The Presidential election has become — quite unfortunately — a daily case study in crisis communications.
Nearly every day this fall — and sometimes more than once a day — one or both of the major candidates has been forced to respond to a crisis, whether it’s negative news about his or her past with the release of damning audio or leaked emails, or through his or her own missteps.
And each candidate has made some big mistakes when responding to these crises.
Thankfully, this campaign will end early next month.
Sadly, though, there will soon be other crises for the media to cover.
And one of those crises might just involve your nonprofit.
Are you prepared?
Nonprofits aren’t immune to crises. Big-name organizations such as the Wounded Warrior Project, the American Red Cross, Planned Parenthood, Susan G. Komen for the Cure and others have all found themselves in the media’s (and public’s) crosshairs in recent years.
The same has been true for a number of smaller nonprofits.
Media crises involving nonprofits come in a number of forms. They can involve questions about improper spending, excessive salaries, unfortunate statements, or controversial stances. And they can happen to organizations of any size and with any mission.
Even if your organization does everything by the book, you should nonetheless make sure you have a crisis communications protocol, just in case something goes awry.
Here’s some advice on what you can do now to ensure that you’re ready to respond:
Create a crisis team
Your organization should have a designated crisis team that you can mobilize quickly if needed.
Typically, this group will 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, 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 midnight phone call if needed.
With any luck, that midnight 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.
This person will often be your 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 taking questions. Whoever fills this role 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.
Issue a statement
Silence is your worst enemy in a crisis. The longer you wait to make a statement, the more it looks like you have something to hide.
And with the advent of social media, false information can travel quickly.
As a result, you should 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.
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.
Peter Panepento is principal at Panepento Strategies, a full-service content, digital, and social strategy firm for nonprofits and socially-minded companies. He was formerly an assistant managing editor at The Chronicle of Philanthropy and a senior vice president at The Council on Foundations. He also serves as Nonprofit Marketing Guide’s adviser on public relations.