The Commonwealth Government’s new reporting regime for NFPs and charities is scheduled to come into effect later this year. As Kristen Barry and Helen Wallace of Fourth Pillar Consulting write, the changes require fresh approaches to reputation management.
The Federal Government’s May Budget included long awaited reforms to the governance of not for profits and charities that represent something of a double-edge sword for the sector. On one hand the impending reforms will reduce red tape, cutting duplication and streamlining regulatory requirements. On the other, the sector now faces greater scrutiny, with more data to be made available to the community, creating new pressures in terms of where donor or member dollars are directed.
In its future role as the regulator of the sector, the Australian Charities and Not for Profits Commission will maintain a publicly available database that presents financial and governance data for the sector.
This development heightens the transparency required by charities and NFPs in their operations, with a flow-on effect for reputation and ultimately for donations or membership fees. In short, competition for “share of wallet”, particularly in the current economic downturn, will intensify.
Three of the Government’s stated reform objectives are to “maintain trust and confidence in the NFP sector”, to “protect against the misuse of charitable monies” and to better describe “the front line delivery of services and benefits” to the community.
It is likely that NFPs and charities that will fare best in the new world order are those that not only demonstrate best-practice governance, but are capable of communicating it effectively. Simply put, reputation management will be even more critical to building and maintaining positive links with stakeholders, whether they be donors, association members, employees or government.
Typically, reputation management encompasses building, monitoring and responding to perceptions of an organisation’s “brand”, as expressed through media and marketing activities.
During this period of change, your organisation could be well advised to make a “health check” to determine what reputational vulnerabilities exist, but just as importantly what opportunities might be uncovered.
Asking the following six questions is a good first step:
1. Stakeholder insights
Do you know the actual perceptions that key stakeholders have of your organisation, or would you be making assumptions?
If it’s guesswork, you could be missing important opportunities to build or protect your brand. That most NFPs do not have large budgets is all the more reason to prevent waste in marketing activities that are wrongly targeted or to address reputational risks earlier rather than later.
Surveying donors, sponsors or members will provide value insights that can drive more effective strategic planning and prevent issues down the track.
Stakeholder surveys need not involve a significant outlay of capital or time. With appropriate targeting and methodologies, important insights can be achieved cost effectively.
2. Value propositions
What differentiates your organisation from similar NFPs or charities?
If you cannot answer with any clarity – and if your colleagues would each give different responses to the same question – it will be more difficult to stand out from the crowd and compete effectively for share of the wallet.
Understanding key value propositions may sound basic but it is an area that organisations, even well funded ones in the private sector, can tend to neglect.
Value propositions need not be unique as such. Rather, your organisation should be clear about its niche and its particular strengths, in order to lay the foundations for a compelling narrative in the marketplace.
Achieving cut though with any message requires repetition and consistency is king. If management and employees in your organisation are all communicating the same messages about your value propositions, you can build reputation much more rapidly.
Have the nominated spokespeople in your organisation been given the training they need to be effective communicators?
Spokespeople are often so nominated simply because they have reached a certain level of seniority. Communicating on behalf of an organisation, particularly to the media, requires skills that most people don’t naturally possess without some guidance.
The reputation of many an organisation has been alternatively helped or hindered by the calibre of its spokespeople.
Issues management, key messages, interview skills, tone of voice, body language; these are all critical to making a positive impression. The good news is that media skills can be taught relatively quickly.
What reputational risks does your organisation potentially face?
Auditing for future reputational risks is an investment that every organisation should make and on a regular basis.
Again, this one might seem fairly obvious but while management teams are attuned to developing safety or financial risk management plans they are less often focussed on forward planning around reputational risks. Waiting until a media issue erupts moves it from a risk to a crisis, with much less ability to control outcomes.
Take some time with your team to draft a list of as many scenarios as possible and consider mitigation strategies for each. Also consider what actions you can take today to limit potential problems for your brand down the track.
For example, social media channels such as Facebook and Twitter are emerging as powerful communications tools but also ones fraught with risk, if a person or organisation is targeted for negative comment. Developing a better understanding of social media might be one action that your organisation commits to as part of its audit.
How disciplined is your organisation about identifying and publicising good news stories?
Just as important as protecting reputation is growing it. Mine your organisation’s achievements and success stories for potential items that can be developed into media releases, website case studies, email campaigns or social media activity.
Encouraging employees to bring positive news forward is half the journey.
The benefits of investing time and effort in promotion are two-fold. Positive coverage is the most obvious outcome but a less recognised benefit is that it will help build relationships with journalists that could be valuable in the event that your organisation does find itself with an issue to manage. The goal here is not manipulating the media, rather it is about ensuring that your organisation has journalistic relationships that will assist you to receive a fair hearing on an issue.
Do you regularly track coverage of your brand in the media?
Tracking coverage of your organisation’s brand is critical to effective reputational management but professional monitoring services can be costly.
Google has made it much easier to follow brand mentions in both traditional and online media once the required search terms are set up. In the social media sphere, a tool called Brand Watch is user friendly and will help your organisation monitor references in social media channels.
Fourth Pillar is a communications and marketing firm that specialises in the services sector. Both Kristen Barry and Helen Wallace have more than 20 years’ professional experience.