Monday, February 11, 2008

Crisis Communications

One of the benefits of doing communications and PR work in the non-profit sector is that the stories we tell are usually of the positive, heart-warming variety.

Sometimes though, we find ourselves faced with a crisis - a financial or personnel scandal, inappropriate remarks by a staff member, a sudden loss of funding, or something similar - that needs to be dealt with by the communications team.
[photo credit: Corrinne Curcio]

If you are responsible for your organization's communications, what should you do in a crisis situation? Like most things, the key is to be prepared.
  1. Create a Crisis Communications Plan. Do it now, before there's a crisis. That way when you need to respond to a difficult situation, everyone will know what to do right away. The plan should be a formal document that is easy to access anytime day or night (on an organization intranet, as a binder in a central location that can be easily referenced, etc.).
  2. Create a Crisis Communication Team. When a crisis hits, it's critical that the right people do the talking. Everyone should know who's responsible for creating and delivering the organization's response so that no time is lost making those decisions along the way. Make sure enough people are on the team to handle media inquires promptly, produce and distribute appropriate materials, staff a press conference if needed, and handle inbound calls from concerned institutional funders, donors and members.

  3. Tell the truth, tell it all and tell it fast. Although you may be counseled by legal staff to withhold certain factual elements, be as forthcoming as possible. Release information as soon as you have it (even if you only have bits and pieces), and be clear about what you know for sure and what you're still waiting to confirm. Always, always tell the truth. That doesn't mean you have to tell everything all at once, but never, ever lie.

  4. Show emotion. Be concerned, use language that shows concern, and take actions that demonstrate concern.

  5. Be prepared. Set a regular schedule for media trainings with your Crisis Communications Team so that team members - especially new ones - can systematically prepare for tough questions. Brainstorm potential problem scenarios, and have each team member take turns playing the part of reporter, and organization spokesperson. Videotape this exercise and play it back for the group to critique so that the entire team will know how to maximize their effectiveness on-camera.

For additional reading on this topic, try these great references:

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