Crisis communications: what you need to know

Daily Mail Charity Call Centres 20150707

Recently, it hasn’t been the happiest of times in the charity sector. Headlines, many of which dominated the front pages and commanded lead slots in radio and TV news, have highlighted staff pay and fundraising scandals sending many of the biggest and best known organisations into fire-fighting mode.

Daily Mail front page

Of course, these headlines have applied to a very small number of charities, but the interest they have created, and the questions they have posed, apply to many more. The last few months have provided a valuable reminder of the importance of anticipating and planning for a variety of potential scenarios that could threaten the reputation you’ve spent so long building up. Here are some top tips for planning for, and managing, a crisis situation.

Failing to plan is planning to fail.

Planning for something that might not happen is never wasted effort. Even if your worst fears seem rather unlikely, you’ll always learn something in the course of preparing for them, and you may well end up mitigating against them.

It’s worth planning for everything from a single disgruntled donor or service user, to a major complaint, a disaster (flood or fire at a service, for example), a tragic accident, or a systemic failure. And, as recent events have shown, you also need to consider the situations that might occur externally, which could throw a spotlight on your own work. The Daily Mail’s call-centre investigations, the Sun’s expose on staff costs, and the case of Poppy-seller Olive Cooke are just a few still-raw reminders.

Steps for planning a reputation management strategy

Once you’ve mapped out all the things that could occur, ranging from the likely to the unlikely, you need to develop a plan for dealing with them. Working through the following stages will allow you to build a decent reputation management strategy, ready for whatever might be round the corner.

1 – Audiences

Consider who you’d need to communicate with in each situation, how they’re likely to react, the questions they would want answered, and the impact of their responses/ actions.

2 – Intelligence

Gather as much relevant information as possible. Have any of these situations happened before? What was said then? How was it received? Are there any particularly difficult or sensitive services or relationships that would have bearing?

3 – Mitigation

Think about what you can do to limit the chances of these situations occurring. Are there relationships you can strengthen, or misunderstandings you need to tackle? Are there any tricky organisational issues that need to be addressed?

4 – Team

Form a crisis comms team that can be mobilised quickly and efficiently should a situation occur. Who will field calls from the media? Who’ll be responsible for gathering information, and who will act as your spokesperson? Your team needs to be senior and knowledgeable, and able to act fast. Make sure all those who will be representing you are fully media trained for crisis situations.

If you don’t have a strong, experienced comms team in house, you might want to meet an agency and pre-brief them on the issues so you are in a position to enlist support quickly if needed.

5 – Templates

Develop a set of template statements on the issues, so you’re ready to respond quickly and clearly. These will need to be revised and made specific to the detail of the situation when it happens, but you’ll at least have the essentials in place.

6 – Test

You’ll only know if you’ve done everything you can by testing it out. Organise a crisis scenario and play it out fully, across a day, to see if you have everything you need. If there are sticking points, debates about the right course of action, or any confusion about messaging, for example, this will give you a chance to fix them before the real thing.

And what if it a crisis actually happens?

Good communications can be the key to turning a bad situation into a positive one, or at the very least it will help you limit the damage done. Here are some principles to stick to if one of your issues strikes.

Acknowledge the situation – don’t just hope it will go away. Silence breeds speculation

Gather as much information as you can, as quickly as you can.

Communicate as much as possible. Don’t issue ‘no comments’ but stick to the facts.

Tailor and use your template statements, but don’t allow your core messaging to get confused or diluted in the process.

Be available and work with the media, not against them.

Monitor the situation, update your responses accordingly, and don’t get caught out because you missed a key development.

Assess how it all went, once things have died down, and feed learnings back into your planning for the next one!

Have you run a crisis test? What lessons did it throw up? We’d love to hear about your experiences in the comment boxes below.

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Kirsty Kitchen is a Senior Consultant at communications agency Amazon PR, specialists in the not-for-profit sector. She has worked with a host of charities and public sector bodies over the years, on everything from crisis management and brand strategy to media campaigns, events and fundraising.