Wendy Amundson is the owner of Amundson Communications, a Minneapolis-based writing and consulting firm. She helps nonprofit organizations, government agencies and businesses develop clear, compelling marketing, communications, and development materials for external and internal audiences. In her 20+ years in business, she has produced nationally and regionally award‑winning communications materials for such clients as Abbott Northwestern Hospital, Wilder Foundation, Courage Center, The State of Minnesota, Capella University, United Way-Twin Cities, Goodwill/Easter Seals of Minnesota, Red Cross-Greater Minneapolis Chapter, and the Minnesota Council on Foundation’s Giving Forum.
Planning for a Crisis: Tips for Nonprofits
Guest post by: Wendy Amundson
Does “planning for a crisis” sound too much like “begging for trouble”? Is that why so few nonprofits have formal crisis communications plans in place? The use of social media has increased the speed with which a minor incident can become a major disaster, so crisis communication plans are more important than ever.
At the weekly #NPTalk on 5/4/11, participants shared ideas for what should be included in a crisis communications plan, why it’s needed, and even how to convince your boss and board to budget time and money to complete a plan.
What is a crisis?
When people think “crisis,” they usually think big – Hurricane Katrina big, 9/11 big. But an errant tweet or an ill-worded response to a complaint can be just as damaging to your organization’s reputation.
“Not every negative tweet, post or comment arises to the level of a crisis,” cautioned Leslie White (@ltwhite). “It becomes a crisis when the event/incident threatens your survival or well-being if you don’t address it.”
But shutting down all of your organization’s social media accounts isn’t the answer. Here are just a few examples of non-social media incidents that would require an immediate, thoughtful response from your organization:
• A local emergency that shuts down your organization or overwhelms service providers.
• An incident involving a client (intentional or unintentional injury, violence or even death).
• An incident involving staff or board (theft, violence, etc.).
• Sudden departure of a key leader.
• A partner organization’s reputation is called into question.
A crisis communication plan is the antidote to crisis situations. It’s the ability of an organization to respond quickly and concisely to address an issue, said Kristin Gast (@kristingast). And while that takes some ability to think on your feet, it also takes planning. As @worthwhilefilms noted, “the difficult part is to act quickly while maintaining your sanity.”
What should you have in your crisis communication plan?
• The names and 24-hour contact information of one or more designated spokespersons.
• 24-hour contact information for board members, executive team, and any outside resources you may wish to consult with, such as PR firms or attorneys.
• Key messages that will be constant no matter what the crisis may be.
• Guiding principles (such as be open and transparent, express regret if appropriate).
• A list of tasks that will need to be completed quickly once the crisis is identified, such as customized talking points, a fact sheet, a list of affected stakeholders, and who will be responsible for creating and updating these items.
• A format for a communications log to track what’s been done – who contacted you, time of call, time of response, other details.
• Talking points and instructions for non-spokespersons (what to do if you’re the first person to learn of a crisis, what you should and should not address; how to transition the caller to the spokesperson, etc.)
Other things you can do to prepare for a crisis
While these items may not be in your plan, they can help ensure you’ll be prepared:
• For crises related to social media, Leslie White (@ltwhite) recommends SocialFish’s social media triage chart as a resource.
• Prepare your spokespeople. If they aren’t comfortable on camera, have them practice in a non-crisis situation, suggests Nicole Reeves (@Neekospeak).
• Know how to quickly update your website to address the crisis and perhaps have a pre-populated webpage ready to go live that can be devoted to a crisis if necessary.
• Share the plan in advance, as well as information on where the plan can be found, on and off line, said Kassie Heisserer (@kheisserer).
When you’re in the middle of putting out daily fires, it’s tough for a crisis communication plan to rise to the top of the to-do pile. Many #NPTalkers recommended that an outside consultant be hired to help complete the task, but asked for advice on how to convince their bosses of the importance of spending this money. Here were some suggestions from @jjmillard, @worthwhilefilms, @ltwhite and others:
• Brainstorm a list of potential crises so they can see the possibilities for a crisis are more than they imagine. (Later this week, @ltwhite will be sharing a list of non-profit crisis situations that will help.)
• Argue that it’s like hiring a lawyer – hopefully it will save you money in the long run.
• Use the insurance analogy – you’re paying for something you hope you’ll never use, but when you need it, it can save the day.
• Help them understand that a crisis plan is mission critical, that a poorly handled crisis can be the end of your nonprofit.
Finally, let them know that an organization well trained in crisis communication not only helps ensure a crisis won’t “blow up,” it can even turn it into a positive, like the a recent incident at Red Cross. Ironically, it was not related to the natural disasters Red Cross responds to as part of its organizational mission, but to an employee’s tweet about being drunk. The organization’s ability to respond quickly, and with humor, helped turn a potential disaster into a lively donor drive!