There is an old adage that negative attention is better than no attention, and that any press is good press. For nonprofits, which depend on the public’s perception of their effectiveness and integrity, nothing could be further from the truth.
From a major donor landing in legal trouble, to a defection of a top fundraiser, issues could turn into a crisis for a nonprofit. If the media pounces, the average nonprofit could find it difficult to weather the storm.
The arrival of a crisis is not the time to start thinking about a crisis communication plan. If—and much more likely, when—a crisis arrives, an organization must already have plans, people, and procedures in place to deal with it.
Nonprofits, which generally have far fewer resources than their corporate counterparts, have to first evaluate risk. That means asking what could go wrong, what a worst-case scenario looks like, and which response is most likely to work quickly and effectively under fire.
Social Media: Putting the Power of Media in the Hands of the Nonprofit
If an organization doesn’t manage the media during a crisis, the media will manage it for them. During a crisis, an organization depends on its ability to project its side of the story, to appear honest and transparent, to explain its position, and to articulate its proposed solution.
Newspapers and television networks can seem to earn ratings through negative, cynical coverage, but social media puts the power of messaging back in the hands of the organization. Nonprofits have to develop a team dedicated to de-escalating a crisis through the management of communication.
That team must include an experienced social media expert.
Social media gives nonprofits a direct link to the people most concerned with their organization. It gives them not only the ability to listen to those people, but to engage them directly and personally in real time.
So, what does this look like in real life?
Southwest Airlines and Social Media: Twitter as a Crisis Management Tool
On Sunday, October 11, 2015, Southwest Airlines suffered a catastrophic computer crash that grounded 800 flights, stranded countless thousands of fliers, and rendered their website inoperable. A massive influx of phone calls shut down their phone system. As lines stretched for miles and angry passengers camped out in airports, a salivating media began labeling the disaster as “Bloody Sunday.”
Although Southwest is not a nonprofit, the private sector, public sector, and the nonprofit sector alike could all take a lesson in crisis communication in how the airline responded.
With traditional communication lines like telephone networks rendered useless, Southwest quickly and effectively turned to social media. Twitter became the airline’s base of operations. They responded to every single tweet (there were tens of thousands of them) from every single frustrated passenger. They answered questions about flight delays. They confirmed or disconfirmed reservations to customers who couldn’t access the website. They delivered pizzas to hungry passengers trapped in airports.
In the end, catastrophe was avoided and passengers— as well as the media—generally praised the airline’s quick response and innovative use of social media as a powerful communication tool. Their crisis communication plan helped them avoid a crisis that had all the ingredients for lasting brand damage.
Developing a Crisis Communication Strategy
The first step is to understand the difference between an issue and a crisis. An issue is a negative, yet predictable, circumstance that any organization should expect to encounter—say, the firing of a top executive. If allowed to fester, however, that issue could become a crisis if, for example, the media reported that the top executive was fired for embezzling funds.
This story could crush an organization that does not have a crisis management plan in place. Nonprofits, therefore, must prepare for the worst by:
- Assembling a dedicated team that includes a top decision maker (perhaps the executive director), a public relations expert, and a social media manager.
- Ensure the integrity of their communications platforms by making sure that all social channels have the correct privacy settings, as described in this article.
- Identifying a worst-case scenario.
- Assigning responsibility. Who will write a press release? Who will be the media’s main contact? Who will address the staff and volunteers? Who will engage the donors? Perhaps most importantly, it should be determined which parties will not talk to the media no matter the circumstance.
- Social Media during a crisis: Who will be in charge of the nonprofit’s social channels? Does the nonprofit have the proper privacy settings to prevent the wrong personnel from gaining access and control? What is the strategy in case the crisis is created by the social media team?
- Creating materials and systems: The team may create a dedicated phone line and social media accounts exclusively for use during a crisis. They may also develop materials and documents to aid their response.
Like governmental and corporate organizations, nonprofits are run by human beings who make mistakes and commit errors in judgment. Unlike their public and private counterparts, however, nonprofits don’t generally have the resources and systems in place to communicate effectively when those problems and mistakes turn into crises. Nonprofits can’t wait until a crisis arises to assemble a team, develop a plan and rehearse a social media-based communication strategy for handling the problem. If they do, the news media will be sure to handle it for them.
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