Five steps to manage crisis communications

  • Does your organisation have a plan for managing communications in a crisis?
  • Good planning can help you deal with a problem before too much damage is caused
  • We look at five key points to include in your crisis management procedures

Crises involving charities or community groups often hit the headlines, and local papers or bloggers can be keen to publish their own version of big national stories.

Small organisations can be badly affected by negative publicity if things go wrong, so it is vital to have a plan in place to help you cope if you become the subject of unwanted attention.

Media expert Karen Hart examines five steps to manage crisis communications, as part of your disaster recovery procedures.

1. Identify your potential crises

A crisis can take different forms:

  • Damage or harm to your property or people caused by fire, flood or vandalism
  • Damage to your reputation. Anyone associated with you (staff, volunteers, trustees, beneficiaries or celebrity patrons) could act in a way that puts you at risk

Specific issues might include:

  • A transport strike or bad weather that causes serious problems if staff or visitors can’t travel to you – especially if you have international concerns
  • A funding shortfall leading to redundancies or cuts to your services
  • Equipment breaking down or a cyber attack

Issues that might seem minor on their own can often cumulate to have a significant impact on your reputation.

The short-term advice is simple, pull a team together and make a list of events that might lead to a crisis for your organisation. This exercise could help you save time when the worst happens.

Thinking more long-term, how would you manage if you found your organisation was part of the main news agenda, such as the current refugee/migrant crisis? How would you respond to unusually high levels of public interest? Would you be able to capitalise on the attention?

The Charity Commission’s risk management guidance can be a useful place to start to help identify potential crises.

2. Plan what to say

Create key messages for each of the events on your potential crises list. Once you are in a crisis situation, using your pre-prepared messages can help you to act fast and avoid significant damage.

Think about how you would want to counter or address potential crises. For example, can you reassure people that it’s ‘business as normal’ despite building damage? Or offer a timescale to resume your regular service? Do you have the facts to support these messages?

Include ‘holding’ statements in your plans. These can be as simple as: ‘We are working to establish the facts and will update you as soon as possible.’

Never say ‘no comment’ – it will be reported as a comment in itself, and makes you look secretive, dismissive and arrogant. It invites speculation, which may well be worse than the truth.

Don’t ever be tempted to say anything untrue to try to repair the damage. Getting found out or challenged will make the crisis worse.

Think about when it might be appropriate to apologise.

Make sure you keep your supporters in touch with what is happening. They deserve to know what’s going on, and can speak out for you as appropriate.

3. Build your plan

Your crisis plan is more than what you’ll say. Include the following to document how you’ll manage the situation:

  • Decide how serious each of your events could be – what constitutes low, medium and serious crises. This will help you to decide how to respond
  • Identify where people managing any crisis will meet and how you will notify each other
  • Specify what you will do during a crisis and how you will deal with the aftermath
  • Agree how you will monitor the media and report back on what’s being said and written about you. Who will keep notes of decisions and actions? Who will liaise with the emergency services?
  • Think about how soon you will issue new statements and who will be responsible for authorising these. Is there a compelling case to not say anything, if your team agrees this is the best tactic at a particular time?

A few hours spent discussing these points may save you a lot of time, effort and other resources in the long term.

4. Get your crisis team together

Don’t leave it until something goes wrong to set up a crisis team.

This is where small charities and community groups can have an edge over large organisations, which may find sign-off procedures make it hard to narrow down the team to a few key people.

A crisis team needs leadership and should include your chief executive or duty manager. Think about a good representative from your trustees, management committee or volunteers. You should definitely include whoever deals with PR, as well as one or more spokespeople.

Including other people will depend on the situation. For example someone responsible for finances may be helpful if money is involved. Sometimes an emergency co-ordinator can take on an organising role, to help free up key people.

Have you identified strong spokespeople? It’s important they are comfortable talking to reporters and feel relaxed in front of cameras. Rehearsal can help here. Do you have substitutes for these people, if they’re unavailable? Identifying alternatives is important.

Who will deal with internal communications? This CharityComms guide to crisis management offers good advice on the importance of internal communications.

Include all your important contact details. It’s no good having the crisis management team’s email addresses and phone numbers in a locked filing cabinet in the office.

Check that the crisis management team has access to phones and the internet. What are the procedures to upload your key messages to your website or social media quickly, so you can direct the media there?

5. Formalise your plan

Gather all of the above into a formal plan. Make sure your plan is signed off by whoever needs to give final approval, so it’s ready for you to put into action.

Keep it up-to-date. Telling a reporter facts and figures that are inaccurate will put everything you say at risk. Modify the plan when people change posts or your organisation takes on new work or areas of responsibility. A change in your areas of work may themselves cause a crisis, so make sure your plan anticipates this.

Ideally, try to find time to rehearse. Once a year spend time practising a crisis situation, it will help hugely if you ever have to do it for real.