Many nonprofits receive a quarter of all their annual donations at the end of the calendar year, so January is a very busy time. But as you are digging out from December and looking ahead to 2018, have you thought about the one thing that could spell your doom?
In the social media world, what you do when your nonprofit becomes the wrong type of hashtag can be a matter of life and death for an organization. We're not just talking about current hot-button issues like #MeToo and things arising over the politics, policies and tweets of President Donald Trump and the GOP. A viral PR crisis can happen at any time to any group over a range of issues, and when it does there are three things to remember: But before you even get to that point, you need a crisis PR audit, training and a PR professional to guide you through the training and the ultimate crisis. Avoid trying to wing it in a crisis because that can easily create a recipe for disaster.
So what kinds of events are we talking about and what can you do?
Worst case scenario: Could a United Airlines crisis strike your nonprofit?
Political events outside of your control, like the new tax bill and how it impacts charitable contributions, could change donor demographics. A sexual harassment scandal can decimate an unprepared nonprofit. An embezzlement scheme can sully an organization’s reputation for years to come. Hate speech could unexpectedly interrupt an event. Any of these situations and others can lead to a social media pile on, a pack of news media and TV trucks on your doorstep. When United Airlines dragged a passenger off a plane, it went viral and the subsequent reaction from the airline did not help matters. They handled it horribly.
And nonprofits are not immune to making a bad situation worse in a similar way. The problem is that most nonprofits focus on their charitable work, not their brand reputation. But a crisis can turn that upside down in the time it takes for a tweet or video from a passerby or angry member to go viral. Once a crisis gets out, you can't put it back in the bottle. The media is on it, social media is all over it and more importantly, your brand is damaged. Anticipating such a risk goes a long ways towards mitigating it before your nonprofit has a United Airlines-level problem on its hands.
How to prepare for a crisis in advance and avoid becoming 'viral toast'
From working with many institutions, we see that they may have a policy manual for a blizzard closing or even a shooter on the premises, but nothing for a viral PR disaster followed by a social medial pile on. So, what should you do if a crisis like embezzlement hits your nonprofit?
It is wise and essential to prepare beforehand. Hire a crisis PR consultant for a run through of your organization's advantages and disadvantages. She should do media training, crisis PR plan development, and crisis PR drills. And she should be on retainer so when a crisis hits, she can jump in and manage your response. In the case of embezzlement, here are the steps to take: Report it to the authorities and cooperate with the investigation, inform your employees, donors and members, and most importantly, be transparent with them and the media – and have your PR consultant involved throughout the process.
You need this because dealing with normal emergencies – such as a water main rupturing under your building – isn’t the same as being beat up on the internet and social media by public outrage. If you are hit with an embezzlement problem, or choose the wrong event speaker or a bad video gets out, you are viral toast. No one stops to think it will happen to them. But you need to have a plan and a consultant to help protect your brand. You need to know what to say and how to talk to the media if your organization is hit. How long will it take to get ready? Who will issue the statement? Do you have a Twitter account and someone to run it?
These are all questions you should know in advance and practice. And the planning needs to be more than putting aside a consultant's phone number or email address.
We can't stress strongly enough that media training, crisis preparation and “war room” style training drills are needed. A crisis, after all, is a war that could take down your nonprofit, so be ready. Remember these three rules:
- Stay calm and choose your reaction carefully.
- Keep your volunteer leadership and your key constituencies informed of your decision-making.
- Remember that you can own the hashtag if you show your thinking clearly to the public.
Andrew Blum is a crisis PR consultant and principal of AJB Communications. Chris Cloud is a founding member of Constellation Advancement, a New York consulting firm.