Camila Batmanghelidjh and Sarah Montague, crisis management, media training, media skills

Kids Company: a communications disaster

The BBC broadcast a programme last night on the collapse of the Kids Company charity. If you’re in the UK you can catch it on iPlayer. I’d recommend it as a fascinating study into a person’s drive and detachment from financial reality or the logistics of running a large organisation.

This blog isn’t about that. It’s about communication and it’s here that a slew of major errors on the part of the charity’s founder, Camila Batmanghelidjh, and crucially two big ones from her communications manager, made a dire situation worse..

The programme followed a ten year old documentary about the charity as it was establishing itself. The update opened with Batmanghelidjh inviting the camera in to the meeting in which she was to be dismissed as CEO. She giggled and told the documentary makers they weren’t supposed to be there but she was smuggling them in.

Mistake one. Don’t let a journalist think they’re being manipulated. If there is a clear public interest in concealed camera work, we’ll probably do it, but smuggling us into a meeting for the sake of your personal reputation isn’t going to work.

The programme progressed. Batmanghelidjh denied all wrong doing and insisted she hadn’t been guilty of mismanagement because it was too broad a term and the media had been guilty of some sort of conspiracy.

Mistake two. The journalist is there to get an objective view, which I believe this documentary did. He or she is not your ally or co-conspirator. Telling us the media is at fault overlooks the fact that we are the media.

She compounded this with frequent asides. She refused to take a call from HMRC, saying that sometimes you need time to think (OK, we’ve all disregarded an important call, gathered our thoughts and then called back in our own time occasionally – I’d grant her that) – and then said they were psychopaths. Er…no, they’re just trying to obtain money the country needs and to which it is entitled. Unless you’re an American giant of course…

She also said the government was conspiring and (I think) deluded.

Mistake three: Don’t lash out. Regardless of the truth, it looks defensive and tends to put you in the wrong. You’re actually better off looking a little contrite and stating that you want to understand your mistakes better, regardless of how you actually feel.

Some of the spending decisions were questionable at best. A 21-year-old woman in dire need of help (this was utterly genuine, a refugee, there was no doubt about her plight) was helped by Kids Company by being installed in a luxury flat. They were still paying her rent by the time the charity collapsed and she was 34.

Mistake 4: If you’re denying profligacy to the media, don’t show them around a luxury flat you’re funding for someone in early middle age when you’re supposed to be a kids’ charity. 

So far, so unfortunate. The crunch came for me, though, when she was in consultation with her communications manager. He made a couple of sensible suggestions: ration your appearances, he said (she manifestly spoke to absolutely anyone) and don’t address financial mismanagement unless you’re asked (obviously) – focus on the nine years of good work done whenever you can.

That was great. Unfortunately a story about her paying a chauffeur £130,000 per annum so he could send his children to a private school got into the press. Her response was going to be that he wasn’t her personal chauffeur because she also used another driver; the communications manager said, in front of the camera, that she shouldn’t mention this because that driver cost another £30-£40,000 per year.

So he went from training her to steer interviews away from the bad stuff – something any media trainer would advise – to deliberately helping to cover a further significant waste of public money.

He also saw a report coming in and told her not to address it. The voice behind the camera obviously asked what the story was and he told her he wasn’t addressing it, simple as that. Of course the story – about the luxury home with the swimming pool, funded by government money – got into the papers, so what was on screen was a blatant, failed attempt to cover it.


 

It was pretty much train wreck TV. From the communications point of view it’s compulsive viewing and I’d recommend it to anyone from two angles. First, it’s an object lesson in when not to invite the cameras in. Remember they were there at Batmanghelidjh’s invitation; given that one of the shots was of her being marched into the Trustees’ office to be fired, that’s a silly thing to do.

Second, it’s a powerful lesson in what not to do once the cameras are there. Deny all culpability, insist a children’s charity has to help a 34-year-old, have a communications manager attempt limp cover-ups in front of the camera…just, no.

On balance I’m glad the film was made and I’d recommend it. It’s a salutary lesson in what can happen when an idealist takes over a charity and has no idea what to do when it scales, and worse, no idea that they have no idea. It’s a great case for checks and balances.

I’m just baffled that making it appears to have been Batmanghelidjh’s idea all along.

You’re probably never going to be involved in anything like that – but do you need help with what to expect when you meet a journalist? I can help – email me and we’ll talk.

One thought on “Kids Company: a communications disaster”

  1. Very good analysis which made me think (I saw the documentary but came away thinking that Ms Batmanghelidjh was more sinned against than sinning). The point I found interesting was the interviewer’s effective admission on mic but off camera that she’d inadvertently been sucked in and had become a participant rather than an impartial observer.

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