Tuesday, December 10, 2013

An Intern’s Takeaway: Crisis Communication for Nonprofits

By: Maggie Quinn

Last month, Gina F. Rubel presented a training seminar at the Catalyst Center for Nonprofit Management entitled "Crisis Planning for Nonprofits: From Minor Events to Disasters." As the token intern, I had the opportunity to attend the seminar with the task of passing on what I learned.

First and foremost, when it comes to planning for your company, don’t ask if there will be a crisis, ask when. In the last few years we've witnessed many “pristine” national brands taking public relations hits including Susan G. Komen, Boy Scouts of America, and even Food Network superstar, Paula Deen. Some of these cases ended up more favorable than others, but much is to be learned from each situation.

Though not many nonprofits have crisis communication plans, every organization should have one in place. No matter the size of a nonprofit or organization, crisis is inevitable and will vary in size and scope. Toss in the immediacy of today's social media outlets and you have the perfect storm for crisis, forcing a minor incident to explode online into a would could become a disaster.

The time to plan for a crisis is before it hits, so below I share some portions of a crisis plan to consider applying to your nonprofit for 2014.

Important plans to implement:

  • Your first shot at framing the issue with the public is your best one. You know what people say about first impressions - they are lasting. In a crisis, be the first to present timely yet accurate information, taking into consideration the well being of any victims or parties involved.
  • Transparency is the first step in rebuilding trust in your brand. Never say “no comment.” That in itself is a comment, and it forces audiences to ask what else the organization is hiding. As a crisis unfolds, it is imperative to keep audiences informed. The Susan G. Komen foundation made this mistake when, in 2012 after defunding Planned Parenthood, a social media frenzy began without response or acknowledgement from the foundation until it was too late. If you cede messages to be formed by your critics, you lose the PR battle.
  • Have someone monitoring your social media daily. Many organizations don’t. There is no more denying the importance of social media as a crucial means of communication. In 2013, Facebook reported more than 1.15 billion total users and Twitter hosted more than 500 million total users. With such an extensive reach, nonprofits must have someone ensuring that social media profiles stay relevant. Twitter and Facebook are opportunities to keep your audiences informed with any recent developments - crisis or not.
  • Designate a Crisis Response Team. Your team should include a decision maker, legal counsel, internal, and external communicators. Legal counsel is especially important when developing talking points for multiple levels of your organization and the public. Since bad news does not get better with time, make sure your team is ready with swift and direct responses to any crises that can be spread down the chain of command so that all employees are informed.
  • Adopt a Social Media Policy for your company. When adopting a social media policy, tailor guidelines to the needs and culture of the organization and highlight your team’s need for common sense and good judgment. In the event of a crisis, remind the team to respect the social media policy so that communication is left to the Crisis Response Team.
  • Make sure the organization’s 990 forms are up-to-date. Another important issue for nonprofits is the dreaded 990 form. Set reminders to review your organization’s mission and purpose in the 990 form so that it aligns with current operations. Media and donors will critically review these forms, and every nonprofit should plan who can speak about it on behalf of the organization.
Crisis does not come in a “one size fits all” package. Each scenario has different stakeholders and audiences, weaving a complex communications web to be addressed. Still, the basics hold true for nearly all crises: plan, anticipate, train and repeat.

Now that you expect the shoe to drop, be ready to catch it. What’s in your crisis kit?

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