Some days - nay, most days - nonprofit professionals have to focus all their means just to keep up on the matters at hand. Too often it feels luxurious to spend time planning for the future and thinking about scenarios that may or may not happen. Unfortunately, this places far too many organizations in the perilous realm of being completely unprepared should a crisis occur - whether through fault or mere circumstance. The consequences of such unpreparedness can be disastrous to an organization's reputation, branding and fund development efforts.
One of the most important tools in an organization's PR arsenal is a crisis management plan. Admittedly, creating such a plan takes a bit of time and work, and this is why it is why so few organizations have one. It is also why it is so important to have one in place before a crisis happens. In the midst of a PR firestorm, time and freedom to plan are no longer at your leisure.
I wish I was speaking from theoretical knowledge, and not from practical experience. During my 20 or so years in the nonprofit and faith-based communications fields, I have had to manage media coverage resulting from sex scandals, bomb threats, violence on organization property, and even the carjacking of a staffer on program business. It is my least favorite part of PR and marketing. It is stressful. It is unpredictable. It can instantly turn a normal day into weeks worth of headaches. However, from this experience I have learned the value of planning and preparing for crisis scenarios so that negative publicity is minimized, information control is maximized, and opportunity for gaining positive coverage is capitalized.
The How To
The best crisis management plan is the most practical one. I am not an advocate of 3-inch-thick plans. Rather, I believe that the best and most useful plans simply identify key contacts, clarify resounding message points, allow for the flexibility of the situation, compile static organization information, and emphasize proactive involvement in managing the crisis.
Global PR Blogweek offers seven elements your crisis management plan should include:
1. Identify the members of your crisis management team.
2. Identify a spokesperson and make sure that each member of the crisis management team has key contact info.
3. Prepare fact sheets on your organization that can quickly be duplicated.
4. Prepare biographies on key staff.
5. Have copies of your press release format, logos and key signatures on file.
6. Think through crisis scenarios and develop pre-written statements that could serve as a foundation for a first response.
7. Compile contact information for your media contacts.
In the thick of a crisis situation, ensure that the members of your crisis management team - especially the spokesperson - have all pertinent information related to situation. If necessary, clear key talking points with your lawyers, but don't let the lawyers dictate the message. "No comment" protects their interests, but is the worst statement you can make for the sake of your organization's reputation and credibility. A statement ensuring that you're looking into the matter, taking it seriously and seeking a positive resolution is far better and equally vague.
In addition, I would recommend that when choosing your media spokesperson, you ensure that person has been properly trained in speaking with the media. Although executive directors are typically the first choice for the organization's spokesperson, not everyone is suited for on-camera interviews. If your executive is uncomfortable in this role, you should select another point of contact. Board chairs are often refined communicators and can be a great resource in this area. Your spokesperson must articulate well, be quick on their feet and able to discern what to say (or what not to say) with little notice, and have an air of authority and confidence. You can prepare a strong statement or concise key talking point, but if that statement is delivered by someone whose eyes dodge out of nervousness or who gets flustered easily, the 5-6-10 newscast viewer will read into that behavior guilt or conspiracy.
Planning = Power
Of course, my hope is that your organization is so well oiled that a crisis never occurs. May all your work sites be so safe that an accident never occurs. May all your staff be so filled with integrity that a lapse of judgment never jeopardizes credibility. May all your clients be so grateful for the services they have received or so understanding about the services they are unable to receive that they are more willing to sing your praises than criticize your decisions. May you so convincingly make your donor appeals that you never find yourself cutting programs or lacking funds or facing closure. And, may every person who walks through your door come bearing notes of thanks or checks of support rather than weapons, anger or lawsuits.
However, should you find yourself in a situation where the media is unexpectedly knocking on your door, a prepared plan of action gives you a better chance to turn a possibly negative situation into an opportunity to share your message and gain support.
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Adapted from Jennifer Anthony's original article, "A Few Words on Crisis Management," published online in 2005.