How the RNLI fought against media criticism – and won

‘With courage, nothing is impossible’ – that’s what the RNLI’s founder, Sir William Hilary said. And, while he was referring to the mortal dangers of rough seas and gale force winds, it’s certainly a sentiment that helped my team weather the recent storm over the charity’s international work.

We first knew we might have an issue when we were contacted by The Times. A few days before it had covered the news that the RNLI was facing the perfect storm of increasing demand on our rescue service and a £28 million reduction in our resources – and the possibility of redundancies. Journalists wanted to know why we were doing international work in this environment.

‘RNLI funding burkinis for Africans while cutting jobs’ was not the headline I expected from The Times, but the reaction on social media was minimal – just 11 negative tweets. But it didn’t take long for the Mail on Sunday to call. The paper edition has a circulation of just under one million and The Mail Online has over 180 million monthly browsers. We were not going to get just 11 negative tweets this time.

By 8.30am on Sunday, my duty press officer and I were watching as Twitter went bananas. A lot of the comments were outright abusive, but the main threads accused us of using money meant for the UK on international work and for hiding this fact. We needed to say something.
I’d like to say we debated what we should say, or our tone of voice. But we didn’t. Things were moving too fast and, frankly, I was quite cross. We were proud of our international work, we hadn’t hidden it from donors and I didn’t think we should apologise for sticking to our mission and trying to stop people dying – many of them children. So I wrote a punchy tweet to that effect.

Although fairly new to the RNLI, our chief executive was not afraid to take this bold approach. He and our international director agreed we needed to be clear, concise and unapologetic. We also armed our volunteers with a full Q&A so they could respond offline.

The first few hours were nerve-wracking. For all the preparation and experience involved in handling a reputational crisis, in the heat of the moment you’re never quite sure how your response will land. With up to six people responding to social media throughout the day, it took another six hours before the tide started to turn and people began to come out to defend us.

We had tweets from long-time RNLI supporters like Ben Fogle, and new ones like Stephen Fry and Neil Gaiman. By Tuesday we’d had over 150,000 tweets and #RNLI_disgrace – first set up to criticise the RNLI – had been hijacked by supporters to highlight the ‘disgraceful’ treatment of the charity. And, while we’ll probably never know the net impact on income, people certainly can’t say they don’t know that the RNLI spends less than 2% of its income on saving lives internationally.

So what have we learned? Lots. Having a well-practised out-of-hours structure and system is imperative – and I have a team willing to give up their weekends to help their on-call colleagues. I have a direct line to my chief executive and directors who provide a good balance of support and challenge, but who trust my team to do the right thing.

Making sure volunteers and staff were armed with responses increased advocacy on our behalf. But most of all, we have a clear mission as a charity that underpins what we do and we’re not afraid to stand by that.

Isla Reynolds is head of RNLI's media engagement team

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