When bad stuff happens—whether it be a financial scandal or a cyberattack—associations need a communication plan. An expert offers tips to help your organization get it right when it matters most.
When a crisis hits your association—from embezzlement to a natural disaster—you likely have a plan to deal with the on-the-ground turmoil. However, if you don’t have a blueprint for communicating with staff, your members, and the public, then you’ll likely have a second crisis on your hands, according to Dan Miller, a vice president at Foundation Management Group.
“If they don’t prepare to communicate during the crisis or after the crisis, they then face a second crisis in terms of employee, public, or media misunderstanding of what happened,” Miller said.
So, if you’re an association without a crisis communications plan, what do you need to know? First, it’s about the communication not the crisis. “We are not here to help you prepare your building for a flood or an active shooter,” he said. “We are here to help you communicate about it.”
Crisis communications plans should be written, include all the people you need to contact during a crisis, and be accessible in electronic form from afar. Plans should also anticipate questions that might arise and some responses. “If you think through those things, you’re ready to get out there and hit the ground running, rather than saying something wrong that makes the evening news because you’re frustrated,” Miller said.
Associations can misstep if they don’t plan. Miller highlighted four areas commonly flubbed in communications crises—and shared advice on how to avoid those mistakes.
Two Mistakes Go Hand in Hand
“The biggest rookie mistake is thinking that it will go away,” Miller said. “If something bad happens, it will not go away. Assuming that, ‘Oh, no one will notice,’ is never a good strategy.”
If people are going to find out anyway, what should an association do? Don’t make the next common mistake. “The second mistake is not taking an active communication role and acknowledging that your stakeholders deserve information,” Miller said.
People should hear what happened from your organization. Associations need to communicate in three directions: up, down, and out. “You have to communicate up to your authority,” Miller said. “Is that your board? You need to communicate down to your immediate reports. You need to communicate to the staff, so they know what is going on and how to handle it, and then you need to communicate out to the public and your stakeholders.”
For example, if an incident happens at the association’s headquarters or at an event, the board should be told. “You don’t want them to find out about it when a reporter calls, so their response is that they weren’t aware of it,” Miller said. Getting to them first helps everyone look professional. “If you tell them, when the reporter calls, they say, ‘Yes, I’m aware of it. They are handling it, and we’ll let you know when we have an update.’”
When communicating proactively, associations should follow some simple parameters. “You say, ‘Here is what happened, here is how we handled it, and here is what we will be doing in the future,’” Miller said. “It’s harder [for others] to be critical if you’re upfront, rather than try to hide it.”
Have an Experienced Spokesperson
The third mistake associations make is putting the wrong person out front. “If you put a rookie spokesperson out there that is not trained, later the CEO will need to explain, ‘That’s not what we meant.’ The story becomes you,” Miller said. “That’s not what you want.”
The spokesperson should have some experience speaking with the media, be able to stay on message, and not get easily frustrated by questions. It’s important for communication plans to include backups, in case the primary person for the job isn’t available. “Crises rarely happen at 2 p.m. on a Tuesday when everyone is in the office and able to handle it,” Miller said. “The crisis tends to happen Friday night at 10 p.m. when the CEO is 500 miles away visiting her mother and the staff is at home in their beds.”
Stay Atop Social Media
Some associations don’t have a full-time person devoted to handling their social media. However, don’t ignore social media during a crisis.
“You could do everything right with the public, the press, your board, and still be a story on social media because of how you did or didn’t react,” Miller warned.
He recalled the tale of former PR exec Justine Sacco, who posted an offensive tweet as she boarded an 11-hour flight to South Africa and turned off her phone. When she landed, she was the number-one trending story on Twitter and was soon fired from her job.
“It wasn’t that she chose not to respond,” Miller said. “It shows how 11 hours can change your life, if you’re not there to defend yourself. You can’t ignore comments, criticisms, or questions on social media. You may not be able to answer the questions, but you can’t ignore them.”
Miller recommends staying active but avoiding arguments. “You can correct wrong information,” he said. “You have to do it in a respectful way, even if the posters aren’t being respectful.”
How does your organization ensure it’s ready to respond if a crisis were to happen? Please share in the comments.