Six Steps to Clear Communication During a Crisis

Thoughtware Alert Published: Apr 06, 2020
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Nonprofits are no strangers to crises. In fact, they often thrive during these times. Organizations are on the front lines of responding to weather disasters, human tragedies and social hardships. But even the most seasoned leader may not have anticipated the unimaginable crisis that has occurred over the past days and weeks: the SARS-CoV-2 virus and the incidence of COVID-19 (COVID-19) pandemic.

Leaders are now challenged with three critical tasks:

  1. Protecting the health and well-being of their staff and volunteers
  2. Maintaining strong programs and services to help those in need
  3. Sustaining the organization’s financial viability

Success in all three requires clear, consistent communication.

A crisis communication plan can help stabilize your organization and mitigate disruption to your programs and services.

Getting Started

The best time to deal with a crisis is before it happens. In the event your organization has not created a plan, it’s never too late to implement one—even when you’re in the midst of a crisis.

There are six major steps in creating a crisis communication plan:  

  1. Form a crisis management team
  2. Define a crisis for your organization
  3. Develop a system to monitor and respond
  4. Identify a spokesperson
  5. Form key messages and materials
  6. Develop a stakeholder contact map

1. Form a crisis management team

A crisis management team is charged with managing and leading organizations during times of emergencies and crises. The team typically consists of senior staff and board members, with the executive director or board chair serving as the designated leader. Ideally you have at least one person with experience in media or public relations.

This group will provide key support and guidance before, during and after a crisis.

2. Define a crisis

A crisis is any event, real or perceived, that has the potential to bring harm to an organization and threaten its reputation, programs, future growth and possibly its very survival.

Start writing your plan by thinking through possible scenarios or negative events that could make your organization vulnerable. These might include weather disasters, workplace violence, criminal activities, data breach, program disruption, loss of major funding and human error. 

A list can help you determine how events might affect your organization and steps you could take to minimize the damage.

3. Develop a system to monitor and respond

Crises are rarely one-day events. They may linger for days, weeks or even months. Throughout the duration, a crisis can take different forms. As the situation changes, your organization needs a system to monitor how things are evolving and how stakeholders are responding. Information gathering is essential as your team develops appropriate strategies and responses.

4. Identify a spokesperson

Every organization should identify a spokesperson. This is usually the executive director or the board chair. This person also should be serving on the crisis management team as outlined earlier. This individual needs to be:

  • Articulate and comfortable speaking before cameras and in front of live audiences
  • Knowledgeable about the organization’s programs and services
  • Quick-thinking and calm in high-stress situations

Having one person making public announcements helps keep the message consistent and provides a point of contact for the media and others. All inquiries must be directed to the designated spokesperson.  

5. Form key messages and materials

During a crisis, don’t hide. There is no such thing as “no response.” In fact, no response is a profound response.

What you say and how you say it matters. Decide which key messages are most important and should be emphasized. It’s also helpful to determine messages that should be avoided and not discussed publicly.

Create messages that align with organizational goals and help redirect the narrative back to your purpose statement and accomplishments.

In addition to messages for the spokesperson, create and distribute a list for your volunteers and other members so they know how to appropriately respond when asked by friends and colleagues about the situation.

6. Develop a stakeholder contact map

A stakeholder contact map is a contact list that pinpoints interested parties, from closest to farthest out. It helps answer:

  • Who should be notified during a crisis (closeness to organization and potential impact)
  • When they should receive notification (how quickly and with what frequency)
  • What information they need or should be given (how much should they be told)
  • Which communication channel is best (text, phone, email, website, media, etc.)

Internal communication always comes first. The crisis management team is top priority, followed by the entire board of directors and other staff. Volunteers, advisory board members, major funders/donors, partnering organizations and community leaders also should be included. 

Make sure staff members have a clear understanding of what has happened and how to move forward. Internal communication must be done quickly and frequently. Provide information and resources, making sure employees understand the protocol and have the tools they need to respond.

This list should be given to all crisis management team members, in both electronic and print format.

A crisis occurs when an organization loses control of its operations (actually or seemingly), and the consequences have (or appear to have) negative outcomes for the public. The objective of crisis management is to exert control over activities in ways that reassure stakeholders that their interests are cared for by the organization.

During and after the crisis, be diligent about staying in contact with all your internal and external stakeholders. Provide updates to donors and the community, letting them know how things are going and what changes you are making. If you have needs, explain how they can help.

In the midst of stabilizing your organization, don’t forget about the importance of people management. Emotions run high and individuals need reassurance. Remind them of your continual support and thank them for their dedication to your mission and to those you serve.

If you have questions about this or other topics as we carry on through the COVID-19 outbreak, reach out to your BKD Trusted Advisor or use the Contact Us form below.

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