Commercial tensions of ethical leadership
We live in a world of digital leakage, where no amount of security measures are effective. If the NSA fail to protect their data then what chance an NGO? How a company responds to such challenges will ultimately determine the company culture, it’s communications, and ultimately it’s bottom line. It’s one of the most significant issues facing companies and individuals concerned with social change.
Save The Children work in 120 countries with 29 national member organisations. In 2009 it had a turnover of £6.93 million, a figure that had been rising significantly, due, in no small measure, to increased corporate engagement. As reported by The Independent’s Chief Reporter the commercial tensions between the Charities mission and it’s corporate sponsorship deals have led to the PR team having to resort to reactive crisis management, to seek to limit the accrual of reputational damage. Trying to stop the perceived credibility gap from turning into a chasm, in the eyes of the public and it’s sponsors. How successful their communications team will be, at present, remains uncertain. This is one way to respond to the challenges. It’s the fall-back option. One of the last resorts a company, or charity, can take.
It’s not the only way to respond of course. The Charity could have sought to pre-empt leakage by employing better security to seek to ensure it’s data was better protected. It may already have stringent, best-practice, security measures, but that was no gilt-edged guarantee to ensure such a story didn’t break. If the National Security Agency fail to maintain security, then there is a diminished chance for other, civil society, organisations, no matter how big they are.
The other pre-emptive strategy would have entailed bold leadership, both from the communications team (And not just the manager) and the executives. To have conducted an honest assessment of how the benefits of increased income truly weigh up against the risks of public perception, and to have acted upon the assessment in a controlled manner, testing the waters prior to a full board decision.
One of the risks that executives need to consider when conducting this approach is how much can the Charity rely upon the communications team to be frank and sufficiently aware of the media risks. Much depends on the internal culture. Equally, would the Charity benefit from an outside communications company that is open enough to provide a critical and frank assessment, and would they be bold enough to accept their recommendations.
The problem Save The Children now face is how to square the circle of being seen to be insufficiently critical of their corporate energy sponsors whilst the media agenda is awash with stories of fuel poverty, and the real life stories that are, slowly, starting to accrue of how that effects people, and families with children in particular, Save The Children’s natural constituency.
Ultimately it’s a question of leadership. The tensions that will always exist, between financial income and the mission of the Charity, needs to be clearly resolved and consistently addressed at executive and board level. The likes of Save The Children, Comic Relief and Amnesty International UK will have much to ponder upon in the coming months, if not years. They need to carefully consider how open they are with the public about the compromises they have, and will be, willing to take. To communicate their considerations clearly, and trust that the level of compromise is palatable to the public. If they fail to do this then the missions of these Charities will have been undermined, which ultimately, has a negative impact upon us all.