If you’ve ever opened a newspaper or turned on TV or radio only to hear that your nonprofit organization is in the news – and the news isn’t good – you’ve experienced the sinking feeling in your stomach. Sometimes it’s a real problem; other times it’s something taken out of context or blown out of proportion by an overzealous reporter. But almost always, it has the potential to develop into a crisis that damages your ability to fulfill your mission.
The time to solve this problem is now, before your organization is in the crosshairs. While you can’t anticipate every possible thing that may become a lead story on a slow news day, you can – and should – put a plan in place that considers the following questions:
- Who speaks to the public on behalf of the organization? List the position titles (not individual names) of those who are designated organizational spokespeople. Identify more than one so you have a predetermined back-up spokesperson if the primary one is unavailable.
- Who is responsible for informing the board? Board members should hear bad news from the organization, not the media. Determine who will notify them, how they will be notified (Telephone? Email?), and a minimum plan for providing updates.
- Who is responsible for informing staff? Staff may know about the problem before you do if they are actively monitoring news websites or getting updates on their mobile devices. Hoping it will pass without staff knowing isn’t a strategy. Staff needs to be informed quickly and updated as needed. This not only prevents stress but can also serve as a reminder of your policy regarding who speaks on behalf of the organization.
- What should a board member or staff person do if he or she is approached by someone asking a question about the situation? To whom do they refer the question? Should they answer “No comment,” or is there another preferred response?
- Who decides if and when to inform donors? Like staff and board members, donors may hear the negative news well before you can launch damage control. Will you be proactive in providing them with your side of the story by website updates or email? Will you wait a prescribed amount of time to see if it passes? Will you do nothing formally but have a statement prepared that your donor services staff can read over the phone or send by email or mail? Staying on top of the situation with donors can prevent worse-case-scenarios from developing in their minds. This is also an ideal time to reinforce what you are doing as an organization to respond and who your authorized spokesperson is.
Once you have a policy in place, there are two more things to do:
- Review (and update as needed) the policy on a scheduled basis. An outdated policy can be as frustrating as having no policy in place when your organization has negative news coverage.
- Regularly remind staff of the policy. In addition to making it part of new staff orientation, make it part of an annual staff meeting or other opportunity where you remind your employees of the policies they agreed to upon hiring. Many of us are overwhelmed when we first begin a job, and all the things we reviewed and signed can get forgotten. Make it part of your organizational culture to regularly remind staff that there is a plan in place to deal with the media.
None of us want to think about being subjected to wrong or misleading press, but the time to plan how to manage it, is before it happens. That’s the best way to manage tomorrow’s problems today.