215: Reputation above all else?
The publication of the International Development Select Committee report into ‘sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector’ suggested that there had been ‘more concern for reputations than victims’. This approach from organisations is not just wrong but also inflicts more reputational damage. Sometimes organisations need to inflict early reputational damage on themselves if they are to deal with the issue.
The report from the Select Committee is detailed and comprehensive and is pretty damning not just of the behaviour of government and the UN but of the charities involved as well. As is always the case with Select Committee reports, they make a number of detailed recommendations which have been largely welcomed by many of those involved. The report provides context of the scale of the abuse problem and multiple failures by the charities, government agencies and the UN among others. It also suggests the protection of reputations meant that initial investigations were not as open or thorough as they may be now.
The issues had been highlighted before but they can sometimes take on a new head of steam, as they did in this case. There is no doubt that charity trustees have to search for the right balance in taking action but if it has been covered before and nothing was done to address it then there is no excuse. This issue had been raised before but in a, rightly, very different social climate, the story took on extra resonance. Behaviour and actions that may have been deemed acceptable at one time, may no longer be. In the case of this abuse though, that was never acceptable even it is appears that it was commonly known about.
Sometimes organisations need to be brave and take a lead. That is not without its risks but could, if handled well, offer some potential advantages. This may sound slightly callous and I do not mean it to be but an organisation can gain credibility and attention if they are the ones to finally take action especially if this is exactly in line with their ethics and expectations of behaviour.
I do not intend to go through the report in detail here but instead wanted to provide some guidance on the communications and reputation issues that organisations need to consider when faced with a potential issue.
- Does it pass the family test? If you had to explain the behaviour and your proposed response to a family member, how would they react? That should be a pretty good indication of what the general public will think once they hear about it.
- Short term hit or long term damage? Accepting that change is needed and action has to be taken may inflict some short-term reputational damage. If that is the case then you need to have a plan in place not just to explain your actions but also to rebuild trust. That can be a difficult decision to make but storing up the problem will only make it worse. Not taking action also means that, in effect, it has been covered-up or will be seen as such. The impact of a cover-up is always more damaging.
- How will others react? In deciding what to do also think about how your audiences will react but, again, think over time as well. Charities may think about an immediate impact on fund-raising from taking action but will that be made worse by the decisions taken now? Is it storing up a bigger problem for the future?
- Are others likely to be involved? In the case of the abuse it appears that it was an open secret in the sector so other organisations were involved as well. It may be that you do not have any semblance of control and if others are involved then the cumulative impact could be even greater. That was certainly the case here.
- Are you thinking only on a case-by-case basis? As the Select Committee highlighted in its report, some of the issues were reacted to individually ‘without the sustained momentum needed to bring about change’. This could mean that an organisations acts too reactively and fails to see the bigger picture or the potentially more effective longer term fix.
- Is change only a media statement? The Select Committee notes a failure to implement change at a local / frontline level. This reflects a common failure of promising change which is never delivered. That can happen because the culture of an organisation does not reflect the new approach and policies. In this case, the Committee identified a ‘macho’ culture or a ‘boys club’ atmosphere which obviously requires radical change. Reputation management isn’t just about the immediate media onslaught that may come but how problems are dealt with over a period of time and involving all parts of the organisation.
The issue of what constitutes a crisis is often raised. The answer can vary between organisations and can have many factors from the size of the organisation, through to the individuals involved or critically the impact on day-to-day operations. But it can also mean setting the issue in the wider political and regulatory environment as well as societal expectations. These all change over time so what makes a crisis now may not have made a crisis before. Decisions that seem sensible in one era, could appear foolish at a later date.
An organisation controls its values and culture and how these are implemented across it behaviours, services, approach, policies etc. But often past decisions are not considered in this context and they need to be. It is always useful to take a moment to look backwards as well as forwards.
Transparency will be enforced if voluntary action is not taken. The media, in all its forms, is unforgiving and if there are hints that organisations knew what was happening but did nothing to stop it then the damage will be worse. The idea that things can be ‘kept quiet’ is old-fashioned and does not reflect the power now in hands of individuals.