Nature Conservancy the nation’s leading environmental advocacy group has just found itself in a PR storm. Only in this case it was definitely in a teacup.
The organization which protects fragile and important wilderness areas partnered with Sports Illustrated magazine and luxury retailer Gilt in a fundraising campaign. Using the iconic “swimsuit issue” of the magazine as its focus, the initiative was designed to widen Conservancy’s traditional support base.
Conservancy went into crisis PR mode when it became concerned that partnering with the best selling swimsuit issue could be seen as demeaning to women. Too late to pull out of the deal, it went into damage control instead. This included apologies to board members and staff, reforming procedures and downscaling planned promotions of the fundraiser.
Well done. This was well handled from a procedural point of view and the issue never really caught fire. Conservancy’s spokesman recently confirmed sheepishly to the trade press “we haven’t heard much from our donors.”
The PR Verdict: “B” for the Conservancy’s strategy and responsiveness but next time keep authorised public comment to a minimum.
Sports Illustrated’s PR told a philanthropy publication “this is the first time I am hearing about this” and therein lies a clue. A scan of the coverage shows the media heat came largely from Conservancy board members who by giving quotes to the media, needlessly magnified the issue. Interestingly no women’s advocacy, protest group or Conservancy supporter was ever quoted. Next time, delegate the issue entirely to the PR team and only authorize board members to speak if the issue escalates. And besides, always take into account the news cycle. With Rush Limbaugh hogging the headlines and promotional coverage of the swimsuit issue failing to provoke questions of the tie-up, there was a distinct possibility that the issue would pass completely unnoticed.
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