Every nonprofit should have a crisis communications plan – whether it be for a potential crisis of your own making or something out of your control. It doesn’t matter, because you can’t ignore it either way.
Komen for the Cure couldn’t ignore that it made a programmatic decision that enraged many of its supporters. The Second Mile couldn’t ignore that its founder is now an accused pedophile. Hospitals, schools, and other nonprofits in the Midwest and South can’t ignore when their facilities are destroyed – with people inside – during a tornado.
Whether you can predict it or not, whether you think you are controversial or not, whether you are careful and prepared or not, every nonprofit is vulnerable to some sort of crisis. In some ways, the actual substance of the crisis is less important than whether you are ready to respond quickly and competently to it.
Your Crisis Communications Goal: Shorten the News Cycle
Let’s focus on the kind of crisis that has the ability to cause long-term damage to your organization. When that kind of crisis strikes, your goal is to shorten the news cycle about it.
Nature and the news media abhor a vacuum – the story will be told, with or without you. Ignoring a crisis is one of the best ways to ensure that it will drag out even longer. Take the Komen story. The first news cycle was about the backlash against their decision to stop funding Planned Parenthood. But it didn’t end there. The second news cycle was about how Komen failed to respond to the first cycle. Even after the apology and reversal, the story continued on into a third cycle of “lessons learned from the Komen debacle.” Now we simply refer to the “Komen story” and most people know what we are talking about.
Don’t do anything to drag out the news cycle, starting with ignoring the crisis. Also be very cautious about trying to rationalize what happened. That too can drag out a crisis much longer than need be. So what should you do instead?
Prepare for the Whens
Start with your known vulnerabilities, or what I call the “Whens” – as in “when this gets out.”
In your personal life, you may have those skeletons in the closet, or less-than-ideal members of your inner circle of friends or family. There may be embarrassing photographs, or politically incorrect behavior, or even illegal activity in your past. The same is true for your nonprofit organization.
Those who are in the know about these things are obligated to plan for “when” they become public, even if they never actually do. I recommend that you draft a brief response (think 3-5 sentences) for each situation, long before your head is spinning and your heart is racing from the adrenalin of breaking news.
Also think about any “other shoes” that could drop. Could one crisis lead quickly into another? Would it make sense to drop that other shoe yourself, rather than waiting for someone else to do it?
Another kind of “When” to prepare for is an attack on your organization for what it stands for. You haven’t done anything wrong in this situation, but you are under fire nevertheless. Social media has made it incredibly easy for anyone to express opinions about anything, which means that it should be fairly easy for you to identify some common arguments on the other side of your issues. When those voices decide to get aggressive and come after you directly, you should be ready with your response.
Prepare for the What Ifs
When you are done with the Whens (and hopefully it’s a fairly short list!), it’s time to plan for some What Ifs. Start with the crisis of your own making. These can include mistakes, flubs, gaffes, inappropriate behavior, etc. What if an intern were to accuse a senior staff member of sexual harassment? What if your safety systems failed and a program participant was injured or killed? What if a board member were to post a racist comment on his Facebook profile? What if you lose accreditation, or are found to be cheating in some way?
When you are done with those crises at home, go through the same exercise but for a crisis in the neighborhood. What if scandal were to rock another nonprofit in your building, or the national organization that you are affiliated with? What if one of your corporate supporters gets caught up in something that you need to disassociate yourself with?
In all of these situations, discuss what your public reaction will be. Would you take responsibility and apologize directly, or would you express regret and sadness, but stop short of apologizing? Or would you stand firm, restate your position, and prepare to weather what comes next?
How to Get It Over With
Maybe you’ll do all of this crisis planning, and never have to use it. That’s great! Consider it an insurance policy. But what do you do when crisis does strike? Here is a quick guide to get through it, and to keep that news cycle short.
- Stay calm.
- Be honest. Getting caught in a lie creates a second crisis even worse than the first.
- Respond publicly, quickly, and as high up on the ladder as possible.
- Be concise. Do not ramble your way through. Be natural, but prepared.
- Be clear. Leave nothing up to interpretation.
- Get your own words online fast. This is where a blog within your main website comes in very handy. Do not rely on the media to get your message out correctly.
- Prepare for 72 hours of hell. Even if you are successful in containing the crisis, you won’t get much else done.
- Keep any promises you make in your statements.
- Learn from what happened. Make notes on what you did right, and what you did wrong.
Take an hour to sketch out a crisis communications plan. You won't regret it.
A version of this article originally appeared on MassNonprofit.org. If you publish articles for nonprofit readers and you'd like Kivi to write for your website, blog, or newsletter, please feel free to contact us.