How a small charity handled crisis comms after marathon death

  • When a crisis hits your charity, how you communicate with stakeholders and the general public is key to containing the story, building relationships and managing your charity's reputation
  • Creating a crisis comms plan, covering all possible scenarios, helps you plan in advance who will do what, when and how, if problems arise
  • Here, small charity Brathay Trust shares the lessons learnt from managing a crisis situation, following the tragic death of a fundraiser during the London Marathon

The tragic death of marathon runner Matt Campbell shone the spotlight on the work of small charity Brathay Trust. The trust’s marketing executive shares how the team managed the immediate comms crisis.

In April 2018, Brathay Trust, a small youth charity based in Cumbria, hit the headlines when one of its London Marathon fundraisers died.

Matt Campbell, 29, a Masterchef semi-finalist, tragically collapsed at mile 22.5 and later died. His death made global news, inspiring thousands of people to donate in his name and complete the final 3.7 miles of the race.

To date Matt’s JustGiving page has raised in excess of £368,000 (plus Gift Aid) from more than 31,800 supporters.

The charity, which has a team of 100 spread across multiple sites, had to quickly deal with the news of Matt’s death, putting aside shock and grief from losing someone so active in the community, in order to focus on channelling the charity’s response.

Its website and social media channels (Facebook, Twitter and Instagram) were used to update people with statements and to thank supporters.

Here, Peter Grenville, marketing executive at Brathay, shares some key learnings, to help other small charities plan how to respond to a crisis.

1. Drop everything

  • Assemble a crisis team fast – even if you don’t need it. You can easily scale it down, and it’s better to have too much resource than not enough
  • Be prepared to put in the extra hours. It’s hard work, but being part of the conversation when and where your supporters are, is essential

Before the end of the first day it was clear that we needed a team of people to step away from their regular roles and work together to respond. Some of us decamped to a meeting room, where we scheduled regular twice-daily meet-ups.

A large whiteboard became our low-tech method of tracking things that needed doing, and we prioritised tasks that required immediate attention, while compiling a list of less time-sensitive items that also needed a response.

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.

2. Work quickly and effectively

  • 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 other members of the team if someone who would normally carry out a task is already stretched

When the London Marathon and Matt’s family released the news, we immediately produced a short statement and tribute. We published these on our homepages and across our social media channels.

As the fundraising total rapidly grew during the days that followed, we issued new statements. We also tried to respond to everyone who was donating or running in Matt’s name. We were inundated with requests for media interviews from local and national press.

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 was saying.

Throughout the whole period we were conscious that Brathay was not the ‘owner’ 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.

3. Think about your audience

  • 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

A crisis can bring you a whole different audience. We were very aware that people were donating to ‘Matt’s Charity”, rather that specifically to Brathay, but we still had an unprecedented level of interest. There were more hits on our website in a day than we normally get in a year.

We shared simple statements and stories about our work via our social channels, so that people who wanted to know more about us, could find this easily.

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 was telling us they’d donated. We couldn’t manage it entirely – there was just too many messages – but did as much as we could.

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 to hear from us?

4. Regularly review

  • Compare notes and meet regularly. Things change rapidly, and new, urgent, items come up fast
  • Make sure someone senior is part of the process. Even if they aren’t there all the time, their support is invaluable to a team trying to cope with a stressful, and rapidly evolving, situation
  • Remember to thank your team. They might look like they’re coping, 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

We recently issued a statement saying that we are still considering what to do with the money raised, which is a considerable sum for 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.

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.

Some of our team were close to Matt, and this was clearly devastating for them. I’ve been humbled by everyone’s resolution to ensure that we honour 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.