Nonprofit Crisis Management – Plan for the Worst, Hope for the Best

There are very few certainties among charities and NGO’s, but one thing that’s just as sure as 990 filings is that at some point, some time, your group will face a crisis.  Perhaps a spokesperson or executive said something ill-advised and it got picked up, or maybe a staffer made a mistake.  These things happen to every group, and it is important to have a swift response.

The most crucial aspect of crisis management should happen long before the crisis hits.  Your group should have a detailed crisis management plan that can be quickly put into place.  These days, crisis situations often come up in social media first, and so this plan should live with your social media and communications team.  You should involve communications, marketing, public relations, email, web, social media, executives, and your legal team in your crisis management plan.  (Of course, with smaller groups, many of those functions may fall to one person.)  Decide what your plan of action will be, and answer the following questions:

  1. Where will the first response come from?  A press release, web story, social media?
  2. Who needs to approve talking points and communications?  Set up a review process that is as streamlined and efficient as possible.
  3. How will we communicate internally during a crisis?  Email, phone, in-person meetings, etc.
  4. Who will be responsible for responding to stakeholders?  Especially in smaller groups where one person functions as social media, public relations, and webmaster, make sure to divvy up the work so that this person isn’t overwhelmed.  Decide who will respond on social media, to media requests, and to emails.  If there are enough staff members, try to divide up time so that each person gets a break.

In a larger group, your next step should be to set up a crisis email list that includes all of the relevant people, and also gather all of their cell and home phone numbers.  A crisis doesn’t care that it’s 3:00 p.m. on a Saturday.

Once you have a basic plan in place, run through a few hypothetical situations.  What would we do if…?  How would we respond if….?  These examples will depend on the type of group you have, but your communications team and executives will know what your weaknesses and threats are, and what things are most likely to come up in a crisis.  It’s also helpful to know which other people from your group would need to be pulled in for various situations.  For example, if there’s an issue with a volunteer, you would need your volunteer coordinator involved in your crisis plan.

So you have a plan, you’ve practiced, and you’ve put it out of your mind as you continue your hectic daily work.  Until… crisis.  You see the first angry comments start to trickle in on your Facebook page.  Then there are a few tweets asking about the situation and demanding answers.

Don’t panic.

Stay calm and put your plan into place.  Get answers internally, and get your initial statement ready.  The most important thing to remember is to remain calm and try to emotionally detach yourself from the situation.  If you respond emotionally, you will only add fuel to the fire; stay professional always.  In general, your response should take on three stages:  acknowledge, rectify, move on.

Acknowledge:  We understand that some of our supporters are upset by recent comments….

Rectify:  We hear your concerns and will be incorporating your feedback into our program….

Move On:  Continue with your usual schedule.  You don’t want to dwell on the negative, and by doing so you’re only letting more people know about the issue.  Keep answering questions/concerns/comments that come in, but move on.

In the midst of a crisis, it can feel like it will go on forever.  But take heart, this too shall pass.  And once it does, the work isn’t over.

When things have quieted down and returned to normal, it’s time to do some analyzing.  Here are some questions that can help you gauge your crisis response and improve it for the next time:

  1. Did we follow our crisis management plan?
  2. If not, where did we stray from the plan and why?
  3. What happened that we didn’t plan/account for?
  4. How can we work those unexpected things into our plan?
  5. How did our stakeholders respond to our statement(s)?
  6. Were there certain statements that people responded more positively to?  What did they have in common, and how can we craft future statements to more closely resemble those?
  7. What themes did we see in people’s complaints?
  8. How many comments/questions/complaints did we see across all channels?  (Web, email, phone, Facebook, Twitter, etc)

These steps should help you successfully manage a crisis and live to tell the tale.

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