4 tips to save the Red Cross from a reputational disaster

An investigative report from NPR and ProPublica has sent the aid organization scrambling to downplay its findings. Instead, the Red Cross should own up to mistakes and promise to correct them.

The American Red Cross needs to be rescued from an escalating PR disaster.

Since a scathing investigative report dropped last week from NPR and ProPublica, Red Cross executives have been trying to downplay findings that it grossly mismanaged resources during Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Isaac. Red Cross even went to another non-profit news organization, PBS, to fight the allegations and de-emphasize the reporting.

Red Cross’ PR team also posted a blog on the matter, stating, “ProPublica and NPR have been hyping their sensationalized attack on the Red Cross response to Superstorm Sandy, in distortion-filled stories that are the result of months of reporting that sought only to find negative information.”

Having dealt with both NPR and ProPublica, I am all too aware that despite being rooted in a strong sense of journalism and a reputation for balanced reporting, they have a definite bent toward advocacy journalism. These outlets take the strongest angles possible to attract an audience, and sometimes an organization in their sights will have little success getting a fair shake.

That said, there are some definite missteps being taken by Red Cross to mitigate this reputational crisis. Foremost, Red Cross is spending too much time going after the merits of the reporting. It’s a losing battle and most people will assume that the reporting is rooted in fact.

Plus, the negatives are pretty severe, highlighting mismanagement by Red Cross in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Isaac. The reporting was highlighted by internal documents from Red Cross executives, and corroborated by Red Cross volunteers.

As a PR professional, I was most dismayed by revelations that the Red Cross apparently ordered vehicles to the storms that were empty, simply as public relations ploys. Public relations should support an organization’s good works instead of covering them up or faking them.

Going forward, Red Cross can take these four definitive steps to help repair its reputation, and more importantly, help it become a more efficient disaster relief organization.

  1. Acknowledge that mistakes were made and outline exactly what went wrong. Even better, organize a review by a third party to offer the public assurance that this is being taken seriously.
  2. Make a plan to correct the mistakes. This has to be specific, addressing each issue brought up the reports. And it can even be part of the charge of the third-party review.
  3. Put the plan into place and make sure it works.
  4. Finally, Red Cross needs to embrace transparency through the entire process. This can be done through a website devoted to the plan, and regular press briefings.

The good news for the Red Cross is that most people want to see it succeed, for it to continue to provide a shining light after disasters. As Laura Howe, Red Cross’ vice president of public relations says in a response blog, “The bottom line is that Americans trust the Red Cross and should continue to do so.”

Gil Rudawsky heads up the crisis communication and issues management practice at GroundFloor Media in Denver. He is a former reporter and editor. Read his blog or contact him at grudawsky@groundfloormedia.com.

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