Notre Dame – a blaze of glory or a PR disaster?

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The devastating blaze that left Notre Dame Cathedral in ruins caused shock and upset way beyond Paris. For hours, the entire world watched as a beautiful, centuries-old symbol of western civilisation was engulfed by flames. For many, the feelings of sadness were matched only by a sense of frustration that they could do nothing to stop the destruction unfolding before their eyes.

For others, the word ‘powerlessness’ is alien. That’s one reason why, within hours, France’s super-rich individuals and companies were pledging huge sums to rebuild and restore their country’s most historic, and culturally significant, architectural gem.

By the morning after the disaster three billionaire families alone had promised to donate around £300 million. The French oil company Total pledged £86m; the Société Générale bank another £17m. Amongst non-French companies, the world’s wealthiest business – Apple – also said it would be contributing a significant amount towards the rebuilding project.

Once, such generosity would win unanimous plaudits from the media, politicians and public. But no more. This time, almost as soon as the pledges were made, the backlash began. And, as the days go on, it becomes stronger.

For some critics, the issue is one of motive. One prominent French politician and trade unionist has accused certain benefactors of being tax evaders, cynically using their response to the disaster to polish up their tarnished image. For others, it has exposed the fact that companies and individuals are sitting on fortunes that they could be putting to better use. Social media is alive with messages questioning why this particular cause arouses generosity from the rich when others – like poverty, hunger and disease – do not. As the best-selling American author Kristan Higgins tweeted: “Jesus didn’t care about stained glass. He cared about humans.”

This negative reaction forms part of a trend. It’s less than a month since Britain’s National Portrait Gallery gave up a £1m grant from the Sackler family, whose US pharmaceutical company makes a prescription painkiller that’s been linked with the ‘opioid crisis’ sweeping America. Despite the family’s strong denials of those links, other potential beneficiaries have now said they do not wish to be associated with the Sacklers – prompting them to suspend all UK donations.

It also comes in the wake of claims by the Labour MP David Lammy that celebrities taking part in the BBC’s Comic relief fund-raising event continue to display a ‘white saviour’ complex when filming in the developing world. His comments – sparked by photos of a smiling Stacey Dooley embracing a ‘helpless’ African child – cast a shadow over this year’s programme, and were even blamed by some for a sharp drop in donations.

Whatever the rights and wrongs in all these cases, it’s now apparent that no cause, however good, is exempt from politics and debate. It’s also clear that making large donations to charity – whether of time, money, or effort – is no longer an automatic route to positive headlines. Instead, the donors involved can expect to have their backgrounds analysed – and their aims scrutinised.