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Guidance on dealing with a crisis in your organisation – including what constitutes a crisis, how to put together and implement a crisis communications plan, tips on handling the media and pre-empting crises and a guide to how social media can affect crisis handling.
What is crisis management?
A crisis is something which poses genuine threat to the reputation or even survival of the organisation. This could be anything from a member of staff or a trustee who has behaved inappropriately, to the closure of some of your organisation’s services. It might be that one of your service users is unhappy with how your organisation has behaved – and told their story to the local press. Very often, it is when a bad news story about an organisation becomes public that it constitutes a real crisis.
The power of the media, particularly online media, means that news spread quickly. Whatever the crisis, managing it effectively is crucial to minimising damage to your organisation. Crisis management means having a plan in place for when things go wrong and making sure you are able to act quickly if the organisation comes under threat.
Why is communications important?
The way your organisation communicates during a crisis can make the difference between the crisis escalating out of control and it being a minor setback.
It is important to gain control of communications in a crisis by being proactive. If there is public interest in your crisis, you need to make sure you feed the appetite for news. If you don’t, the media will write their own stories. The aim of successful crisis communications is to show that the organisation is:
- going about its normal work
- controlling the crisis
- retaining the support of the people who matter most.
Mishandling crisis communications can make the whole situation very much worse. If the messaging is wrong, or the organisation appears to be in chaos, this looks bad on the organisation. And it makes another negative story for the media.
What should we be communicating in a crisis?
Every crisis is different, but there are four broad principles to consider when putting together your key messages.
- Empathy - show that you understand why people might be angry/upset/confused with the situation. e.g. “We recognise that service users and their families will be affected by the proposed closure of some of our services”.
- Context - put your situation in the context of what is happening to the sector as a whole, or to similar organisations. e.g. “All organisations are facing cuts and being forced to reduce services and we are no different.”
- Action - outline what your organisation is doing to deal with the crisis and where possible give examples of where you have already dealt with issues successfully. e.g. “At ‘charity X’ we are doing what we can to minimise the effect on our service users and their families. We have been open and honest with our service users and are making sure they are well supported during this difficult time. In the last couple of days we have put XXX people in touch with other support services.”
- Transparency - be open and honest. Journalists and their audiences can tell if you’re hiding something and being dishonest can do more damage to your organisation’s reputation. Mistakes happen and even in a real crisis, respect can be gained by admitting fault and being clear about the reasons for it. e.g. “We are aware mistakes have been made and we are working hard to rectify the situation. We have held several useful discussion sessions with service users and their families and are continuing to actively engage all those who are affected.”
How can we be prepared for a crisis?
Handing a crisis well can be made easier by good preparation. Firstly, it’s important to put together a crisis communications plan.
Secondly, you should try to pre-empt crises where possible.
Putting together a crisis communications plan
A basic crisis communications plan consists of a number of key areas.
1. Decide whether to go public
The first stage of your plan should be to decide within your organisations whether to speak out or not. If the crisis has not gone public and is unlikely to, you may decide it is better not to react. Nevertheless, you should still should develop some ‘lines to take’ just in case.
In situations where the story is already in the media – or it is likely to be in the media - you will want to put out a statement and react accordingly.
Nine times out of ten it is better to be pro-active and tackle the crisis head on rather than not saying anything and hoping it will go away.
2. Identify your key messages
What is your organisation’s ‘line’ on the crisis? Using the key principles of ‘empathy’, ‘context’ and ‘action’, how are you dealing with the crisis?
If possible, try to tackle potentially difficult questions head on.
Use a short question and answer sheet as well as a short statement (see below).
3. Developing a statement
Using the key messages, put together a short statement that explains your organisation’s position. The statement should be:
- short – three or four sentences maximum
- direct – tackling the issues head on
- unambiguous – avoid statements that are open to interpretation.
Make sure everything you say in the statement is something you are happy to be quoted on.
See: RESOURCE: Top tips for writing a media statement
4. Identifying and briefing spokespeople
Decide who is best to speak on the issue. Ideally you should have one or two spokespeople who are available and comfortable to speak on behalf of the organisation. Depending on the nature of the crisis, these may include:
- Chief Executive
- Head of communications
- Senior policy manager.
It can also be useful to have a service user as a spokesperson. They can help allay any fears about how the organisation is treating its service users.
Having a spokesperson from outside your organisation to give support is also useful. This is especially useful if the crisis involves a crisis of confidence in your organisation.
All spokespeople should be given a short question and answer sheet, outlining the organisations’ key lines.
5. Checking all communications mechanisms are in place and establishing a protocol
As well as print and broadcast media outlets, ensure any statements that you issue are sent to online outlets and are visible on your website. This can help minimise the number of calls your get directly from journalists.
Make sure there is a protocol in place within your organisation so that all staff know how to handle media inquiries.
Implementing the plan
As all crises are different, you will need to adapt your plan accordingly. You should go through you crisis communications plan and quickly establish the key points:
- key lines/messages
- communications channels and protocol
The most important thing is getting your messaging right, acting quickly and making sure all your spokespeople are well briefed.
Dealing with the media
When a negative story surfaces it automatically puts the organisation in a reactive position. Having spotted the threat you have now got to gain control. This is the secret to all good media relations. Don’t forget:
Timing – act fast
The phrase ‘speed kills’ has as much relevance to negative news as it does to road safety. If you’ve spotted a negative story of any kind you must act fast with a swift and effective response which at the very least contains the situation.
On a very simple level this means getting back to the journalist with an appropriate quote in time (i.e. within his/her deadline).
Timing plays a major part in gaining control – if you act fast enough an unbalanced story which has appeared in one part of the media will not be replicated in another.
‘Speed’ also means acting fast before the unbalanced story gets picked up by other media, potentially leading to an even greater PR disaster over which you have even less control.
Answering a journalist’s call
Saying no comment when a journalist calls or forgetting to return his/her call is a massive mistake. The former is likely to result in a completely unbalanced story with the damning tailpiece: ‘Charity X made no comment’ or worse, ‘Charity X refused to comment’
There is also a danger in going to the opposite extreme by making ill advised comments that haven’t been prepared.
The simple tactic here is to check the journalist’s deadline. Ask them what information they have, where they got it from and who else they have spoken to. Then tell them you will call back as soon as you can.
You have now hopefully bought yourself time to consult with colleagues and ensure that the relevant person drafts an appropriate statement (see below).
Download our essential tips for writing a media statement (you will have to register first - this takes 30 seconds)
Pre-empting a crisis
Ideally you want to pre-empt and avert a crisis before it occurs. Having a good idea of the potential threats to your organisation and having resources in place to deal with them is crucial. In fact, it can make the difference between a difficult situation being a minor internal blip – and turning into a full-blown crisis.
Identifying threats to your organisation
Knowing who and what your threats are is important in pre-empting crises. Depending on your organisation, the threats will be different. Some examples of the main sources include:
- funding crises
- staff or organisational performance
- external criticism
- physical (fire/burglary/illness).
Any strategy created to oversee corporate crises must include a plan for handling the media and must work on the assumption that your bad news will, one way or another, become public.
How can a threat turn into a crisis?
The potential threats to an organisation can quickly turn into a crisis – particularly if the media get hold of a ‘bad news’ story.
The ingredients of a bad news story include:
- the unexpected
- items of public interest
- superlatives (worst, last etc).
The nature of the work of many non-profit organisations means that from time to time a news story is bound to ‘tick’ one or other of these boxes. A really bad story will ‘tick’ several boxes at the same time.
The secret to tackling these potential media threats is to spot them at the earliest possible stage and take necessary action in-line with your organisation’s existing protocols. From a communications point of view, when a crisis is identified, the crisis management plan should kick into action.
Effective internal communications
Ensuring all staff are engaged in the crisis communications plan and protocols is important. It means you can act quickly should a crisis occur. It also minimises the likelihood of a member of staff giving an inaccurate or potentially damaging quote to a journalist.
Staff can also be strong advocates for your organisation. They can act as spokespeople, utilise social media outlets and ultimately act as the voice of the organisation.
The communications team should develop a set of standard key messages which tap straight into the organisation’s main communications strategy. These should be shared with staff and regularly refreshed.
Depending on the scale of the crisis, it is possible a staff briefing will be held to inform employees of the situation. It is important that communications forms a part of the briefing. Being prepared with a crisis communications plan, key messages and a protocol will help staff feel that the crisis in under control. It is also important for making sure staff know they should not communicate with trade media or even social media about the problem unless authorised.
Building a group of external advocates
Having spokespeople from outside the organisation who can speak positively on your behalf is a huge advantage. If there is a negative news story about your organisation, you will need to counter it with supportive voices and external endorsements.
Who should be advocates?
Building a group of external advocates and spokespeople should be a core part of any communications plan. These could be
- service users: people who engage with your organisations regularly and are positive about what you do
- supporters: members of the public who might have engaged with your organisation in some way such as campaigners, trustees or members
- partner organisations: organisations you have worked with who are supportive
- journalists: it may be that you have a particularly strong relationship with a journalist. Whilst they may not cover your crisis favourably, they might be more likely to give a balanced take on the story
- local MPs: if you are a local organisation, do you have well-respected local politicians who would speak out favourably?
What should we ask advocates to do?
Advocates can be encouraged to do a number of positive things in a crisis to help your organisation. This might include:
- writing supportive letters to the press (local or national)
- being quoted in press releases/media outlets
- being active on social media networks See: Crises and social media: mobilising your supporters
- making use of their own networks to advocate for your organisation.
Crises and social media
The explosion of the internet means it can take one negative comment about an organisation posted on a website to prompt a media crisis. Within minutes, the reputation of your organisation can be under threat and a bad news story can have made its way across the globe.
The web also means stories stay around for longer. A story that took minutes to spread is in cyberspace for ever. It may take on different forms – a blog post, a Tweet, a comment on a website – but a bad news story has the potential to rumble on long after the print media has finished with it.
Having a clear grasp of how social media works and taking control of your own output is now a key part of effective crisis management.
It also worth noting that a few 'negative comments' on message boards and Twitter feeds does not necessarily constitute a crisis. However, it’s important to keep an eye on comments and take action when you think it might be getting out of hand. Think about what the tipping point is for you organisation – and act when you feel it’s more than just a few
Monitoring the web
Social media networks
Keeping a close eye on what is being said about your organisation on social media sites is a good way to start. There are an ever-growing number of social networking sites, checking them all can be time consuming. However, a daily scan of the following should help:
- Twitter – have a look at your news feed and any lists that are relevant to your organisation. Follow your mentions to see what is being said about you
- Facebook/Bebo – search for mentions of your organisation and keep an eye out of any groups that might have formed in opposition to any campaign you are running
- LinkedIn – if your organisation has a LinkedIn profile, check related groups and message boards regularly
- Flickr/YouTube - worth keeping track of any photographs or videos that might be posted mentioning your organisation.
Online media: blog and message boards
Make sure you keep up to date lists of the most popular blogs in your particular sector. Make a point of checking them regularly to follow trends. And when you have positive news stories, ensure blogs are on your press lists.
When a bad news story breaks, quite often it will appear on blog posts or message boards. Have a look at the comments under articles on newspaper websites. If there are inaccuracies in what people are writing, or views you think are damaging to your organisation, you (or an advocate) should post a response.
If your organisation has a blog, or members of staff blog on behalf of your organisation, check comments on these too. Responding to questions on your message boards is important as it shows you are engaging with the public’s concerns.
Remember that comments added to articles and blogs won't necessarily appear in searches quickly. It is better to go and check them directly if you can.
Mobilising your supporters
Your supporters can play a major role in helping to advocate for your organisation in the event of a media crisis – particularly via social media outlets.
Depending on the nature of the crisis and the size of your organisation, you might want to encourage your supporters to do the following:
- use Twitter to post positive news stories/their own experience of the organisation
- respond to negative comments on message boards
- write their own blogposts putting across their point of view
- submit comment pieces to online outlets – such as Comment is Free or Eagle Eye
- create a Facebook page supporting your organisation
- alert you of any negative posts they are aware of on the internet.
Have your say
How has your organisation dealt with a crisis? Share your success and lessons-learnt on the communications and the media forum.