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Communicating During a Crisis

crisisBy Stacy Jones

A crisis communications plan is essential for any nonprofit organization. Any number of situations can be cause for negative media directed at your organization, from mismanagement of funds on the board of directors, to legal disputes, to upset clients or former staff. The key to minimizing the potential damage to your organization’s reputation and integrity is to tell the truth and beat the media to the punch with the key facts. Nonprofits need to be proactive. Rarely do organizations focus on planning for negative media attention. Being proactive can save your reputation and save money in the long run. Negative media attention can cause a loss of potential or current funding or cause you to lose key constituents who are engaged in the organization. There are a few simple steps that can position your nonprofit to be ready to handle any media crisis that comes your way.

Designate a Crisis Management Team
It is important that you have a designated crisis management team made of key individuals from your organization.  And this team should be in place before a crisis ever happens. At the very minimum, the board chair, CEO/executive director and communications staff should be represented on the team, and each member should know their responsibilities ahead of time. The job of your team is to come up with a plan of action and decide who the spokesperson should be during a particular crisis.

Develop a Crisis Communications Plan
Your crisis communications plan and team member contact information should be kept with other important agency documentation, and copies should be made available to each team member. This is important should there be natural disaster and your office becomes inaccessible or your can no longer rely on regular communications channels.  Remember to test and update your plan often.

Assess the Negative Media Attention
Once you become aware there is negative media attention that will be focused on your organization, you should assemble your team and put your plan into action. The first step is to draft a clear consistent message in response to the crisis at hand. If your organization is responsible, it is better to be upfront, accept responsibility and detail an action plan to remedy the situation. The board, staff, volunteers, donors and other key constituents should receive a message detailing the potential negative media coverage, the organization’s response and any remedies the organization will take to fix the situation if that is warranted. It is critical to be upfront with your constituents about the crisis and your organization’s response, rather than allowing them to be caught off-guard after it is made public. Never lie or ignore the situation because it will only be worse. And never tell the media “no comment” in response to potential negative media attention.  Your designated spokesperson should respond to media inquires from the start and throughout the crisis.

Appoint a Skilled Spokesperson
Your spokesperson should be confident in their ability to communicate with the media, should practice the answers to potential “tough questions” prior to interviews, and must stay strong and consistent in their message.

Develop Sound Marketing Strategies for your Message
Finally, utilize the marketing strategies you have used in the past to present your message about the situation. Post your drafted message on your website and respond on blogs, MySpace or other places where people are talking about the crisis. If you do not present your position on the crisis, no one else will.  And the tone will be set by what is reported in the media alone with no commentary from your organization.

Plan ahead, stay strong, keep your message clear and consistent and put that plan into action to protect the reputation and integrity of your organization. Show your Board, donors and constituents that your nonprofit is responsible and accountable in all they do.

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