When trust is broken – how Christian leaders can learn from the BBC scandal

24 May 2021  |  Insights
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Oh, the irony.

Martin Bashir, the man whose job it was to lead the BBC’s religious affairs reporting, has become the story and been found lacking. The institution, and its senior executives responsible for holding those who profess morality to account in public have themselves been held to account, in the most public way possible.

The BBC is no ordinary media outlet. The world’s oldest national broadcaster was created by John Reith to reflect his staunch Christian principles: to serve the people with integrity and transparency, as a trusted source of information, education and entertainment.

So there is much more at stake here than the actions of the individuals involved, and much more reason to win back the public’s trust. As the Guardian’s Jane Martinson says, the corporation is too important for the failure of leadership and cultural indifference exposed by Lord Dyson’s report not to be addressed – it is crucial that it learns from its mistakes and works with transparency to rebuild the trust it has lost.

Of course, this isn’t the first worthy organisation to suffer a damaging crisis of trust. Sadly, the BBC’s public disgrace follows a path well-trodden by public leaders who have hurt the people they are there to support and serve.

These failures or betrayals are particularly painful and destructive when those leaders have made a public commitment to a higher moral agenda, such as leaders of churches or Christian charities.

When they fail to live up to the standards they represent, it doesn’t just cast a shadow on themselves, but also on the wider faith.

That’s why, when these leaders come to us for PR advice because public trust in their organisations has been broken, we counsel them to show humility and empathy, acknowledging and apologising for wrong behaviour and the pain it has caused.

But humility without transparency appears false and shallow. When there has been a failure of integrity, leaders must be seen to take action to ensure the people responsible are held accountable and make a clear commitment to preventing a future recurrence and repairing the bond of trust.

A caveat here: everything is not always as it seems, and scandals are not always as clear-cut as they appear in the media. There are times when it is right to respond conservatively, or not at all. Sometimes, organisations are prevented from contradicting a public misapprehension about a situation because of legal reasons, or because doing so would cause even more damage to vulnerable people.

But often the criticism is justified, yet leaders shy away from making a public response out of fear, arrogance, self-preservation or the vain hope that it will all just go away.

Making the right public response in these circumstances takes great courage, and rebuilding a reputation can be a long, painful and humiliating process. It’s very difficult to navigate well, and sometimes the damage will be too great for the organisation involved to continue.

But as hard as it is, Christian leaders have a duty to communicate about public failures within their organisation with humility, transparency and accountability, in the knowledge that what they represent is far greater, and far more important, than themselves.

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