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Michael O’Keefe: UNICEF must tell us why it fired Verwoerd if it is to avoid damage

IF the rationale for Melanie Verwoerd's dismissal by UNICEF Ireland was the fear of negative publicity, then it is unfortunate the somewhat messy handling of this action has so far misfired from a public relations perspective.

Over the past few days, it has been reported that the decision by UNICEF to dismiss Ms Verwoerd was made due to unwanted publicity surrounding her relationship with deceased broadcaster Gerry Ryan, which was deemed to be detracting from the good work being carried out by the NGO.

Ms Verwoerd has subsequently expressed her shock and disappointment at her dismissal, which was carried out by email on July 15.

She has highlighted her well- documented achievements while at the helm of the respected blue-chip organisation, which is committed to improving the lives and welfare of vulnerable children in some of the most impoverished and disadvantaged parts of the world and which has run several high-profile campaigns with very respected and passionate ambassadors.

It is not my place or intention to pass judgment on the rights or wrongs of the decision taken by the board, but from an issues-management perspective, the whole affair seems to have been extremely poorly communicated.

When preparing for a decision like this, which was bound to attract media attention given the public interest and the personalities involved, the board of UNICEF should have been ready to communicate with all relevant stakeholders, including media, in a timely and controlled manner.

Why they have not done this so far and followed normal best practice is baffling from a PR perspective. Is saying nothing at all better than saying too much?

By failing to have an official statement or position prepared, UNICEF has created a vacuum in which, rightly or wrongly, Ms Verwoerd has now been firmly positioned as the victim in this whole affair. In the absence of any comment or explanation from UNICEF, which may be for legal or other reasons, it is extremely difficult -- if not impossible -- for there to be any objective media analysis.

Ms Verwoerd, while not overtly a darling of the Irish public, is an extremely respected figure.

Her credentials as a woman of substance from her days in South Africa, when she was the youngest woman ever elected to parliament and a member of the ANC, are well known.

In her favour, Ms Verwoerd claims that under her stewardship, UNICEF has seen the organisation almost double its donations year on year to more than €8m in 2010.

From an external perspective, her time at UNICEF since her appointment in April 2007 appears to have been a success despite her difficult personal circumstances and despite the fact that several charities are struggling to maintain levels of donations of previous years.

The publicity surrounding the tragic and untimely death of Ms Verwoerd's partner was unavoidable due to the circumstances and the larger-than-life character involved. Media reports suggest Ms Verwoerd never overtly sought the limelight or courted publicity.

The board of UNICEF may have valid reasons for the dismissal, but by facilitating the vacuum that has been created over the past 10 days they have relinquished control of this situation. They are now on the back foot and in a position where they must react. They find themselves managing a tricky situation as opposed to preventing one.

If UNICEF felt Ms Verwoerd was not the person it needed at the helm to help achieve its strategic goals, then that is a decision it is entitled to make.

UNICEF will hope that Ms Verwoerd's sacking will not have any negative effect on ongoing vital appeals and will also hope this issue will only be a short-term one.

This kind of negative publicity is unhelpful to a hard-working and important organisation such as UNICEF and it should ensure that the information deficit is filled and any misinformation clarified.

Michael O'Keefe is the managing director of Pembroke Communications

Irish Independent