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Salvation Army mishandles Christmas toy theft scandal

Course: CDPR108, Ryerson University, Toronto
Week 12, November 29, 2012
This blog covers my weekly assignments and learning for Ryerson University’s Social Media in PR course, part of Ryerson’s well-respected public relations certificate program. Follow this blog through the fall 2012 semester as we move from A – Z in social media.

Charity’s silence over toy thefts leaves volunteers and supporters without a leg to stand on

Spokesman Maj. Don Murray offers few answers at a news conference in mid-November. (Photo Ottawa Sun, SHAWN JEFFORDS/Toronto Sun)

The day after the Salvation Army kicked off its Christmas “Fill the Kettle” campaign on Nov. 20, news of a $2 million toy theft in Toronto and missing money in Ottawa broke. Standing on a subway platform in Toronto days later, I read the ugly news that Sally Ann executive, David Rennie, had turned himself in and was charged in the theft.

The first thing I heard when I exited the subway was jingle bells. A Salvation Army volunteer stood next to the familiar Christmas kettle ringing for donations — probably oblivious to the breaking news that one of their own had pilfered Christmas donations. “Good luck with that,” I thought grimly.

The timing of this sad and Grinchy tale couldn’t be worse. You’d think the charity would swing into damage control over-drive. After reportedly declining journalists’ calls for most of a day, the organization held a press conference announcing they had known about the theft since August (?!) and said they are trying to get to the bottom of it. Strangely, there has been no visible online response amid a growing number of media stories that paint the organization in a poor light, to say the least.

On Nov. 25 (the day before Rennie turned himself in), national commander Brian Peddle tweeted good news that the toys had been recovered before his Twitter feed fell silent. As of today, neither the organization’s homepage nor the Commander’s Update has carried a response to the scandal. There is no press release on the charity’s website, despite the aforementioned press conference.

Where’s the leadership? The chair of the board? The apology for abusing donors’ trust? Where’s the promise to find out what happened and fix it?

Meanwhile, news stories, tweets, blog posts and comments from angry supporters have piled up. In response to a CTV News story about the second charge, one person commented:

“I don’t get it… [the Salvation Army] comes to the public for money & as the public I want to understand how it operates, I would like more transparency. Why do we have 2-3 years worth of toys sitting in storage & every year you come asking for tons more…?”

Bad governance can kill support for organizations that ask for peoples’ money as quickly as bad news. York University professor, Dr. Richard Leblanc, noted the lack of basic governance standards at the Salvation Army in the Governance Gateway blog. He said:

“It is unclear, judging from the Salvation Army website, whether the Governing Council of the Salvation Army has adequate independence from management or financial expertise… There is an advisory board, but there is no indication that the Salvation Army has a proper, functioning board of directors, that oversees risk and controls. Advisory committees advise, but cannot direct.”

Really – for an established organization the size of the Salvation Army? It appears there are major issues at the charity that will take time to fix. In the short term, the Salvation Army’s mishandling of the crisis (and what led up to it) tarnishes its good name and could jeopardize the organization’s holiday commitments. Even two weeks after the scandal broke, a proper and visible response is warranted.

1. Start by issuing a press release covering the basics. Make it available on the organization’s website.

  • Put someone in a position of authority in charge to be the face of this issue. Take responsibility  and show that the organization has it under control. (The lack of leadership is troubling and I wonder if there are more shoes to drop.)
  • Apologize and tell people whether the recovered toys will actually get to needy children this Christmas. People who have donated toys won’t feel so ripped off. Because this issue involves a police investigation, work with your lawyers to find something you can say.
  • Tell people what you are doing about the problem to rebuild trust.
  • Create perspective on the issue. Drive home your message about the value of the organization’s work by using all channels to show how the Salvation Army helps people in need.

2. Help your supporters help you.  Don’t forget front-line volunteers who are in malls and on street corners ringing for holiday donations. Contact them directly with information so they can answer people’s questions and are not left feeling like idiots. Reach them with e-mail, phone calls or any way possible to reassure them their work is important. They can play a big role in reassuring people that their donations make a difference to people who need them.

3.  Be the first to share developing news – whether it is good or bad. Keep your supporters and news organizations updated on the progress of the external and internal investigations with updates through press releases, website and social media channels. Taking ownership of the news shows the organization is in control of the issue.

4. Use social media channels to balance out the negative news and reach out to neutral or non-supporters. The charity has lots of social channels and clearly knows how to use them. They are pumping out good news stories about helping people in need while providing no explanation about discovering internal fraud.

Ignoring the problem on social channels creates an impression that the Salvation Army wants to sweep fraud under the rug. Communicate investigation updates. Clarify media reports. Share executive statements and status reports on whether the charity is on track to meet its commitments. Use social media to reach casual supporters who may only think about the Salvation Army at Christmas, and influence their perceptions of the charity while the crisis is happening.

5. Respond to comments, as well as the broader issue (see points 1-4). Judging from comments on Facebook and news stories, committed supporters appear to be sticking by the Sally Ann. But there are lots of negative comments floating around. So far, I’ve seen no response to social chatter from anyone at the organization. Silence gives the impression of complete disorganization and leaves supporters who care about the charity’s mission without a means to respond to critics they encounter. This is a big lost opportunity.

Are you surprised the organization appears not to have done any of these things? Tell me what you think.