Head a long way north from the Kensington offices of the Daily Mail, and you get to my home town of Darlington. Keep on going, while tacking west, and you get to Bamburgh, where the RNLI Grace Darling Museum commemorates the woman whose efforts on 7 September 1838, aged just 22, saved the lives of nine sailors from the wrecked SS Forfarshire.
Lifeboat stations around our coast have long histories of bravery. At the other end of England, in 1981, the Penlee lifeboat Solomon Browne was lost with all hands when it went to the aid of the Dublin-registered Union Star in heavy seas.
That RNLI crew are volunteers only adds to the stuff of legend. Such selflessness is generally seen as making the service, which is funded by donations, pretty much beyond reproof.
So they seem an odd target for the Daily Mail which, to the surprise of many, went for the RNLI this week.
‘The Royal National Lifeboat Institution came under fire yesterday for spending millions of pounds on projects in foreign countries – including buying burkinis for Muslim women in Africa – while slashing more than 100 jobs in the UK.’
The story, as website The Poke and others pointed out, related to the small portion of the RNLI’s income which is spent ‘on saving drowning kids abroad’.
What is the Mail playing at here? And, when it comes to communications, how well has the RNLI responded?
A few thoughts:
The Mail’s article is objectionable and verges on fictional, but I don’t think the RNLI is its real target. The paper’s editorial stance is against coastguards, and ships in general, picking up migrants in trouble at sea, which is seen as an incentive for them to try to get to Europe and the UK.
Given that, a story like this aims to make its readers feel better about such a hardline stance, and might stiffen the resolve of politicians who agree with the Mail’s editors on immigration.
Has it harmed the RNLI? The response of many, seemed good for the RNLI: ‘The @RNLI saves lives,’ ran one notable tweet, ‘My sister Dara drowned. The Achill Island lifeboat recovered her body & brought her back home to us. Giving the bereaved a body to bury saves lives in a different way…. I support & fundraise for the @RNLI. Keep doing what you’re doing #volunteers.’
The service itself was able to thank supporters for a jump in donations. ‘Thank you to everyone who has sent messages of support and made donations to us over the past 24 hours – we simply couldn’t save lives without our amazing supporters,’ its main account tweeted. The RNLI has used the controversy to point people to its ‘Saving Lives Matters’ campaign and broadcasts. While it’s early days, the RNLI seemed to end the incident on the front foot. It had to respond fast and it did.
In a crisis, though, your allies and supporters are as important as your own. They can’t be relied on in a comms crisis plan – you don’t know what they’ll say, or how they’ll act – but they are an important part of any response.
So in PR terms, did both sides ‘win’? In a rather twisted way, possibly. I don’t think the Mail was ever really targeting support for the RNLI, so is likely not bothered by the backlash against its article. Its aim was to reduce compassion.
The RNLI, for its part, has seen supporters rally to it, and possibly attracted new donors in to the bargain – people who put the odd coin in a collecting box setting up standing orders.
If you’d like advice on trying to get something good out of nasty publicity, I hope you’ll get in touch.