Facing a PR Crisis: Tips to Help

By on Monday, November 30, 2020

As I write this, nonprofit clients are cancelling fundraising events and telling staff to work from home. Due to the spread of coronavirus, they’re worrying about lost donations, scrambling to keep productivity up while working from home, and concerned about the safety of their staff, volunteers, and the people they help.

While none of us know what the future holds, now is a good time to review how to keep communication clear in uncertain times or if you are facing what we call in the business, a public relations crisis. A public relations (PR) crisis happens when your organization is (1) facing anything that poses a risk to the health, safety or lives of your staff, volunteers, clients or other stakeholders, (2) anything that can damage the reputation of your organization, and (3) anything that can cause a loss of trust in your organization.

Responding effectively to a PR crisis involves strategic thinking, honesty, and organizational skills. The first thing you should do is look for your vulnerabilities. Your facility, programs, events, staff, and even the people you help – can all be the sources for a potential crisis. Draft a few potential scenarios (just 1-3 sentences each).

Scenario 1 could be: Client staying in our shelter and participating in our programs tests positive for coronavirus.

Next draft the action steps you will need to take in response to this scenario. Your first priority in a crisis should always be to protect health and safety. Your reputation comes second. So your first actions might be, isolate client in xyz space or transfer to hospital/clinic (depending on conditions and availability). Your next step will be to contain the spread of the illness (follow your procedures and recommendations of the local health department).

With human health and safety now managed, you can turn your attention to communicating with others. Prioritize who to respond to, going first to the people most immediately impacted.  The key points to remember in any crisis communications are:

  • Never lie. Always be honest.
  • Never say “no comment.” Even if you have nothing to say, you can say something like, “I don’t have anything to add right now” or “We are still confirming facts about the situation and will update you as soon as we can” or “Our priority is on the health and safety of our residents and employees. We should be able to provide an update at XYZ time.”
  • Don’t just ignore the problem or pretend it did not happen. It will not go away.
  • Be clear and concise. Avoid vague language.
  • Say when you will update if you can’t make a public statement yet, and do the update at that time.

Draft materials needed for distribution. If it’s an event cancellation for your donors, an email notice of the steps you are taking to keep your facility and employees and volunteers safe, or a news release – aim for simple. Template press releases, email copy, and social media updates for your draft scenarios.

It’s also important to streamline your communications systems before a crisis. Someone in your office should always know the access codes/passwords for your website and how to do the updates. You should also have access to and know how to update your organization’s social media accounts, and have access to your media list.  Cross train your staff so you are not reliant on a particular person being in the office to communicate.

Have a streamlined system for sending out email and/or text updates for core audiences like staff, volunteers, clients and donors or community partners. Keep an updated cell phone and email list for staff and key volunteers, as well as easy-to-access schedules for staff and volunteers.

Note: The author writes a column every other month for Instigate magazine, which is published by an association called Citygate, which aids and empowers religious nonprofits assisting people dealing with homelessness and addiction. The tips she offers in this piece written in March for the April/May issue are helpful for anyone responding to crisis and uncertain times.

Ami Neiberger-Miller is a public relations strategist and writer. She is the founder of Steppingstone LLC, an independent PR practice near Washington, D.C. that provides public relations counsel, social media engagement, writing services, and creative design for publications and websites (contact to discuss your projectreview our portfoliosign up for our e-newsletter). She blogs about media relations, social media, public relations, and work-family balance. Follow her on Twitter @AmazingPRMaven

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