Prepare Now to Handle a Reputation-Damaging Crisis

Many nonprofits take time to develop disaster plans in anticipation of natural disasters, active shooter situations and other harrowing events. They may not, however, think about handling a crisis such as sexual harassment or embezzlement allegations against a leader, a regrettable social media post or similar circumstances that could generate significant damage. Here’s how to protect yourself from this type of harm.

What are your risks?

The first step is to identify your vulnerabilities — those that could cause substantial reputational, financial or other damage. Then prioritize these risks, based on likelihood and potential cost.

Run multiple scenarios of possible crises involving the highest priority risks to get a sense of how they might play out. How would supporters, donors and the media react? How should you respond to mitigate damage? How can you detect such crises before they spiral out of control?

Who’s in charge?

Your crisis management team should include the executive director, communications director, HR and, if applicable, general counsel. You want to keep the core relatively small to facilitate quick decision-making and action.

But you also want to include people with expertise relevant to the top priority risks (for example, the IT manager for cyber risks or the operations manager for a flood). When a crisis hits, you can add team members as needed.

What to put in writing?

A crisis manual — updated at least annually and reviewed by the individuals involved — will make it easier to mobilize if a crisis occurs. The manual should include a communication system for staying in touch with essential leaders, staff and stakeholders. Compile the list of key persons now so you don’t inadvertently overlook anyone essential when the time comes. And assign someone to keep contact information current.

The manual also should comprise draft templates of talking points with a general response and information about the organization. You can get a head start, too, on draft press releases, social media posts and statements for your website. While the tasks may sound a little far-fetched right now, you could be thankful later that you’ve given the topics some advance thought.

You may find that you need outside assistance if the actual crisis is major. Research and vet resources now so you’ll have a ready-to-go list.

How to communicate?

In today’s world, inconsistent messaging from an organization’s representatives doesn’t escape notice. Appoint primary and secondary spokespersons and see that everyone is in the know. Make one person available to media 24/7; they should answer inquiries promptly to avoid the appearance that you’re hiding something. If necessary, provide media training.

You also should consider distributing talking points to the entire staff, and possibly, the board of directors. It’s a safe bet they have a social network, and people — friends, acquaintances, members of the media and even interested strangers — will send questions their way. It may prove more beneficial to keep everyone on the same page with a prepared response rather than to rely on their silence.

Messaging must align with your organization’s missions and values, as well. Re-emphasize those in your statements, preferably at the beginning (unless, for example, it would seem insensitive to victims).

Note that, while your messaging must remain consistent regardless of who’s presenting it, it can evolve over time; new facts will likely come to light. Monitor the online reactions to gauge how your response is going over and adjust as needed. Maintain truthfulness.

What about openness?

Transparency — within reason — goes a long way in containing crises. Hiding the truth and covering up errors only leaves you open to more criticism and rounds of negative media coverage. You’re generally better off admitting any mistakes and sharing your plans for remedying them.

Confirm facts to the extent your attorneys approve. Generally, don’t delete online posts, blogs or website pages with incriminating information, such as a policy you deviated from, or the ensuing social media comments, unless they’re offensive or reveal confidential information. Check with your attorneys before taking such action.

Tone counts

The substance of your response to a crisis is obviously critical, but so is the tone. Show concern and compassion, not denial or defensiveness.

After the event

The passing of a crisis shouldn’t mean the end of action on the nonprofit’s part. You need to take steps to restore your reputation and prevent future crises.

On the reputation front, keep up — if not intensify — your efforts to disseminate positive news about the organization via multiple channels. Distribute press releases, testimonials, case histories, outcome reports and similar materials through all your communication channels. This will not only help replace the bad news with good in the minds of your stakeholders, but also can help improve your online image by gradually moving back links about the crisis in search results.

You also should reconvene the crisis team, along with staff and board members who were highly involved in handling the crisis for review. What went well and what went poorly? What lessons have you learned that the organization can apply going forward to preempt crises and respond faster and more effectively? Armed with this information, revise your crisis plan accordingly.

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