PR can make or break a charity rebrand

Think of a charity rebrand – what comes to mind? Probably one of the better known examples of a large charity changing its corporate identity. Sometimes this is a name change - Scope, perhaps, or the more recent and successful example of Breast Cancer Now – and sometimes it is a refresh of the disparate elements that make up a charity’s "look and feel", such as the logo. Yet rebrands are not just for large charities and nor, even in these straitened times, should they be regarded as some sort of frivolous vanity exercise.

There are many good reasons to change the name of a charity. Perhaps the name no longer reflects what you do, perhaps a new identity is needed to support the diversification of your income streams, or it may just be that your name sounds old-fashioned and something new is needed before you can engage with a younger audience.

However long established a name and however well established its pedigree, senior management and trustees could well find that the day is not far off when these "sacred cows" come up for discussion and debate. In short, no charity (save the recently rebranded!) should think that a rebrand might not be for them in the future.

Major undertaking

It hardly needs to be said that a rebrand is a major undertaking that demands the commitment of considerable time, energy, patience, diplomacy and, yes, money. It is not a matter of slapping a new name on a charity and hoping that it sticks.

Everything, from the nebulous – the language a charity uses, the voice with which it communicates with supporters – to the tangible (letterheads, compliment slips and PowerPoint presentations), is rebuilt from the ground up. Then there is the difficult business of winning the hearts and minds (and continued support) of donors, beneficiaries, staff and the wider public from which you will draw your support, now and in the future.

Phew. With so many balls to juggle, something has to give and it is often PR – taken in this context to refer to the methods and messages which are used to communicate a rebrand to an external audience – that is brought in at the last minute. Too often it is a "nice to have" extra rather than one of the factors that shape the overall rebrand strategy at the planning stage.

It really shouldn’t be this way. As in all areas of a charity’s life, PR experts (in-house or otherwise) can add the greatest value when they are involved from an early stage. They are an important, though not sole, interface between the internal, occasionally inward looking, charity and the complicated and sometimes hostile world beyond.

They therefore bring an important perspective, carefully considering different options (before, please, rather than after they are ruled out!), advising on perceptions, implications and likely reactions during what can be one of the most significant chapters in a charity’s story.

Clear insight

Consider PR, then, and consider it early before agreeing a plan of action. The latter must be more than a disparate flurry of tactics – a press release here, an interview there. Instead, it should be guided by clear insights, data, goals, objectives. What should these be? The answer, as ever, is "it depends".

No two rebranding processes are alike. As alluded to above, they are embarked upon for many reasons and face different impediments and expedients along the way. These come in many forms. Perhaps you have a group of supporters, or high value donors, who need particularly careful handling. Perhaps there are questions around cost that are likely to flare up. Perhaps you are one of the lucky ones who have favours that they can call in, or the support of a high profile or influential person to make use of.

Despite these variables, it is possible to identify some "back to basics" commonalities. Broadly speaking, the approach to the PR strategy should consist of the following:

  • Define your audiences: who are you talking to? What makes them tick? How will this shape the messages and channels you are using to communicate? Don’t forget to include internal audiences, who, kept informed and made to feel part of the rebrand, can be some of your most effective brand ambassadors.
  • Develop your messages: a core "script" about the rebrand that stands up to robust interrogation and scrutiny. Why are you rebranding? What difference will it make? Coherent and purposeful answers to the "who, what, when, where, why" of the rebrand are a must.
  • Channel planning: what channels will reach your audiences?
  • Scenario planning: anticipating the possibility of negative comment and preparing your responses.

It probably goes without saying that, as with any communications project on this scale, it won’t be smooth flying and you should expect to hit a few bumps along the way. For some people, it really is "all in the name" and there will be resistance to change, disappointment and even vocal criticism. Although good planning and timely engagement can minimise this, it is difficult to avoid altogether. Expect to be asked searching questions about the need for a name change and the cost. Only clear, consistent and honest answers will do.

Discussing timing

The devil is in the detail and nowhere is this more apparent than when discussing timing. Who you need to tell is the (relatively) easy bit; deciding when to tell them is a good deal more challenging. Get it wrong and the consequences can be serious. Who do you tell first? In what order? How can you guard against the risk of word slipping out and catching you on the backfoot? Loose lips might not sink ships but they can wreak havoc on an otherwise well considered comms strategy!

A painstakingly crafted and coordinated rollout of information, in which all your audiences have been mapped and communications challenges identified is the answer. Grid, critical path, countdown or whatever – the key thing is to have a coordinated communications plan that addresses all your internal and external audiences in tandem.

And what of the media? Let’s be clear, media relations in the context of a rebrand can be as much a question of managing negative sentiment as rolling out a positive story. The simple fact is that beyond the charity and other relevant sector press, a rebrand is unlikely to be a story – unless it is for all the wrong reasons! However much you might want to lift the lid on the rebrand and ensure word travels far, you cannot rely on the media to do this for you.

This is not to say there aren’t opportunities to pursue - as long as the focus is on the issues which matter to a wider audience and why they should care about what you have done. One might, for example, cherry pick a journalist from a sector publication – or who otherwise has a real interest in your sector or area of work – who might be interested in peering beneath the bonnet and understanding more about what you have done and why it should matter to your beneficiaries and other stakeholders.

Engaging supporters

Social media and other "owned" communications channels, such as websites, have an arguably more important role to play in engaging supporters and bringing them "on board" before, during and after a rebrand. It is an opportunity to speak directly to your audiences in a creative way, unmediated and unencumbered by the potentially distorting prism of a journalist’s pen.

Videos, images, audio and other multimedia content can really bring the story and purpose of a rebrand to life in a way that letters and numbers on their own cannot.

The possibilities are endless – a whiteboard video animation can be shared on Twitter and Facebook, with a shorter version on Instagram, a blog from a chief executive can explain the rationale behind a rebrand in more detail than a snippet in a sector magazine ever can. Pictures may not quite, as the saying goes, speak a thousand words but a new image library can reflect the new values, missions and messages in a powerful and memorable way.

Don’t underestimate the communications challenges but don’t let them put you off. Plan thoroughly, bring in expert opinion at an early stage to consider the implications, make targeted, strategic use of each of the communications channels available, stick consistently to robust, consistent messaging. In doing so you will arrive safely at your destination: a name and identity that is held in high regard and that your staff, supporters and beneficiaries can be proud of.


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