As professionals in the social sector committed to doing good, we’d like to think we’re immune to public relations crises. But, just like corporations, socially minded businesses and nonprofit organizations are susceptible to events, be they natural disasters, changes in leadership or issues with clients or partners, beyond our control. We’ve invited nonprofit communications consultant Aimee Sheahan, of Sheahan Communications, to share her expertise regarding how organizations can protect their hard-earned reputations and brands before, during and after a crisis arises.

On most days, social sector organizations enjoy a halo effect. When your reason for being is making life better for people, you’re often granted an automatic level of trust. But, when things go awry, your fall can be bigger, more public and carry bigger consequences.

The question is not IF your organization will experience an event of this kind, but WHEN. You may feel you do not have time or resources to devote to crisis planning, but can you afford the fallout if you don’t? It doesn’t take much to disrupt perceptions about who you are and what you stand for. But, a well-handled crisis or mistake can have the opposite effect, even raising your estimation in the eyes of your most important stakeholders.

Here are five tips to help you prepare for and handle your next crisis:

Identify your Crisis Team. 

These individuals are your first responders. They will oversee the crisis management process, gather and fact-check information, and communicate with employees, media, partners and stakeholders. The crisis team should include your senior leaders, including HR, operations and finance as well as development and communications. In today’s age of social media and 24-hour news, this group needs to know where and how to convene – even after hours – and what your response plans are so you can activate them at a moment’s notice.

Prepare for the Most Likely Scenarios. 

Every organization has vulnerabilities. The key to preventing a crisis is to identify them. Gather your crisis team, identify the scenarios most likely to affect your organization and document the ideal response, including message points. Common scenarios among social sector organizations are complaints from clients, natural disasters that impact operations, staff departures and campaign or program outcomes that don’t meet expectations.

Manage the Ripple Effect. 

The impact of a crisis rolls outward in a ripple effect, and your response should be designed accordingly. Imagine the crisis is a stone dropped in a pool of water. First, take care of the needs and concerns of those closest to the stone who are impacted directly – often these are clients, employees, families or others personally affected. Then, communicate to the next ring – your most important stakeholders, such as your board, major donors and partners. Finally, move to the outer rings – to external audiences and the general public. Honor and respond to those at the inner rings of impact, but move swiftly and don’t let the ripple effect get ahead of you. If the crisis at the epicenter is big enough, you will have to work at multiple levels almost simultaneously.

“Tell It All, Tell It Early, Tell It Yourself.” 

If you adopt a mantra for crisis communications, let this phrase coined by Lanny J. Davis, author of Crisis Tales, be it. Tell it all – when you’re responding to a crisis, gather the facts quickly, develop easy-to-understand messages and be as transparent as possible. Take responsibility if needed, and don’t hide behind the deadly “no comment.” Tell it early – move swiftly to respond and communicate. The first hour of a crisis is the most important, and the first day will largely determine how things go moving forward. Tell it yourself – own the message before someone else does and you lose control of the information and the situation.

When the Media Comes Calling. 

Not every crisis results in media calls, but you need to be prepared. Make sure your spokesperson prepares and practices responses to questions the interviewer is likely to ask. You can ensure there is time to prepare by having media procedures in place that direct all media inquiries to one individual, usually a communications or development contact, who will screen calls and prevent your spokesperson from being put on the spot. During the interview, stick to the facts, don’t speculate, show compassion and concern if appropriate, and stay calm and professional, even under fire. And remember, there is no such thing as “off the record.”

When information (or misinformation) can spread to thousands with the press of a button, no organization is immune, and it’s worth the investment to be prepared. Adding crisis planning to your contingency and risk management plans is an essential strategy to protect your organization’s reputation in a crisis.

We’d love to hear your thoughts on crisis preparation and how, if your organization has experienced a crisis, your preparation paid off.

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