Andy Hillier from the Association of Chairs, shares his expertise
Harassment and bullying remain significant issues for many industries, and the charity sector is no exception. Household names such as St John Ambulance, Save the Children and Unicef have all hit the headlines over allegations of bullying.
The tide does seem to be turning, with many charities actively stepping up and putting processes and procedures in place to help ensure bullying and harassment in the workplace is wiped out. While this is encouraging, there is still much work to be done. Efforts have focused – quite rightly – on supporting those impacted by bullying issues at work and learning important lessons so that changes can be made. However, one element many charities are still unsure about, is how to protect and enhance their reputation in responding to media enquiries about allegations of bullying and harassment.
Prevention is better than cure
Sadly, a reputation that has taken years to build up can be tarnished very quickly by media reports.
Having strong anti-bullying policies in place, especially from complaints against senior managements, should help to avoid a situation where employees are subject to harassment and so also guard against any subsequent stories in the press.
It is wise to consider having a system for staff members/volunteers etc. to report complaints to an independent organisation such as ‘Tell Jane’.
In addition, it is also sensible to have a wider crisis management plan that the comms team, HR team and senior management are familiar with so that they understand the protocols to follow if any media enquiries on the topic do come in that require an immediate response.
What to do when crisis strikes?
Allegations and stories break in a wide variety of ways. Sometimes an organisation might first hear of about an allegation when they receive a call from a journalist, or the news may break on social media.
A key part of any issues management plan should also include monitoring social media channels.
However an issue comes to light, it is vital that charities remain calm and respond quickly. There may be a temptation to respond with ‘no comment’ or threaten to shut down any story by getting lawyers involved. Neither of these approaches are recommended. In the long term, they can be detrimental to an organisation’s reputation. It’s important to remember that journalists are merely doing their job and, usually, there’s nothing legally an organisation can do stop a media outlet reporting allegations of bullying and harassment, even if you believe the allegations to be unfounded.
An initial response does not necessarily need to be in-depth, but it does need to be timely. A sensible approach is to acknowledge that bullying and harassment are serious issues that can have a huge impact on employees and assure people that the organisation is taking any allegations very seriously. Try not to come across as defensive, and don’t apportion blame at this stage.
While it is common to be blindsided by an initial media enquiry, once the issue is out there, organisations should then try to get onto the front foot and be proactive. Issue regular updates on the progress of any investigation and the lessons learned and new processes put in place as a result. Offer a spokesperson for interview, although it is recommended that any spokesperson undergoes media training beforehand.
Importantly, if it becomes apparent that your organisation has made mistakes then acknowledge this and apologise! Saying sorry can go a long way to helping manage an organisation’s reputation.