One Crisis Away from a Meltdown

Dan Billingsley, Vice President External Affairs, Oklahoma Center for Nonprofits

When you ask a nonprofit about their crisis communication plans, often you get either a shrug or a panicked look. Sometimes, there is indifference. However, you usually hear someone say, “I never thought of that.” Let’s face it. Crisis is just around the corner, and it could be a disaster for our donor relationships, staff, board, clients and the public.

When you hear “PR,” many think it stands for “public relations.” A better definition could be “protect reputation.” Reputation these days is precious, and it is hard to quantify. However, protecting our reputation is paramount to avoiding risk. So much rides on our reputation, including our profits. Remember – as a nonprofit you have to balance transparency and honesty with privacy and diligence in any crisis. How will your nonprofit react if the unthinkable happens?

It Won’t Happen to Us!
No one’s house is truly fireproof. That includes being a nonprofit. Just because we are beloved by the community, our donors and the people that we serve, we aren’t necessarily perfect. Things – both in and out of our control – can happen, and when we’re not prepared or paying attention, they can spiral out of control. One company that has faced multiple PR crises over the past several months is United Airlines. From passengers injured and dragged from planes, to scorpion stings, to dead rabbits and now to overheating babies on sweltering tarmacs, the airline has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. You might not have scorpion stings, but a nonprofit could face a fraud, a criminal investigation of a board or staff member, failure to report sexual assault, misuse of restricted funds, an unsavory “uncoupling” of a CEO and a board. The list is endless.

Nobody Reads the Paper!
I was recently facilitating a board retreat and reminding the folks in the room of a massive fraud that made the news last year about another association. One person said, “I don’t read the paper.” Just because you don’t read the paper doesn’t mean other people aren’t listening. There are lots of ways people get the news, and frankly, the worst way is via a social media rumor. As a journalism major, one of the first things I learned about the news is, “If it bleeds, it leads!” The more sordid the story, the faster it ends up making headlines. Oklahomans are the nicest people in America, but we love a good scandal. So do media outlets. And guess what – everyone who is important reads the paper!

It will all die down, eventually!
Stories don’t last long in the news. However, memories last forever. Your organization may have made it out of the news cycle alive, but your donors and other constituents don’t forget nearly as quickly. We can’t rely on the wild media cycle to save us. The distaste and bitterness of our crisis, scandal or bad news will live on well after Anderson Cooper moves on to disaster coverage.

What you must do!
Notice, we’re using a lot of exclamation points here! Every organization needs four things: a crisis communications plan, policies and procedures that you adhere to, a designated spokesperson and a clear, concise and honest message. If your organization finds yourself on the wrong side of a story, it’s your responsibility to take control of the message the best way possible. Be honest. Be direct. Be transparent. Most of all, decide what you are going to give to the public as a statement.

A PR crisis isn’t a fun time in the lifecycle of the nonprofit, but if you have strong relationships with your donors, the media, your clients and the public, most can weather the storm rather unscathed. Start by being proactive with the media and getting the good stories out there. Let your donors know all of the work you are accomplishing in the community. Listen to clients and allow them to give you feedback – and actually do something with it. Our reputation is our single greatest asset to our mission. Keeping it intact should be at the top of our lists.

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The Art of FundraisingMarnie Taylor