Non-profit PR campaign example for care home charity

PR crisis management case studyIncreasing confidence in a care home setting during a pandemic 

About the author

Martin Flegg Chart.PR FCIPR is a PR professional specialising in internal communication. He is also a guest tutor and assessor for PR Academy on CIPR qualification courses.

Panna Joshi

This case study is based on a CIPR Professional PR Diploma assignment by Panna Joshi, edited by Martin Flegg

Charity Care is a registered charity delivering not for profit health and social care within England and Wales, in its own care homes, independent hospitals and via other charities. 

During the pandemic, the care sector has faced a difficult time both operationally and in the media. Mainstream media reporting of coronavirus cases and deaths in care homes has been relentless and overwhelming negative.  This has affected Charity Care in unprecedented ways, including reducing the level of resident occupancy.  

As the pandemic begins to abate, the major challenges for Charity Care are rebuilding occupancy and securing the long-term financial sustainability of the organisation. A key factor in rebuilding occupancy will be restoring the trust and reputation of care homes and the care sector.  

Effective communication and strategic public relations can play a key role in achieving this.  

Research and situational analysis   

The main objective of the research and situational analysis was to establish if the decline in the appeal and reputation of care homes was a short-term phenomenon or a material change in the public’s mind-set, and what was driving this. For example, was the coronavirus death rate alone driving the decline, or was there a deeper fear amongst publics, perhaps around care home quality and cleanliness, that coronavirus has simply aggravated and brought to the forefront?  

An analysis of the lack of trust and confidence in care homes among stakeholders and publics was important to understand how targeted communication could regain this trust. 

Evaluating the views of Charity Care stakeholders, in particular, residents and residents’ families

Charity Care commissioned polling around the handling of the pandemic in their homes to examine issues such as their Covid-19 response, availability of information, guidance and support, contact with residents, visiting arrangements and adherence to PPE protocols.  The poll provided insights into what Charity Care were getting right and where improvements could be made. 

Overall, the results were positive with either an outstanding or a good outcome, demonstrating that overall, Charity Care had managed the first wave of the pandemic well with positive results relating to the cleanliness of homes and residents’ wellbeing.  

Another key finding of the poll were the improvements that could be made in the information being provided to its stakeholders, supported by other secondary research concluding that publics require information in layman’s terms. 

Exploration of why people do not trust care homes, to deepen insight into the key drivers for increasing trust

The coronavirus pandemic has impacted many industries in unprecedented ways, including care homes. At the time of the research there had been over 65,000 Covid-19 related deaths across the UK, with more than 14,000 coronavirus related deaths occurring in care homes across England and Wales, with a further 2,000 in Scotland, in the first wave of infections. 

Media coverage also decreased confidence and trust in the care home sector. Headlines such as “care home deaths account for 40 per cent of UK coronavirus fatalities” and “30 Covid deaths at one care home in Oldham” were unwelcome reading. 

Research by the IPPR suggests the appeal of care homes has taken a considerable hit during the pandemic, with around 31 per cent of people less likely to seek residential care for an elderly relative than before Covid 

Other key themes to emerge from the IPPR polling were about clearly demonstrating cleanliness, availability of more staff, the training and skills of care teams and greater transparency around pricing and profit. 

The issue around quality in care homes has always been there, even before the pandemic, and is likely not a short-term phenomenon that can be resolved simply by the media moving on to focus headlines elsewhere. Negative national Care Quality Commission reports and findings, including a number of incidents of abuse have been identifiedix and care homes shut down as a result. People are now more fearful that their loved ones will be at risk within a care home setting, both from coronavirus and from ‘poor quality’ care. 

The pandemic has tested the trust people place in care homes and damaged the reputation of the sector. In times of crisis brands need to act and inform people quickly and seamlessly to build trust. How quickly, and how, Charity Care responds to residents or relatives’ concerns, for example, in moments of fear and confusion will make or break their trust and impact on reputation. 

The Harvard Business Review offers some insight into the psychology of trust. Revealing that we are far more likely to trust people who are similar to us. We like and trust people who are members of our own social group more than we like outsiders or strangers. This presents a communications opportunity for Charity Care to build trust and reputation, as their most powerful stakeholders and advocates are residents themselves, and residents’ relatives.  

Desktop research into non-profit PR campaigns used by other organisations and sectors to tackle issues around trust and to raise brand and overall awareness in the care sector

The National Care Forum (NCF) have recognised that the public are losing trust in care homes and the care sector in general. In response, NCF launched their “Here to Care” Confidence Campaign. The aim of the campaign is to restore trust in care homes as safe places to live and make choosing care homes a positive choice, recognising they are places where people thrive. The campaign shared inspiring stories, as well as providing a checklist to help people navigate care home choices during the pandemic. Profiling the work that staff, carers and care providers are doing generated good media coverage including, TV and Radio 

Charity Care are a member of the NCF and a positive advocate of the campaign. This is an opportunity, as there is consensus that trust is an issue in the wider sector and it is encouraging that there are ways of reaffirming that care homes can be a safe environment to live in. 

Prior to the pandemic, the charity sector had already lost credibility, following the allegations of sexual misconduct and other unacceptable behaviour during Oxfam’s humanitarian response to the 2010 Haiti earthquake. This coupled with the media headlines and lack of trust in care homes, has not helped Charity Care as a charitable provider of social care. 

This PR crisis management case study shows how Oxfam dealt with the allegations by ensuring they stayed transparent and took action through an independent review. They produced an action plan dealing with each allegation. This allowed Oxfam to salvage some of their damaged reputation and Oxfam’s donations received still remain in the millions. They have also made efforts in providing transparency around how they spend their money, and this could be emulated by Charity Care. 

Polling by the Charity Commission evidences the public’s wider view of trust and confidence in charities. 

Although research suggests that the public prefers a charity run care home, like those run by Charity Care, the above views inform how Charity Care could market itself more broadly, pandemic, or otherwise. The Charity Commission research identifies avenues which Charity Care should consider and could form part of its overall business objectives and not just those for public relations. 

PESTLE and SWOT analysis identifying the operating environment, potential threats and risks to devise a targeted communications plan around Charity Care care homes

The PESTLE analysis revealed that Charity Care has a number of factors which affect its operations, with the additional factor of the pandemic dominating its entire operation in some form or another. 

From the economic perspective the reduction in care home occupancy levels across the sector was prominent. This was attributable to Covid-19 related deaths, perceived trust issues concerning care quality, reduced admissions due to this and ‘lock down’ restrictions, and structural financial weaknesses in the sector due to low local authority fee rates.  

Charity Care saw a reduction in occupancy levels from 99-100% to 75% at the height of the first wave of infections. This was similar to the wider sector, with Carterwood (the health & social care market experts) predicting an occupancy low point of 79.5% in June 2020.  

There is a suggestion that the longer-term picture may be much brighter. Carterwood is projecting occupancy rates at or exceeding 90% by the end of 2024 and Knight Frank believe the market will be at full capacity by 2029. One reason for this is simple demographics, the number of people aged 85 or over is set to double, and another is the lack of alternatives to residential care.  

Charity Care need to ensure financial viability in the interim and beyond, but it would be naïve to rely on projections alone. It must also take into account how the competition is responding and influence a change in attitude amongst its different publics to rebuild trust and reputation.  

The SWOT analysis demonstrated that Charity Care have fared well in the pandemic with a strong presence of infection control measures in place, having testing facilities on site and a specialised and skilled workforce. This can contribute to the positive messages in promotion of the charity.  

However, it was also clear from the SWOT that Charity Care do not have clear marketing and communication plans in place and are modest about promoting the good they do through their media coverage and social media channels. These were identified areas for improvement. 

Identifying and mapping stakeholders involved with Charity Care who can communicate its positive message to publics

Stakeholder mapping, using a power and interest matrix, demonstrated that key players were staff, trustees, residents and resident’s families, who would be key audiences and influencers in any public relations activity to rebuild reputation and trust in Charity Care and the wider care sector 

Strategic non-profit PR campaign recommendations and objectives 

The research informed a public relations strategy to increase the trust Charity Care’s stakeholders have in their care homes, with the following recommendations:  

  • Demonstrate preparedness for any further waves of the pandemic.  
  • Highlight that homes are clean and safe.  
  • Simpler words and phrases must be used to greater effect so that the average, person understands the impact of the virus.  
  • Staff training and celebrating successes.  
  • Following regulations.  
  • Transparency in how surplus income is spent.  

Charity Care can address these recommendations, whether that is through its media channels, celebrating staff training milestones or regulator reports, in direct communications through its website or when speaking to families. 

The most powerful advocates for any care home are the residents and families already associated with it and Charity Care need to use their voices to remind people more than ever before of the overwhelming good that care homes bring to the lives of older people in the communities they serve. 

The following public relations objectives were derived from the research findings and recommendations:  

  • Increase media and social media coverage of the positive response that has been received from residents and residents’ families on a bi annual basis.
  • Increasing the awareness and messaging regarding Covid-19, its effect in the care homes and actions taken by Charity Care, in simple non-clinical language on website, social media and through Mailchimp emails.  
  • Set up an ongoing online review process for residents and residents’ families of the care homes to obtain reviews and testimonials which can be used to improve the Charity Care brand, and publish on the website.  
  • Set up an ongoing process to celebrate staff achievements which can then be documented and published within Charity Care media channels.  
  • Publish the Charity Care annual report and accounts on its website to increase great transparency in how the organisation spends its money.  

Taking action  

Following the research, Charity Care have implemented a number of proactive PR campaigns, and improvements to address the identified PR objectives.  

Charity Care will complete another residents and family quality survey by the end of June 2021, as a follow up to the polling in the assignment research. This will provide important insights into how the charity handled the second wave of Covid-19 infections. It will be used to evaluate the changes which were implemented from the experiences of dealing with the first wave. Not just in communications and PR, but right across the business in finance, HR and operations. For the first time, the key findings from this regular report will be published on the Charity Care website to provide greater transparency of stakeholder views and care home performance.  

Charity Care has also acted on the research findings, regarding the feedback from residents and families, that they don’t understand healthcare jargon and acronyms. To address this the charity has started sending our regular factsheets using mail chimp. This provides residents and their families with information about what’s going on in the care homes in more understandable layman’s terms. How successful this has been will be revealed by the June quality report. 

Positive news stories and testimonials, which can be shared on the charity’s social media channels and website, are now being actively sourced. There is now an online review form on the charity’s website to capture and collate testimonials from stakeholders. These were previously published on the Charity Care internal employee app to boost staff morale and the plan is to now make these available wore widely outside the charity, on the website and social channels  

A lot of feedback comes from face-to-face contact between carers, the residents and their families. Charity Care is now actively seeking residents’ consent to publish these testimonials on the website to add to those already there. They will be reviewed and updated on a quarterly basis, to keep the content fresh and relevant.  

The charity operates two care homes. Occupancy in one has increased to around 80% since the research was completed. Occupancy in the second currently lags behind this. However, the reasons for this, primarily demand for council placements with limited funding, are well understood and this is shaping the thinking for future PR and communication activities.   

The assignment research has highlighted that the business and occupancy levels are heavily influenced by the demographics of the areas where the two care homes are located, and exposed the differences. The need to segment and target communications to appeal to audiences who are local to those areas is now better understood. An initial step towards doing this will be to create separate websites for each of the care homes in the near future.  

More work is also planned to understand how to geographically refine the targeting of content and messaging for discrete audiences on the charity’s social media channels. 

Panna Joshi – What I learnt from completing my assignment 

Completing my assignment helped both myself and my leadership team understand that there are no better endorsers for our charity than our residents and their families. In the past we just haven’t utilised them enough. We are now starting to do that, and this approach is helping us to communicate the authentic first-hand experiences of how well we were doing as a care home during the pandemic. 

We have so many positive stories to share. The way our care homes have handled the pandemic has been amazing, for example, taking proactive action on providing testing privately in advance of Government Test and Trace being put in place for our care homes. Implementing the objectives from my assignment is giving our small communications team much more focus, and we are now working on communications and PR activity which will really make a difference for the charity, focusing on our performance and outcomes.     

Before I completed my assignment, we were mainly looking at occupancy rates and the financial sustainability of the organisation from an internal point of view.  During my research I discovered so many external reports and information relating to the care sector. These broader contexts were useful in writing my assignment, but understanding the bigger picture has been powerful and helpful for both making business decisions in the charity and devising better PR interventions to support them. 

Considering how to implement my social media objective and targeting different demographics has helped me to shape the topic for the third assignment of my PR Diploma, and is providing continuity in my studies.

My background is in law, but I fell in love with comms and PR and now want to focus my efforts on communications for the charity. Completing the PR Diploma is helping me to do that.