Handling a PR Crisis

From financial issues to breaches of privacy to global pandemics, every nonprofit will encounter some kind of crisis that requires a response to the public. A PR crisis—a publicly available issue or controversy that poses a threat to the image of an organization—is a particularly difficult one to address. Many nonprofits struggle with how to respond when their very reputation is at stake, but there are a few steps you can take today to be prepared.

  1. Anticipate Disaster

The very first step your organization can take to mitigate the harm of a PR crisis is to anticipate them before they occur.

Find your worst-case scenario: identify the biggest PR disasters that could occur in your sector, even if you believe there is no chance they could ever happen at your organization. Are there safety or health regulations you must operate within? What actions go against your core values?

Maybe you work in animal welfare. Consider some of the worst possible controversies that could arise in your industry. Partnering with a company that does abusive testing on animals, or even internal animal abuse caused by a member of staff, are issues that are likely fundamentally misaligned with your mission, so you might assume they will never occur. Plan for them as if they are a possibility and determine what your organization would do if such an event were to occur.

  1. Have a Crisis Communications Team

Identify and train certain individuals to handle a crisis situation. Having a response team in place allows an organization to proactively respond to a crisis, rather than scrambling to decide what to do.

Start by identifying who has access to what information. You’ll want to involve several members of leadership, perhaps on a volunteer basis according to the needs of your organization. These members should have the authority to make key decisions themselves. In case of a crisis, staff members should simply alert the first person on the crisis communications team to set off the recovery process.

Picture this: the organization’s Instagram account is hacked and begins to post offensive content. The first person to notice might be a social media intern, who alerts their boss, who tries to get in touch with their boss but can’t get through, so they decide to reach out to a colleague who tries to reach the head of the IT department. This could go on and on, all as more harm is done to your public image.

With a properly organized crisis communications team, the intern can instead simply alert the first person on the team; say, the director of customer service. The director, trained and authorized to act in a crisis, can then immediately call for a calm, prompt response—changing other social media passwords, reaching out to Instagram support, alerting other members of the team—and recovery can start right away.

  1. Prepare a Rapid Initial Response

Part of the success of crisis communications comes from the speed at which an organization responds.

When a PR crisis occurs, the last thing you want to be doing is scrambling to come up with a response. In today’s social media driven news cycle, word of any crisis will spread quickly. Even if you are not yet prepared to make a full statement, your team should have some kind of response template ready to go that includes three things: acknowledgment of an issue, a statement that you are investigating, and a thank you to the public for standing by as your company looks into the issue.

If a member of your animal shelter staff is found to have been harming animals, your crisis communications team can immediately post about how these actions go against your organizational mission and do not reflect the values of the organization, and thank your supporters for understanding as you investigate further.

Thanking the public for their patience as you investigate tells them that you are, in fact, investigating and searching for resolution, rather than just ignoring the issue at hand. Having a tweet at the top of your public social media that clearly states you are investigating the issue will help keep some of the flood of public response at bay.

  1. Be Transparent

Finally, always keep in mind that transparency is key.

When you are posting an official response, make sure that you clearly state what the issue was, how it occurred, and the steps you are taking to prevent further issues in the future. Avoid promising things you cannot accomplish. And when you take steps towards a better future, show them to the public.

Responding to a crisis with these four steps can leave your reputation strengthened rather than damaged.

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