The following is reprinted with permission from the winter 2011 issue of Nonprofit Insights, our quarterly newsletter for nonprofit decision-makers:

News travels fast. Bad news travels faster.

The first hint might appear when your executive director takes a call from the local newspaper. “Did you know about your van driver’s drinking problem?”

Or maybe it’s an e-mail from a nonprofit blogger: “How can you terminate these workers right before the holidays?”

When bad news happens, you can bet the community, including donors and the media, will have questions.

Communicating in a Crisis

No matter the size, all nonprofits need a basic crisis communication plan. It could involve simply identifying a spokesperson and creating talking points so that you’re prepared when an issue breaks. Or, it could be as involved as developing press releases, setting up a media hotline, and creating a social media strategy for getting the word out.

The bottom line is that when “stuff happens,” nonprofits need to take action — and then communicate that action to all interested parties. The basic components of a solid communication plan include:

  • Policies regarding media inquiries – How and under what conditions will the organization respond (e.g., always in person, never by e-mail)?
  • Tapping a spokesperson – Ideally, one person should be authorized to speak on behalf of the organization.
  • Key audience and media list – Which public officials, members/clients and media are to be contacted first?
  • Responses for common media inquiries – Talking points, statements or position papers should be created and pre-approved by the board.

Here, it can be invaluable to bring in an outside consultant/trainer experienced in journalism and public relations. Media training needn’t cost a lot. Look to your board to see if you have someone who works in public relations or is a member of the media

Know Who to Talk To (And When)

Just as important as having a plan for how and what to communicate is knowing who to communicate with. Breaking news should be conveyed first to your board, staff, volunteers and donors. They need to know that media coverage may be commencing and what the organization’s response will be.

Next up, of course, is the media. Even if your legal counsel advises restraint, you probably should say something. “No comment” is often not an option. If you can’t comment, explain why silence is necessary at this time and when you expect to have a comment. Likewise, don’t appear to hedge or hide, no matter how uncomfortable the question.

When working with the media, consider these golden rules of media relations:

  1. Maintain credibility by always being honest and accurate (never lie or speculate).
  2. Return journalists’ phone calls promptly and respect their publication deadlines.
  3. Admit to not knowing an answer and commit to finding the correct information.
  4. Correct any mistakes immediately.
  5. Consider everything to be “on the record.”

Putting the Plan Into Action

The key to crisis communication is to respond quickly. The one-hour rule applies here: Within one hour of learning about a crisis, the organization should have its first message available to the public, particularly the media.

Prepare a statement. The first step is to draft a clear summary detailing what happened and what your nonprofit is doing about it. Just as important, convey how your organization feels about it. Nonprofits are perceived as being in the “compassion business,” so it would be inconsistent for any statement to appear unemotional.

Be concerned — and show it! Of course, your message must be absolutely truthful. That doesn’t mean you have to expose your organization to undue legal liability or tell everything all at once. But it does mean that you cannot lie, deceive or mislead.

Speak with one voice. Designate a single spokesperson to speak on behalf of the organization. If multiple spokespersons are required, careful coordination is essential to ensure that they are all working from the same script and presenting the same information and facts.

Communicate a plan. Nothing inspires confidence (and forgiveness) in a crisis more than having a plan for moving forward. Communicate clearly that you understand what happened, that you have learned from it and how the organization plans to move forward.

Help the media tell your story. Distribute a media kit with facts on your mission, programs, sources of funds, and how your activities directly benefit the public. An easily e-mailed format is preferred, but also maintain a hard copy in case the crisis is accompanied by loss of power or technology.

Use the Web and social media. It’s not enough to simply post an approved message on your website. Proactively convey your message via social media tools (Facebook, Twitter, local discussion boards, etc.) Ditto for responding to e-mails and blog comments.

Crisis Communication is Reputation Management

When crafting a crisis communication plan, don’t lose sight of your primary goal: maintaining (or if necessary, restoring) your credibility. Ultimately, you want to weather the crisis and return to your mission. It’s hard to do so if you’ve lost public confidence in your organization.

The public will tolerate mistakes — even grievous ones. But they will not tolerate being lied to or treated arrogantly. Your crisis communication must clearly convey in honest and human terms that you value the public’s support and that you will communicate with them honestly and respectfully. 

To read the other articles in this issue or previous issues of Nonprofit Insights, click here.