Brathay Trust: a lesson in crisis comms

How small charity Brathay Trust responded to suddenly being headline news and receiving thousands of donations.

In April 2018 small youth charity Brathay Trust in Cumbria had three runners competing in the London Marathon. One of them, Matt Campbell aged 29, tragically collapsed at mile 22.5 and later died.

The charity received an unprecedented response. To date Matt’s JustGiving page has raised in excess of £368,000 (+Gift Aid) from over 31,800 supporters. Thousands of runners across the country also pledged to run the remaining 3.7 miles to #FinishForMatt.

The charity quickly had to deal with the news, putting aside their own shock and grief from losing someone so active in their community. Here, Peter Grenville, Brathay’s marketing executive shares what happened and the lessons they learnt about crisis comms.

Brathay's website showing four news stories

The first day

I was told of Matt’s death first thing on Monday morning. We were aware that the London Marathon organisers were due release the news later in the morning. Colleagues were already in touch with Matt’s family, so we had a couple of hours to start working on our response.

We have a crisis comms plan in place for dealing with a major incident, either during one of our programmes with children and young people, or for something affecting our offices and staff. We also have a plan in place for the ASICS Windermere Marathon, which we organise every May as part of our fundraising. Whilst both were useful, this was a scenario we hadn’t specifically planned for.

We were startled by the large number of enquiries and requests for interviews/statements, which slowed our response a little whilst we prioritised. By the afternoon we had a short statement on our website and social media channels, and our tribute to Matt up later in the day. Both were posted as lead items on our homepage, and also our Challenge Events website, which had been carrying the story of Matt running to raise funds for us.

It became clear very quickly that people touched by the story were donating to Matt’s JustGiving page. Whilst we had some extra donations to appeals on our website, we rapidly decided it was better to focus on the JustGiving route. Although we had an unprecedented level of interest in us (our website had more hits in a day than we normally get in a year) we were aware that people were donating to ‘Matt’s Charity”, rather that specifically ‘to Brathay’, but they were checking us out.

How we worked together

Before the end of the first day it was clear that the those of us dealing with the unprecedented interest in Brathay needed to step away from our regular roles to work together to respond. Some decamped to a meeting room. We scheduled regular twice-daily meet-ups to check what was needed. A large whiteboard became our low-tech method of tracking things that needed doing. We prioritised tasks that required immediate attention, whilst compiling a list of less time-sensitive items that also needed responding to.

Although Brathay has around 100 staff, we are spread across several sites in the north of England. Pulling this group together, especially with our own flagship fundraiser, the ASICS Windermere Marathon, just a few weeks away, did mean we had to delay some planned activity. Organisationally, our colleagues absolutely got the importance of what we were doing and left us to get on with what was needed.

Throughout the whole period we were conscious that Brathay were not the ‘owners’ of anything that was going on. We needed to respect Matt’s family, who are huge supporters of our work, by not making statements about what was going on without consulting with them first.

As a team, we agreed what to write and when. Once one of the team had drafted something for our websites, this was circulated and changes suggested and agreed. We did this largely by instinct – monitoring how the conversation and messages on social media were changing and ensuring we regularly responded – conscious that there was a lot of attention on what the recipient charity of the large sums of money being donated were saying. We wrote updates on day two, on day four and at the end of the first week (30 April) and shared these widely across our channels.

Brathay - one of the total updates on Twitter

By the end of the second week, we were able to return to our normal work, but still with an elevated level of activity and a clear understanding of the need to continue our response.

#FinishforMatt

After just a couple of days, the huge social media campaign to #FinishForMatt #RunForMatt (and some other variants) really took off. Messages and donations switched from being about simply remembering Matt to being about ‘completing’ the Marathon for him, as individuals or in groups. The London Marathon team really got involved with this too. People everywhere were organising runs. We did our best to contact the more significant ones, including those taking place in London, and one local to our HQ in Cumbria.

Interview requests came thick and fast. Our Chief Exec was on BBC Breakfast twice, as well as appearing on other news channels, interviews with local and national radio, and newspapers. Channel 5 produced and shared this short video across their social channels.

One thing that worked particularly well was identifying that people completing their 3.7miles and donating could use a text-based image on their social media posts to demonstrate their support. We quickly put together some simple graphics, loaded them onto our website, and posted about them regularly – it was great to see them being used widely.

Getting the tone right

We were very aware of our place in everything that was happening, and wanted to ensure that our responses showed respect to Matt and his family. The response was incredible, but we didn’t want to appear to be trying to ‘cash in’, or treat the situation as an opportunity to ask people to give. At the simplest level, everyone involved at Brathay really wanted to make sure we did the right thing.

I think what we said genuinely reflected how we felt – amazed, stunned and very grateful for each and every donation. I was keen for us to think about this from the point of view of someone donating. What would they want us hear from us?

Brathay tweet - if we have missed saying thank you to you, our apologies. We've never had so many tweets. Please know we are grateful to each and every one of you

We wanted to show our gratitude to those donating. We put in a lot of time outside normal office hours to try and respond to everyone on social media who were telling us they’d donated. We couldn’t manage it entirely – there was just too many messages – but we did as many as we could. We also tweeted general thank you messages to the running community who had organised special events.

Tweet thanking supporter for walking the 3.7 for Matt

We also published galleries of photos from our #RunforMatt events on Facebook, shared a few very short videos on Twitter including this one of the finish line which has had almost 1000 views and this one which has had almost 8000. We also put a selection of strong images on our Instagram account.

Brathay's instagram - image of a young man in a bright yellow t-shirt completing the run

Keeping up

Keeping up was tricky! We had five people from different parts of the charity working on this full-time, as well as many others involved to varying degrees. The extra hours put in by those involved ensured we responded in a way we were happy with. We discussed using an external agency to help with our social media response but in the end felt we could better maintain the appropriate tone by doing it ourselves.

Building new relationships

It’s early for us to fully understand the long-term effects and if we have developed lasting new relationships. However, more than 5000 of the 31,800 people who donated via JustGiving ticked that they wanted to hear from us. So we have emailed them updating them on the latest total and some of our thoughts about Matt’s legacy. They are now on our database, so will receive our regular updates.

We’ve also built relationships with those involved in the #MilesForMatt #RunForMatt campaigns and strengthened those held with local and national media. We gained a lot of new followers on social media. Of course, we know that the interest in us will inevitably wane for some people, but we hope that many will want to continue to hear from us, and understand what we do.

Brathay graphic explaining what they do

Matt’s legacy

The amount of money raised in Matt’s name is significant to us. We need to think carefully about how best to use it to ensure we have maximum impact on the lives of children and young people. We will consider both our charitable remit and the wishes of the Campbell family to ensure we have a fitting legacy to Matt focused on the development of resilient young people.

It is only a very short time since Matt‘s death and we need to respect that. While the total continues to rise, we are not in a position to finalise our plans but we are currently giving careful thought to the best way forward. We recently published a news story saying this. It is important for us to share an update saying that we are thinking carefully about how to use the money, rather than saying nothing. One of the ideas discussed to ensure we effectively communicate our plans is to have a dedicated page on our website, which will remember Matt and carry updates on what’s happening.

Some of our team were close to Matt. His death was clearly devastating for them and shocking for everyone at Brathay. I’ve been humbled by everyone’s resolution to ensure that we honoured our friend’s memory appropriately, and their huge efforts in coping brilliantly with the amazing response from the public. Colleagues attended the recent memorial service, and will continue our relationship with Matt’s family, who are great supporters of our work with children and young people.

10 top tips for responding to a crisis

  • Be prepared to put in the extra hours. It’s tough, but being part of the conversation at the times and in the places, where your supporters are, is essential.
  • It’s not about what you want to say – it’s about what your supporters/the public want to know. Try and look at the situation from their point of view.
  • Update regularly. Even if the situation is broadly un-changed.
  • Act even faster than you think at the outset! Any time you believe you’ve got will vanish.
  • Prioritise ruthlessly. Not just ‘today’ and ‘later’ but ‘right now’, ‘later this morning’, ‘before 3pm’ etc. If someone is missing deadlines, find a way to support the person who is struggling to keep up.
  • Relax the ‘whose job is it?’ rule. To get things done, use people’s skills if someone who would normally do something is already stretched.
  • Compare notes and meet regularly. Things change rapidly, and new, urgent, items come up fast.
  • Assemble a crisis team fast – even if you don’t need it, you can scale it down easily. Better to realise you’ve got too much resource than find you don’t have enough.
  • Remember to thank your team. They might look like they’re coping just fine, but situations like this are stressful for those involved. Reassure them they’re doing the right thing. It’s hard to know when you’re in the eye of the storm.
  • Make sure someone senior is part of the process. Even if they aren’t there all the time, having their support is invaluable to a team trying to cope with a stressful, and rapidly evolving, situation.

With huge thanks to Peter at Brathay for sharing his experience.

Further reading about crisis comms

Your top tips

Have you ever been in the middle of a crisis at your organisation? How did you identify it was a crisis rather than just a bad day? What worked or didn’t work? What top tips would you share? Please share in the comments.

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Get in touch if I can help you with digital comms, content planning, training or strategy. I work with charities of all shapes and sizes. Can I help give your comms or digital processes a healthcheck or ideas injection?

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3 thoughts on “Brathay Trust: a lesson in crisis comms

  1. Pingback: Social Media Round-up For Charities - #5 - Lightful

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