mechanisms you have in place to deal with them. Examples could be an accounting scandal, a cyber-attack, senior leadership malpractice, inappropriate marketing practices or fraudulent donations. What is your communications strategy going to be in each eventuality?
  5. Create a long-term reputation strategy, not short-term PR. Organisations that communicate clear, consistent messages that meet stakeholder expectations over several years develop the strongest reputations. What are the most compelling messages you can tell your stakeholders that match the reality of your charity, not just of the cause you are fighting for? How can you communicate these messages sustainably and engagingly over the next three to five years?
  6. Measure reputation regularly and holistically. This doesn’t mean huge investment in surveys. Focus on a small number of incisive questions that get at the heart of your charity’s reputation. Once a year, engage an independent firm to understand your charity’s reputation across those stakeholders that really matter, and see if you are living up to the behaviours, competencies and values they expect from you.

Reputation management doesn’t need to be costly or overly-complicated, but it does need the commitment of the business to be proactive about meeting stakeholder expectations. Focusing on behaviours, competencies and values, aligned to your most important stakeholders will help you start prioritising reputation management before a crisis hits.

More like this
Have a look at our Best Practice Guide to handling crisis in charity communications.

Photo: taha ajmi on Unsplash


Ed Coke, founder, Repute Associates

Ed has over 25 years’ consulting experience among blue chip companies, public sector and charities. He specialises in advising clients on reputation measurement and management. Having led Millward Brown’s corporate practice and reputation institute in the UK, he knows what it takes to turn reputation data into insight, and insight into action. Ed is a regular media commentator and speaker on reputation issues.