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What happens when your audience’s needs aren’t at the centre of your thinking?


I will never stop believing, or probably saying that, whichever audience(s) we serve as organisations, their needs should underpin our thinking and actions.  That’s not to say that we shouldn’t seek to achieve our own objectives – of course we should.  The customer / supporter / volunteer is not always right and we have our own targets to meet.

What it does mean is that we must find ways to get what we want from the relationships with our target audiences by delivering what they need and expect from us.  This isn’t mercenary, it’s how it works across every sector and at every level from 1:1 relationships right up to international cooperation.

I was therefore interested to read the story this week of a Blackpool hospice which had spent £50,000 of its general funds on artwork for a new chapel.  A vociferous group of its supporters took umbrage at hard-earned funds being spent this way and complained directly to the Charity Commission.  A Facebook page was also set up to show their displeasure and attracted 170 members (as at 24/02/10).

The hospice isn’t the first charity to make a well-intentioned investment on behalf of its beneficiaries that wasn’t well-received by those beneficiaries.  And it won’t be the last.  And businesses can fall foul just as easily, in case you think this is a not-for-profit issue.  The key point is that the ensuing media coverage, uncomfortable conversations (or egg-on-face) and impact on fundraising could have been avoided if the decision-makers were armed with real-world knowledge about what their target audiences expect and need.

I don’t wish to sound like a broken record but as insiders, it really isn’t our opinion that counts.  If we don’t know what our audiences want, how can we hope to successfully achieve our objectives by delivering it?

At some point this kind of event will happen to many organisations so here are a few thoughts on what to do to avoid, prepare and ideally circumvent any problems:

  • Base decisions directly impacting external audiences on what you KNOW about their wants and needs.  If you FEEL but don’t KNOW, conduct some research.  This doesn’t need to be expensive or take ages; use the communications and feedback media you already have, talk to supporters and customers, follow trends that are important to them and ‘walk a mile (or several) in their shoes’.
  • Make sure the decision-makers in your organisation are armed with this knowledge and that it is used.  You can do this by checking assumptions made against what you know to be fact and feeding back accordingly.
  • Be able to put complaints and negative comments into perspective.  In the hospice’s case, I’m sure it was rough having to deal with a Charity Commission complaint but it seems likely that the hospice team acted totally within their remit and in good faith.  I don’t know all the facts, but major censure appears unlikely.  Similarly, the Facebook campaign will have caused negative publicity and perhaps some donors to think twice about supporting future campaigns.  In this case doing nothing is not an option.  The trick is to positively counter negativity as part of an integrated but commensurate approach to the issue…
  • And this is the key point I think.  Whenever something like this happens, we need to act.  Since the advent of social media, 24/7 TV, online news etc. putting our proverbial heads in the sand simply won’t turn a negative into a neutral situation let alone a positive one.  For example, several of the hospice’s supporters have joined the Facebook groups and put forward counter views using facts and their own personal experiences.  The hospice management team issued statements quickly and openly and attempted to do so from their audience’s perspective.
  • And act quickly!  Waiting a month to get a press release signed off is just too long.  Be honest, be factual and if an apology is due, make one.  Try to put yourself in the audience’s shoes to understand why they are angry and create your immediate action plans and apology accordingly.
  • Wherever possible share the action plan with the audience – it means you are accountable for delivery but it also shows you are prepared to do something to rectify the situation
  • Public witch hunts are never pretty (MP’s expenses aside) and most often make the organisation look worse in the audience’s eyes.  However tempting it may be, try to avoid offering a public sacrificial lamb and your supporters are more likely to retain some respect for your organisation.  A recent example is Habitat, the home design retailer.  On finding an intern using twitter very dubiously to promote their sales during the recent Iran elections, it appeared that they almost immediately and publicly came down on said individual like the proverbial ton of bricks.  Instead of the credit they were expecting, users of social networks reacted very negatively and publicly to the overly harsh treatment of the intern which created even more bad publicity for Habitat!
  • Remember that all your good work and past service will not be totally forgotten if you make one mistake… just learn from it and show quickly and decisively that you have done so.  Barnardo’s 2008 abuse campaign adverts were nearly banned (according to press reports) but for most supporters, this was a temporary glitch and Barnardo’s hasn’t suddenly become a bad charity.  Similarly, in business Toyota is currently having problems with some of it’s best selling cars and the impact of negative media coverage and model recalls will be expensive in the short term.  However, the majority of Toyota customers will acknowledge that the company has had a reputation for building very reliable cars for more than 20 years and this will not immediately evaporate.  In fact, this credibility almost earns Toyota the right to a mistake or two, as long as they deal with it in ways it’s customers respect and relate to.

What else would you add?  Do you think it’s inevitable that because we can’t please all of the people all of the time, we should expect complaints and simply deal with them proactively?

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