by Maria Lahiffe
United Airlines, Uber and Dove have recently provided viral examples of public relations crises. Not-for-profits can also find themselves in hot water with funders, volunteers and staff. An unexplained client death, food poisoning outbreak or sticky fingered treasurer will quickly land a non-for-profit under public scrutiny.
If you don’t prepare, then you will incur more damage, having to devote ever-more resources to fixing your reputation, rather than serving your stakeholders. The good news is, if you DO prepare ahead of time, you can turn a crisis around and maybe even use it to improve your public image. Most of these steps can, and should, be done proactively, before any crisis appears on the horizon. 
This post will deal with the steps you can complete in advance of a crisis, to be ready if it hits you sideways on an otherwise peaceful Tuesday afternoon.
Understand your own organization and its external environment. A good way to do this is to conduct a SWOT analysis. Gather information from people in every function in your organization, including all levels of management, front-line staff, volunteers, maybe even some trusted clients.
SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. The greatest danger to your organization comes from the intersection of (organizational) weaknesses and (external) threats.
In the event of a crisis, you will need to swing into action immediately. You should know ahead of time, who will take responsibility for handling communications if this happens. Your team should include
Make sure you have in place the right policies and training to make sure that only authorized spokespersons speak for you. This is always important, but especially so in a crisis. The right people in a crisis will have
People need training to be skilled spokespersons, such as VO’s Working with the Media workshop. Talking to the media, especially under fire, is its own skill. Being articulate and persuasive in your general work life is a prerequisite, but not sufficient.
People can be reached by lots of different ways: phone, text, social media, email (often multiple numbers, platforms, and email addresses). Establish ahead of time what is the best way to contact your stakeholders in the event of a crisis. The objective is to get the word out as quickly as possible, within your network.
You also need to establish, ahead of time, ways to monitor what is being said about your organization. Examples include Google Alerts and Hootsuite, as well as front-line personnel. Make sure everyone who deals with the public is well-trained on what to say and what information to convey to the Communications team.
Whether you like it or not, every one of your stakeholders has the potential to talk about your organization, which means they have the power to inflate or deflate a crisis, depending on what they say. Know who your stakeholders are and include them in your notification system, above.
You will need to develop issue-specific communication if and when a crisis hits. However, you can prepare general statements in advance, based on the risks you identified in Step 1, above. Examples may include: 
These holding statements should be reviewed regularly to make sure they are still relevant.
Volunteer Ottawa offers a comprehensive suite of courses related to all aspects of running a non-profit or a charity. Click here for our event calendar. Subscribe to our Event RSS Feed to be among the first to know when a new workshop is added to the schedule.
Like what you've read? Subscribe to our RSS feed so you never miss a post! We have a general RSS Feed for all VOices blog posts, as well as a Communications RSS Feed which will focus on topics related to communications.