Would you know how to handle a crisis comms situation? A crisis can hit whatever the size or cause of your organisation. Many charities have never done any thinking or planning around crisis comms which can leave them vulnerable when one happens.
A crisis can take many forms. For example, it could be something that has happened internally (whether it is your fault or not) or a storm about something you do or are associated with (again whether true or not). Or it can be external, for example, a hot topic in your area of work which you are involved with, or something effecting your geographical community, such as a fire or flood. If handled right and in certain circumstances, you can come out the other side with new supporters or a stronger community.
A crisis can also be positive. For example, an unexpected growth, someone with a very high profile championing you, or some unplanned media profile.
Crisis comms planning
Whatever the situation, it pays to have done some thinking about the different situations which could affect you. How you respond in each situation may be different depending on how it could impact your reputation, your beneficiaries, your supporters, your employees, your partners etc. The scale of the crisis or how likely it is to escalate will also be a factor.
Can you list some possible situations which you would consider a crisis? Have any of these happened? What did you learn? What would you do differently next time and how have you documented this? What constitutes a crisis and what is business as usual?
If you are at the start of a crisis, would you know what to do? It can feel a bit ‘rabbit in headlights’ if you haven’t been in a situation like this before. It is good to plan for some of the logistics. For example:
- Who should be on your crisis comms team? Do they have defined roles? Is there someone in charge?
- Where should you meet?
- What tools do you need? Such as laptops, phones, a big wall and post-its?
- What channels would you use or avoid? (see using social media for crisis comms)
- How can you work best as a team to keep other informed about what is happening?
- What if it happens out of office hours? Do you have each other’s contact details or passwords? Would you respond from home or all go to the office? Do you have keys? Can you access the website or other channels remotely?
Building your crisis comms skills
Nothing beats actually being in a crisis to develop your skills. In my career I have lived through a few and can remember them very clearly. You learn a lot by being tested in this way. And if there is a next time, instinctive skills kick in.
Can you run a crisis simulation in your team? Can they write a press release under pressure and know how to get it signed off quickly? Do they know when they should involve the CEO or trustees? Have they got a collective tone of voice to be able to collectively respond to social media comments? Do they agree about when or how to respond to a fictional but possible situation? Can they make decisions quickly?
There are companies who run simulation sessions for organisations. I sat-in on one with Helpful Digital over the summer. They have their own secure platform where dummy tweets, emails, Facebook posts and a website can fully replicate the experience of being in the thick of a crisis comms situation. Brilliant to be able to experience a crisis without it being a real crisis!
Learn from others
Another useful way to build crisis comms skills is to look at how other organisations respond. Watch what they do. Would this approach work for you? For example, a few years ago Dogs Trust said that they felt more able to respond strongly to a negative press story after seeing how RNLI had responded to an earlier one.
Have sessions in your team meetings discussing other organisation’s approaches. Don’t just look at your peers. Think KFC running out of chicken.
There are lots of great case studies to read. Start with Brathay Trust – a lesson in crisis comms and Dan Slee’s recent investigation into the crisis comms around the Whaley Bridge dam incident.
[Take a look at RNLI’s current response to negative press stories about them using 2% of their income to fund overseas projects to prevent drowning. The story broke on Sunday resulting in negative comments and people saying they were cancelling donations. By the end of Monday there were over 4000 replies to RNLI’s initial tweet. #RNLI_disgrace has been trending all day mostly now with messages of support and new donations. A few charities have also tweeted their support including Save the Children, Friends of the Earth and the Institute of Fundraising all with a strong number of likes.
RNLI’s approach has been to proudly defend their work putting their values and mission at the centre of their comms. They have responded to hundreds of people with a personal message, not just a cut and paste of a statement. It feels authentic. They even changed their homepage to show a powerful image of one of the projects in action.]
Look after each other
Being in the middle of a crisis situation is stressful and tiring. It can also be very draining to be dealing with an unpleasant situation, a barrage of unpleasant comments or challenging internal pressures.
Think about how you’ll look after each other during and after the event. There may not be time for lunch or to work on everyday projects. Everyone may need some time out and treats to keep them going.
Charity Comms’ new guide to wellbeing has useful tips about building resilience and spotting the signs of fatigue.
What have you done to learn about crisis comms? What advice would you pass on? Are there examples of bad crisis comms we can learn from too? Please share in the comments.
Can I help you?
Please get in touch if I can help you with content planning, training or strategy. I work with charities of all shapes and sizes. I can help give your comms or digital processes a healthcheck and ideas injection.