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The Sustainable Nonprofit: What to Do When All Eyes Are on You

November 02, 2011

(Jane Jordan-Meier is the founder of Jane Jordan & Associates, a boutique training, coaching, and advisory firm in Northern California. Her book on media crisis management, The Four Highly Effective Stages of Crisis Management: How to Manage the Media in the Digital Age, was published in May. You can network with Jane through her LinkedIn profile and on Twitter @janejordanmeier. For more information or to book Jane for a keynote or workshop, contact her at jane@janejordan.net.)

Media-crisis-managementAlmost every day, it seems, media headlines, blog posts, and tweets focus our attention on yet another corporate scandal. Lest those in the nonprofit sector think they are above such shenanigans, think again. Yes, nonprofits are all about doing good work untainted or corrupted by the profit motive. But that doesn't mean they are immune from crises and public relations disasters. Just ask the American Red Cross, the Nature Conservancy, the United Way, or Susan G. Komen for the Cure®.

You don't need me to tell you that there's a lot at stake when a crisis and negative publicity engulf an organization. Every twitch of the spokesperson's face is closely examined for hints of remorse and/or guilt; donors get nervous; employees may panic. Everyone seems to have an opinion about what you should do and how you should do it.

Lawmakers often are quick to judge, too, as the Red Cross discovered in the wake of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

So what should you do if your organization finds itself in the public spotlight for all the wrong reasons? Common sense and good corporate governance says "be prepared and have a plan." Sadly, less than half of American businesses have an effective crisis management plan in place -- and I'd be willing bet that the percentage of nonprofits without one is significantly higher.

Let's assume your organization doesn't have a plan -- or, worse, it's been gathering dust on the shelf. What to do? Here's some can't-miss advice:

  1. Take responsibility and act fast, not stupid. As soon as you realize something has happened that could put your nonprofit at risk, ACT. At a minimum, issue a statement within the first hour of the bad news hitting the wires. Move fast but keep your wits about you.
  2. Express empathy and concern for anyone who may have been hurt or adversely affected by your organization's actions. Be careful not to judge and only address the FACTS. Never, ever speculate or render an opinion.
  3. Be clear about your organization's limitations and what it is able to do to address the situation. Not every crisis will be resolved the way the community wants it to be resolved. Clearly explain the actions you are taking and why you are taking them.
  4. Be ready to reach out with on social media. Use your social media channels to quickly convey your messages and the actions you plan to take. Monitor those channels continually and be prepared to respond to any and all facts, rumors, and speculation. But mind your manners, please. Grace and sometimes a little humor can be a life saver (see the Red Cross case study below). Don't have a social media presence? Start building one, now, and start to build your networks.
  5. Ask your stakeholders, constituents, and fans for help. Advocates and allies are critical in a public relations crisis. You'll need all the "friends" you can round up. And ideally, you will know ahead of time which of your friends and fans you can rely on to support you.
  6. Stick to your values. Be crystal clear about your organization's values and what it stands for. In a crisis, your organization's values will be on display for the world to see and pass judgment on. Your actions must match your words.
  7. Fight fire with fire. When responding to an online attack, do so on the channels from which the attack originated. For example, if it's a viral video on YouTube, respond with a video of your own (preferably one featuring your CEO). Any such video must be genuine, appear not to be too scripted, and be short -- two minutes or less.
  8. Assign roles and responsibilities. A lot of people love the "drama" of a crisis and will want to get involved, to feel needed, and/or to help. Choose your team wisely. You need level heads and a spokesperson who can speak with authority, is empathetic, and can handle the pressure of the cameras. Four to five people is a good number for a crisis-response team. Be sure, in addition, to have subject matter experts you can call on. And make sure you have someone on the team who is savvy about social media and can write clearly and concisely under pressure.

So, having reviewed the above list, how would you answer the question: Are we prepared for an attack on our reputation? If the answer is no, get to work now, starting with an up-to-date contact list of board members, donors, volunteers, and other stakeholders who value your nonprofit and the work it does. In a crisis, you'll be glad you did.

Quick Thinking Saves the Red Cross From Social Media Disaster

Quick thinking and deep understanding of social media on the part of the Red Cross in a situation that could have become a public relations disaster is worth re-visiting, as the incident offers a number of lessons for nonprofits about how to manage one's online reputation -- and avoid public relations disasters in the first place.

A quick recap: A young Red Cross employee accidentally tweeted from the official Red Cross account late one workday night that she planned to get "slizzerd" (extremely drunk) on beer (not just any beer but Dogfish Head's Midas Touch beer). The employee, who happened to be a social media specialist for the disaster relief organization, meant to tweet from her personal account but instead tweeted her message to all 270,000 followers of @RedCross.

Ill-considered tweets can mis-fire badly -- just ask Kenneth Cole -- but the Red Cross, exhibiting a great deal of social media savvy, took the slip up in stride and responded quickly by tweeting, "We've deleted the rogue tweet but rest assured Red Cross is sober and we've confiscated the keys."

End result? Impressed by the relief organization's humane and calm response, Dogfish Head, the micro-brewery featured prominently in the errant tweet, launched a fundraising and blood donation drive in its area and even used the young employee's hashtag, #gettingslizzred!, to promote the drive on Twitter. The (embarrassed) employee also kept her job.

Of course, not all PR disaster stories end happily. To improve the chances that your disaster does, keep in mind the things the Red Cross did right:

  • If the story's about your organization, take control of it quickly; be the primary information source for everything that happens after the story breaks.
  • Be thoughtful and deliberate; knee-jerk messages almost always back-fire on the sender.
  • Remember that social media is "social" -- people respond favorably to organizations that are genuine and willing to show that they're staffed by human beings.
  • Humor can and often does work in social media -- if it's done in good taste.
  • Monitor, monitor, monitor your social media channels.
  • Be thoughtful and intentional about hashtags -- they're a critical part of the Twitter ecosystem.
  • Never allow your communications channels to go silent; others will fill the vacuum -- fast!
  • If a 130-year-old disaster relief organization can be cool, so can you!
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Posted by Nick Scott  |   November 02, 2011 at 03:37 PM

Interesting that @RedCross now has 560,000+ Twitter followers, more than twice the number they had when the incident happened ~8 months ago. I wonder how much of a boost the #gettingslizzerd Tweet provided...

Posted by Cynthia Y. Manick  |   November 03, 2011 at 11:02 AM

Interesting point on the quantity of Red Cross subscribers since the mistweet. Is that number because of increased national events in need of the Red Cross attention, or are people comforted by the idea that the Red Cross institution is being run by everyday people who drink after 5pm? or are they waiting to catch another scandal? Regardless of the industry, people like to catch misdeeds in action and social media provides the inside scoop. Can other nonprofit rebound like the red cross? thats a bigger question . . .

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