Crisis Communications: Plan the Message, Work The Plan

Crises tend to put into hard focus longstanding stress points and new vulnerabilities with which each nonprofit leader needs to grapple. Was your organization forced to adopt new practices or technologies for online communications or virtual collaboration among staff, its board and vendors, as well as donors, members, volunteers and other external partners as COVID-19 spread across the country and the world? 

Chances are that the pandemic exposed some rough spots in your external and internal communications programming. 

With the Centers for Disease Control And Prevention (CDC) eyeing a second wave of COVID-19 during the forthcoming fall flu season in the absence of a vaccine and treatment, below is a list to help optimize and strengthen your organization’s communications program in preparation for what lies ahead.

Have a plan in place. Did you activate a crisis communications plan during the pandemic? Did you have to create one on the fly? 

A crisis communications plan will help facilitate an effective response in case there is another wave of coronavirus that affects your operations and constituents. If you’ve been winging it without a plan, now is the time to get one started.

Bring together your crisis team to reflect on what’s working and what’s not. Leverage your first-hand experience from the past couple of months to identify gaps and aspects that need improvement. 

Here are eight sample questions to ask:

  • What went well?
    What went smoothly? What were the bright spots during the past few months that you’d like to replicate with and without a crisis? What strengths or assets made these possible? What’s the key takeaway?
  • What didn’t go so well?
    What were the most challenging roadblocks that your team had to overcome? Were there any mistakes made? What can you learn from them? What do you need to start, stop and continue doing?
  • Who is part of your crisis team?
    Who needs to be in the room? Are you missing critical perspectives or expertise? Are roles, expectations, decision-making and implementation process clear? Are all staff members familiar with the plan and know what to expect once in motion?
  • How will your organization communicate with internal and external audiences?
    What platforms (e.g., text messaging, email, social media, forums and video) will you use to quickly communicate with staff and board, donors, members and larger community leading up to, during and after widespread disruptions such as stay-at-home orders? Are you in multiple spaces where your audiences are? Are you able to create compelling copy, visuals and other types of content to cut through the noise so that your audience sees your messages even as they’re bombarded with thousands of information each day? Do you have the infrastructure and skill set in place to deploy these tools effectively? What gaps do you need to address now?
  • How will you stand in solidarity with community members affected by the pandemic?
    How will your community — from staff members to the broader sector — experience your brand during this crisis? What is your role and contribution to the community given your organization’s values and mission?  How will the organization hear, listen, identify and respond to your community’s needs? Do you need to consult or partner with other organizations in developing and implementing this plan?
  • What types of information do you plan on conveying to your audience?
    Other than keeping your community informed, do you need to plan for volunteer appeals or fundraising campaigns? What are your messaging guidelines for creating newsletters, press releases and other content? Do you have a ready list of relevant and trust-worthy sources of information that you and community members could turn to? Are there situations that might put the organization on the defensive and thus entail thoughtful responses? 
  • Are you planning for scenarios that could last weeks or months at a time?
    What communications programming or deliverables might be best to adjust now and what do you need to revisit later as part of the plan?
    How often will the crisis team meet, assess progress and course correct as necessary? The Public Relations Society of America and other experts offer useful guidance and tools for preparing a strong crisis communications plan. 

The pandemic’s impact on individuals, families, communities and on society is so profound that there is hardly any aspect of life that has not been touched. Everyone is struggling in some way, some more so than others. Engage your internal and external community members with compassion and understanding of the challenges of the moment.

During this time, it’s important to make your messages are clear, concise and easily digestible. Provide information and analyses based on facts and analysis from reputable experts to prevent confusion and the spread of misinformation. If you make a mistake, stay calm. Own up to it, apologize and transparently identify steps you’re taking to address the situation and prevent it from happening again.

Be vigilant of narratives in words and images that perpetuate racism such as harmful stereotypes about Asians and “othering” of communities of color.

Think about when your public leadership add value to the commons, and when to step back and amplify other important voices from around the sector. The Communications Network maintains handy list of COVID-19-related resources for nonprofit communicators.

Secure your data and digital assets

As you continue to rely on digital channels such as social media, email, website and virtual spaces to engage and deliver content to your audiences, protect your organization from cyberattacks and data breaches. Hackers are usually not benign – or as cute – as Paco the Llama. They cause tremendous headaches and can cost your organization thousands of dollars.

Make sure that your organization’s is compliant with data privacy and cybersecurity best practices such as:  

  • Your website includes a privacy policy and terms of use that explicitly and clearly conveys to your readers what data you’re tracking, storing, and using for specific purposes from your email and fundraising campaigns, events registrations and other online engagement. 
  • People in your mailing list are all opted in.
  • Security for audio and video conferencing applications, file sharing, online collaboration tools, network access points and website meets at least the minimum industry standards. 

The National Council of Nonprofits has a wealth of information on cybersecurity for nonprofits. 

Use this time to shore up your organization’s internal and external communications to be as ready as can be for what Covid-19 brings in the months ahead. You can’t possibly anticipate everything, but you can minimize surprises (not to mention stress), save time and resources through thoughtful preparation.

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Kristina (Yna) Moore has been practicing strategic communications in pursuit of transformative positive change in our communities and the world for more than 15 years. She most recently led the growth of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy’s communications and marketing program as its former senior director of communications. Her email is yna.moore@outlook.com