By Melissa Lagowski
Big Buzz Idea Group
It is a moment that every nonprofit executive hopes will never come: Your day is flowing like most days, and all is well when, in a blink, a single phone call disrupts the status quo and turns your world upside down.
Dazed and confused now, how do you react? What are the next steps? Who ya gonna call?
As part of your fiduciary responsibilities to your association, it is prudent to have a crisis communication plan in place. This is a task that many organizations put on their to-do list, but other priorities often push it to the side. However, it is very much in your best interest to devote the time to create this plan before you need it.
Much like practicing a fire drill, cooler heads prevail and, with a crisis plan already in place, it is much simpler to activate it quickly and effectively. Organizations that are caught unprepared are forced to figure out how to create a plan on the fly while also juggling the chaos of the situation at hand. Emotions will be running high and, in the rush to issue statements or take appropriate action, mistakes can easily be made.
A crisis can emerge in a variety of shapes and sizes. It could be an incident specific to your leadership team (such as legal trouble or a sudden and unimagined resignation or death), or perhaps a heated termination of an employee. Maybe the organization has uncovered some financial issues, or the crisis might be the result of a natural disaster. Regardless of the cause or severity of the crisis, having a plan in place that can be quickly executed will help mitigate disaster if the unexpected occurs – protecting your job and safeguarding the organization.
The first step is to envision and document all the potential crises that could hit your nonprofit. Perhaps this list includes scenarios like an internal sexual harassment claim, or the untimely death of a senior leader, or an unexpected employee doing something publicly to embarrass or shame the organization. They would all be itemized. Generating a comprehensive list of all possible scenarios will put you in the right frame of mind for thinking through what it would look like to apply the plan if you needed to.
Organize a Communication Tree
When a crisis arises, who in your organization needs to be notified and who will notify them? Diagramming a communication tree filled with the names and phone numbers of appropriate parties will allow you to jump to action if the unthinkable happens.
Assign Roles and Responsibilities
Now you will need to start thinking more strategically. Who will be the spokesperson for the organization? Perhaps the Executive Director, the CEO or the Board President may be the obvious choice. But in different situations, the right spokesperson could be the Development Director, the Treasurer or the Director of HR. This is never a one-size-fits-all, so having that list of possible crises provides the playbook that determines whom on your team will represent the association and when.
Be sure not to overlook the communications within your nonprofit, as well. Mitigating risk internally is just as important as managing the situation outside of your organization. The leadership team and the board of directors need to make sure that crucial information is being shared with employees (and maybe even your volunteers) at all levels so that they, too, can be prepared and/or comforted to know what is happening.
Create a Communication Plan
The next step is to consider the messaging to put out for each of the scenarios you brainstormed. What would you want to say if your Executive Director of 15 years suddenly resigns with little warning? What might you share if there is a scandal with a board member?
Don’t just think about what to say, but how will you communicate? Will it be a written statement or a recorded video? What does the frequency of your communication look like for the various crises?
Regardless of what you plan to say in advance, when thrust in the middle of a crisis, remember that it is okay – even necessary – to take a pause. Choose the wording carefully but be honest. If you need to tell the media that you are still collecting all the details, that is okay. But say something. Silence and distance can make people suspicious, so even if you can’t reveal much, continue to drip small bits of information to each of your audiences (again don’t forget your employees) on a regular basis.
Prepare a Master Checklist
After outlining your full crisis management plan, create a master checklist for crisis management. This simple but effective tool will ensure that none of the steps in the plan are glossed over or skipped in the event of a real emergency within your nonprofit.
Think about what resources you might need in the event of a crisis, such as attorneys, PR agents or other counsel. Confirm if your legal team can handle certain difficult matters of this nature or if you need to source an alternative. It is better to know you already have adequate resources secured rather than waiting for a crisis to solicit and vet a suitable PR professional, which can significantly delay communications. Worse yet, in a rush you might feel compelled to hire the first PR agent you find rather than knowing you have the best advisor for your association.
Once your crisis management plan is crafted, it would be wise to have it reviewed by an independent third party such as your crisis attorney or your crisis PR professional. When preparing for problems, the professionals who work in this space can recognize the best-case scenarios and the worst-case scenarios and provide valuable feedback on your plan.
It is always a good idea to invest in speaker training for the leadership of your organization. There are coaches who provide this service, and the investment always pays off. This training will help nonprofit leadership to sound more professional and more confident while also keeping on point about key messaging. Speaker coaching is good in a crisis, but it is also helpful in donor solicitations and general representation of your association.
The idea of creating a crisis management plan may seem like a daunting task, especially if you are part of a small team, but this can be a great project for a task force or your Governance Committee to draft. When broken up into pieces and spread out over the course of the next year, the project will feel more manageable for you and your team.
While the hope is that your organization never has to experience a crisis, making the time to create a plan and properly preparing for this possibility will help you weather the storm and mitigate the damage to your nonprofit to quickly move beyond the problem.