PR 101: How to Avoid a Crisis

How a Local Non Profit  Lost Passionate Supporters with Just one Email

Philanthropy is something that my family and I are passionate about as a means to give back to the communities we live and do business in. Over the years we have been involved in numerous organizations across the United States on both the national and local level. One of those groups, my family has donated thousands of hours and dollars to, recently created a PR nightmare for itself that was entirely preventable.

I received a form letter email from a major Austin-based nonprofit regarding their young boosters fundraising group of nearly 150 strong was going to be dissolved. As shocking as the news was, I was even more taken back by the lack of strategy behind delivering such a major announcement that will surely effect the lives of many.

I wasn’t a part of the committee that determined the group should go away and that decision is not part of my post. This is more about the way the way information was shared and to help other non profits avoid making the same mistakes.

1. Draft key messages about the changes within your organization and appoint a spokesperson for that topic. The spokesperson should be easily accessible to leadership council, members, media, etc.  Make sure you use simple, strong words that are unambiguous and clear.

In the case of this group, there was no real direction given regarding who should be contacted if questions or concerns existed.

2. Hold an emergency meeting with your leadership council to alert them of the decision by the board of trustees. Allow the leadership council to air their frustrations, talk through what’s next and determine the best way to communicate the information to the members. This is one of your first lines of defense against a PR crisis.

With this group, it appears that leadership council (outside of the chair and incoming chair) knew only 20-30 minutes prior to general members receiving emailed communication. Your leadership council is there for a reason and use them to keep the crisis at minimum. Communicate with them early and enlist their help in delivering the information to the rest of the group. ESPECIALLY when the group is as small as the one I’m referencing in this post.

3. If you must send a mass email, at least personalize the greeting to each person so that it feels as if the executive director is speaking directly to the person receiving the note. Don’t use your eNewsletter distribution service, the same one that you use to alert members about a Liza Minnelli or Kathy Griffin performance.

4. It’s all about timing. This group chose to do their unpersonalized, lengthy, mass emails at Friday after 6 p.m. At this hour there is absolutely no opportunity to contact any staff to air concerns or get questions answered. To a seasoned marketer, it shows this group either A) weren’t expecting backlash or B) were afraid of reactions and wanted to give the members a chance to calm down over the weekend.

Further, if members are reaching out to you with questions or concerns, be sure to answer their calls, emails, posts, etc. in a timely manner. The word “timely” should, at minimum, be defined as same day; however, I recommend within the hour.

5. We’re a very social world these days and with an active Twitter and Facebook account, why is the organization not communicating with its members and followers? At the time of this post, the last status updates made by the group were regarding the party hosted just days before the earth shattering announcement of the group dissolving.

6. Use your media contacts to alert the community about the organizational changes. Again, at the time of this post, no news surrounding the group has appeared. No communication is readily found about what is next for the group, its members, the arts community or the nonprofit it benefitted.

7. Don’t use form letters to respond to angry people. Address the person by name and customize the response based on their complaints. The first step in converting someone from angry opponent to content team member is to acknowledge the complaint and address it head on.

Bottom line? You have to think clearly about the language you use and how to disseminate the information. You can’t ignore a crisis and expect it’ll go away. Ignoring a crisis only adds fuel to the fire.

What are your top tips to avoid a crisis?