About Michael Shmarak

Michael Shmarak is Principal at Sidney Maxwell Public Relations, a Northbrook, IL-based public relations agency. Throughout his career, he has counseled both for- and non-profit organizations on how to manage, enhance and protect reputations. He currently advises the Infant Welfare Society of Chicago, and has served on Boards of Directors for the Chicago chapter of Community Health Charities and the Museum of Broadcast Communications. He is also Adjunct Lecturer at Northwestern University’s School of Professional Studies. Contact him via email or Twitter.

Responding Before and After a Crisis Is as Important as When It Happens

Nonprofit PR AdviceThe last time I checked, nonprofits were still businesses.

  • People are served by a nonprofit’s actions.
  • A nonprofit has staff that addresses those people’s needs.
  • Planning is involved to ensure the business mission is carried out.
  • There is money exchanging hands.

So tell me why a nonprofit and for-profit organization are different again?

I DO know the difference.   I have been in the PR business for a long time yet have never understood why nonprofit organizations are categorized on their own.   They contribute impact and influence to our communities like for-profit brands.  They deserve more accolades than they typically get…

…except when things go bad.  When that happens, people dart away quicker than a blink of an eye.

Just ask the folks at the Susan Komen Foundation when it ended its Planned Parenthood funding how a small decision can impact long-term reputation, and how its poorly executed response perpetuated reputation damage.  Or ask the Board of Directors at the Wounded Warrior Project about why it took so long to address its executives’ alleged lavish spending on themselves as opposed to where funds were most needed.

Despite the best intentions, many nonprofit executives don’t prepare for these episodes.  What’s more we human beings often become impulsive, emotional, and irrational when a crisis arises—and they are the very three responses that won’t help your cause.

But smart executives plan for a crisis before and after it happens—as opposed to during it.  That is what ultimately fuels long-term survival.

Life Insurance for Your Reputation

Preparing for your “plane crash” makes other crises more manageable.  For a few moments, step away from your nonprofit role and step into the shoes of an administrator for your city’s busiest hospital.  Along with managing daily operations, she is also holding disaster drills to ensure the hospital is ready for any situation that comes its way.  When disaster does strike, she manages public safety officials and the ambulances carrying patients so they get the best care; she manages staff and current patients within the hospital to ensure they are safe; she works with communications teams to keep media agencies informed; she has messages to inform families, media and others about the situation.  Web sites and phone numbers are ready so patients and members of the community can learn about loved ones.  Information is her ally.

We would never wish for such an incident, but planning for YOUR worst case scenario with the right information allows you to align staffing and operations, and how needs change when Boards and executive teams have to flip the switch to “code red.”  Thinking about the worst also allows you to plan ahead when things don’t cost as much to do—as opposed to when the crisis hits and your Board is authorizing spending that offsets organizational mission.

Think about the effects of your actions before AND AFTER making your decisions.   No matter what Boards of Directors say to the contrary, there is always room for second and third opinions about a decision being made, the timing in which it is being enacted and (important to this day and age) how social media could respond to the decision.

Bringing back our example at the Komen Foundation, the YouTube video and countless posts on Facebook and Twitter about how poorly executed the plan was did so much damage to the reputation of the organization; no one had sought opinions about how or if the decision would affect the reputation of the brand or those associated with it.  The organization and its PR team spent countless dollars and resources trying to restore its reputation—and to this date, it’s still not totally forgotten.

Review AND MEASURE policies for future needs.   When a crisis hits, you need fingers on the pulse of what your stakeholders and influencers think about a situation.  Importantly, though, you need to stay in constant communication with them so they know you’re addressing the problem—and proving it to them.  Stakeholders know when an adverse situation is being swept under a rug.  They don’t want to see statements; they want to see proof that change is happening.  Measurements go farther than process; show your stakeholders what the changes look and feel like—and secure their inputs.

To be sure, no two crises are the same.  But a little planning ahead of and after the issue can go a long way.  How far do you want to plan?  That’s up to you.




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