If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s to be prepared for the unexpected.
During the first half of the year, we’ve been confronted with two events that have turned our world on its axis — the COVID-19 pandemic and the murder of George Floyd.
In both instances, nonprofits had to confront urgent and tragic situations that they weren’t planning for. And, in doing so, they had to make quick decisions about how to communicate effectively about complex, sensitive, fast-changing events.
It’s safe to say that we’re not finished with having to confront big, unexpected crises.
At some point — likely soon — your nonprofit will face another defining moment where it will be essential to provide clear, timely communications.
Whether it’s a worldwide crisis like COVID-19 or something of your own making, you need to be ready.
So if you haven’t already, it’s important to have a crisis communications protocol in place so you’re not caught flat footed and so you can manage your communications effectively and with integrity.
Here’s some advice on what you can do now to ensure that you’re ready to respond:
Assemble a team
Your organization should have a designated crisis team that you can mobilize quickly if needed.
This group will likely include your CEO or executive director, your head of communications, and your board chair. Some organizations choose to include other top executives and/or its legal counsel as part of this team.
This group should be considered always on call and empowered to make rapid decisions about how it should handle a crisis.
Because crises don’t always happen between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. on weekdays (in fact, it’s rare they do), contact information for this group should be at the fingertips of your communications director or top executive — and members of this team should be informed in advance that they could receive a call in the middle of the night.
With any luck, that after-hours call never happens.
But it’s important to make sure you’re ready in case it does.
Designate a spokesperson
If your organization is faced with a crisis, it’s important to designate someone who is empowered to speak on your behalf.
Often, this person is the top executive. In some cases, though, you might choose to have your communications lead or your board chair fill this role.
He or she should be prepared to face tough questions and be briefed on the facts before doing any interviews.
As a result, your spokesperson should have some experience in front of the camera — and you might consider providing them with media training so he or she is equipped to handle the heat.
Be ready to issue a statement
Silence is often your worst enemy in a crisis.
The longer you wait to say something publicly, the more it looks like you have something to hide.
There are some exceptions to this rule. For instance, in the early days of the recent racial justice protests, many organizations chose at first to listen before speaking publicly.
But pausing too long to listen could have dire consequences in fast-moving situations.
This is especially true if your organization is at the center of the storm.
As a result, you should be ready to quickly put together a written statement that shares everything you know about the situation — and tell the truth.
Crises often grow worse when organizations withhold information that — when revealed later — make it look like they were hiding something.
State the facts clearly and, in cases where you’re investigating what happened, make it clear that you’re still gathering information.
As you draft your statement, it’s important to try to step outside of your role with the organization and think about what you’d want to know as an outsider who was reading or seeing a story about the situation.
What would you want to know? What would make you trust the organization? What would force you to doubt its account?
Be careful about jumping to conclusions in your statement.
Sometimes, you simply need to share the basics and acknowledge that you’re gathering the facts. If the story is fast moving, you cannot afford to wait until you have all of the information before you put out a statement.
Get something out quickly, show you’re on top of it, and say that you’ll have more to share later.
Coordinate with others
In some cases, your organization’s crisis might involve other groups — such as law enforcement or another nonprofit.
In these situations, identify who are the spokespeople for these organizations and, if possible, work to coordinate your efforts.
Have a media kit
In crises, it’s also important to provide context.
Your organization does great work and has a mission — don’t be afraid to make the media and the public aware of what you do and why you do it.
At the very least, you should develop a fact sheet about your organization ahead of time that outlines what you do, your outcomes, and other vital information about how you operate (including facts about your budget, your history, etc.). Make it as easy as possible for the media and your supporters to have context and information that helps people understand who you are and what you do.
Keep this information up to date and have it at the ready whenever you are talking to a member of the media — whether it’s for a positive story or during a crisis.
Manage the message
Whenever possible, try to direct the media to talk to your designated spokesperson. But also understand that reporters will also be looking for other sources.
If the story is big enough, a reporter might contact other members of your staff, members of your board, donors, volunteers, or others who are connected to your organizations.
Be prepared for this by communicating clearly with your team, your board, and your supporters about the situation. Provide them with information about what you know — and offer them advice for handling questions.
Think of all of your audiences and channels
While most organizations default to making statements to the media, it’s important to remember that the news media isn’t your only audience. You need to think about how you’re going to communicate internally — as well as to your donors and those on social media.
If appropriate, be ready to issue any statements via your social channels, through email, and on your website.
And have someone on your team who is prepped on how to address questions and criticism on social media.
It bears repeating that your should always aim to tell the truth. This is especially true in a crisis.
Tell as complete a story as you can. If you don’t know the answer to something, don’t speculate. Make it clear that you don’t know the answer.
If you learn relevant information — positive or negative — that affects the story, meet with your crisis team to discuss it and decide how to address it, whether it’s by issuing an update or being prepared to talk about it when questioned.
Crises tend to disappear more quickly when you get in front of the story, acknowledge your mistakes, and show that you’re moving forward.
Hopefully, you never have to follow this advice. But if your organization ever faces a controversy, planning ahead and being upfront can help you deal with it quickly and responsibly.