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Communicating in Times of Crisis

Photography has the power to stop you in your tracks, to make mortality more than a fleeting thought, and to evoke a sense of patriotism for hard-earned freedom. Photos can also humanize or villanize the subject within the frame.

Two weeks ago, a photo surfaced of a drowned Syrian child washed up on a Turkish beach, sending shockwaves throughout the world. We’d witnessed the perils of international conflict before, but this somehow just felt different. And rightfully so. Immediately after this photo made its rounds through social media, traditional and digital media, concerned citizens began pledging their support and donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to organizations whose mission is to help Syrians.

Every nonprofit should prepare itself for the worst-case scenario with the hope of never having to put strategic actions and sobering photos into play. What can your organization say when tragedy hits your proverbial home?

Below are four tips for communicating in the time of crisis.

1. Develop a response plan before you need it.

We know that no one wants to think about disasters, but they are common in our line of work. Being proactive in your planning will help ease the process of navigating through emotional terrain to get the facts to your audiences. Together with their organization’s executive team, communications professionals should identify at least one employee from every department who can serve on the crisis communications team. When you’re planning, you’ll need the combined experience and knowledge to guide you.

Before you begin crafting the plan, you should know:

Types of crises– there are roughly ten categories of crises, including financial, environmental, and workplace. Each requires a tailored response.

Levels of responses– there are varying degrees of crisis communications response.If your organization hasn’t done so yet, it should create a scale of responses. On a scale of one to ten, list out what your organization should do; ranging from issuing a statement to stakeholders reaffirming your commitment to a population or a full plan of sending boots on the ground.

Planned actions– Every organization has a core set of competencies in which it excels. Stakeholders trust your work in these areas because you have shown repeated success in delivering the intended results. This experience is the foundation of your response. Times of crises are not the most appropriate time to try your hand at something new. Instead, define a core set of planned actions based on your organization’s competencies and different types of crises.

Determine the spokesperson– This person will serve as the face of your organization’s response. Take every measure to train them, and keep them accessible and informed as time goes on.

Where the donations will go– If you are receiving donations specifically for a named-crisis, make sure you keep tight records of what money, supplies and volunteer time you received. Having a representative from every department on the Crisis Communications team comes into play here.

Your organization’s brand and goodwill are on the line.

This past June, NPR and ProPublica conducted a report on The American Red Cross’s response to the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti. The series uncovered The Red Cross' mismanagement of $500 million in donor funding, a country struggling to rebuild, and people still in need of support. This was a hard-learned lesson for The Red Cross, and their image was negatively impacted. 

2. Create and manage your organization’s messaging.

Ask yourself, “What information does our organization need to share?”

 Keep information factual. As a good practice, stick to the basics of storytelling: who, what, when, where, why and how your organization is going to do to fix/respond to what’s going on. Additionally, make sure that you create messaging specifically for your employees to disseminate throughout their networks.

At this stage, you also want to determine what photos and videos your organization will need to commission to help shed light on what's going on, if necessary. Sometimes, visuals are better storytellers than words.

3. Inform your stakeholders.

It is important to establish notification and monitoring systems that dictate to whom you will speak and how often. From internal and external stakeholders, be truthful, over-communicate knowing that the information that you share across different channels of communication will vary.

You may update your website once a week, but you send out three emails within one week. Whatever rhythm you decide, make sure your outreach contains useful information.

4. Conduct a post-crisis analysis.

Often the most overlooked section of crisis communications is assessing how your team responded to the crisis. It may be a week or a year after the crisis, but your team needs to talk about what worked, what didn’t, and what it can do better next time.

As your organization fleshes out its crisis communications plans moving forward, this step also allows you the chance to document media coverage and how on-par the published messages were with your organization’s stance.

Depending on the scale of the response to the crisis, your organization may create a special report, complete with video and photos, if appropriate. Whether it’s just a blurb in the annual report, you need to be prepared to account for donor funding and support.

We are humans before we are communications professionals, and when crisis strikes it can be challenging to balance emotions with professional actions. By creating a crisis communications plan before you need it, your team will be poised to respond to the most difficult circumstances with grace.

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