Part Two in a two-part series: Communicating in Times of Crisis.
As we’ve seen how Komen for the Cure botched its recent announcement to stop funding Planned Parenthood, it only takes one poorly handled public relations crisis to threaten an organization’s reputation and lose valuable supporters. Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with their decision or rationale, it’s still somewhat devastating to watch a well-known and loved organization lose so many supporters—overnight.
The point here is this: Every organization—whether a foundation, a charity or a for-profit company—needs a crisis communications strategy in place. If you wait for a crisis to come, it’s too late.
Not sure where to start? Here are 7 steps to developing a Crisis Communications Plan for your organization:
1) Appoint a crisis spokesperson and team
Your internal crisis “team” might include representatives from the board, the CEO, grant programs, public relations or legal counsel. Identify one person to serve as the primary spokesperson—such as the board chair, marketing/communications director or even a credible volunteer. Make sure this person is trained in communicating with reporters as well as on social media platforms. Emphasize to your staff, board and volunteers that no one besides the spokesperson should be talking to the media.
2) Identify potential crises in advance
Think through all possible problem areas in advance. Some crises you simply won’t be able to foresee–a scandal involving one of your grantees or clients, for example. However you can always identify potential weak spots and prepare in advance. For example, Komen for the Cure jumped into a highly controversial area of public and political debate. They could have anticipated that there might be some public outcry and prepared to respond immediately. Or better yet, proactively reached out to the media and public first–before the story broke.
3) Gather information about the crisis
Gather as much information as you can, as soon as you can. This will help prepare your spokesperson to answer questions and develop your own angle. Follow closely what others are saying about your organization on Twitter, Facebook, the news media and leading blogs in your field. Respond to these posts directly, but not defensively.
4) Develop key messages and talking points
In times of fire, you want to arm yourselves with your organization’s most powerful messages and fact sheets. Use these messages early and often–from the moment you smell a crisis coming on. As part of your messaging, remind your audience what you do well as an organization and, as appropriate, stand by your actions and decisions. Acknowledge the crisis and anyone suffering as a result of it, and if needed, take responsibility for any part your organization played. Finally, make a bold commitment to those you serve, and thank your supporters for standing by you.
5) Deliver your message
Depending on the nature of the crisi, you may want to send out a news release and/or hold a press conference. Remember: it’s always better for the news to come from you than your critics. Make the media’s job as easy for them as possible. This gives you more of a shot in controlling the message.
In addition, you need to use social media platforms to get your message out. Blogs, Facebook updates and Twitter micro-blogs are immediate and in real time. They allow you to respond quickly to evolving public concerns, and correct misrepresentations in the meda. If you can, include video and photos as part of your blog or updates. This will put a human face on your organization in its time of crisis.
6) Implement your response
When a crisis goes down, it’s important to act fast. Brief your spokesperson on all facets of the issue. Present the spokesperson to the media as the source of information as early as possible. Keep the media and public well-informed with facts–not opinions or conjecture. Don’t keep them waiting for information; update them early and often.
7) Clean up
Once the crisis dies down, your job isn’t over. Continue to monitor the situation and public discourse, and update key audiences for several months afterward. You may even want to go public with an organization self-assessment–giving the community proof that you take the crisis and their feedback seriously. Show your supporters that you are putting safeguards in place so the situation won’t happen again.
No one likes to plan for a crisis–it sounds so doom and gloom. Yet, if you don’t take the time for it now, it could mean real trouble later. While a plan may not help you avoid a crisis, it will give you the roadmap you need you manage it quickly and gracefully. Good luck!