There’s no such thing as a blackout when it comes to bad news

Anyone who was on Twitter late last night probably had a timeline filled with #bbcblackout. Around midnight BBC Online was hit by a technical fault which took out all of its websites and its iPlayer services. Within minutes the issue was trending globally on Twitter and with no official message from the BBC conspiracy theories abounded. They ranged from the BBC’s own @peston suggesting his blogs were so dull they crashed the system to theories that Trident submarines were sparking WW3!

My point is that bad news has always travelled fast and it travels even faster these days.

Yet many charities are still so caught up in promoting good news they don’t think about planning for when things go wrong. Charities, which by their very mandate support vulnerable people and work in challenging environments, are vulnerable to risk. The good news can be amazing but the bad news has the potential to lose numerous hard won supporters and money.

As customers most of us accept that mistakes happen and things go wrong but we do like an apology and want to understand what went wrong and what happens next. Frequently it is not the problem that causes dissatisfaction but the fact we don’t get an explanation or apology. A charity’s customers are its donors, advocates and volunteers and they expect the same information when things go wrong.

It is tempting to hide a problem it is rarely the best course of action and as we saw last night the absence of fact will often lead to speculation. While the media is not generally ‘out to get’ charities it will expose those perceived to be negligent in their operations or not making best use of charitable funds. Just last month Amnesty was exposed for offering a senior staff member a significant golden handshake and the press coverage resulted in a call for a Charity Commission investigation.

Our 24 hour news environment has created a hunger for stories that has the potential to turn the smallest incidents into a big story. Social networks, discussion forums and blogs are igniting stories and then prolonging them beyond their traditional sell by date. In this context an incident has the potential to have a disproportionate impact on a charity’s reputation.

It really is in the best interest of any charity to think in advance how it will handle communications and engage with the media and social networks if and when an incident occurs. This means having your chains of communication in place, spokespeople trained and sign off protocols agreed. Thinking about the process in advance means that when the worst happens your communications teams can respond quickly and calmly.

Just don’t do what the BBC did and publish an internal memo pointing the finger of blame at a service provider! They published it on their own site so it came down pretty quickly, but not before The Guardian got hold of it and started more speculation about the breakdown of relations between the BBC and Siemans!

(For the record the website problem was solved by turning a switch off and on again!)

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