In today’s digital world, no organization is immune from crisis situations. Nonprofit crises may originate from a variety of causes – from fiscal emergencies and legal woes, to leadership problems and staffing struggles. Though the origins and response strategy vary from crisis to crisis, the importance of effectively managing these situations remains constant, playing a large role in whether the organization is successful over time.
Brian Goldthorpe, President of Privileged Communication, recently joined us for a webinar in which he discussed the importance of crisis management and communication for nonprofits. In case you missed it, you can watch the full replay here:
Steven: Good afternoon if you’re on the East Coast and good morning if you’re on the West
Coast. Thanks for being here for today’s Bloomerang webinar, “An
Introduction to Crisis Management for Nonprofits.”
My name is Steven Shattuck and I’m the VP of Marketing here at
Bloomerang and I’ll be monitoring today’s discussion. Today’s
guest is Brian Goldthorpe. He’s the president of Privileged
Communication. Hey there, Brian. Thanks for being here.
Brian: Thanks for having me.
Steven: This is great. For those of you who don’t know Brian, he has
over 10 years of professional experience in strategic
communication, public relations, organizational communication,
and crisis management. At his firm, he helps clients secure
their reputations by consulting and training businesses, elected
officials, political candidates, and, of course, charitable
organizations in crisis management and messaging.
He previously served as the statewide public policy director for
the Pennsylvania chapters of the National MS Society. He was
also Communications Associate for the Philadelphia Workforce
Investment Board and a legislative aide for former Ohio state
senator Jeff Jacobson. He holds a Master’s degree from the
Annenberg School for Communication at the University of
We’ve got a real PR pro here. He’s going to talk today about
crisis management specifically for nonprofits hopefully to keep
you all out of trouble. This is going to be a really great
presentation. It’s just a real treat to have you here, Brian.
Thanks again for sharing all your knowledge.
Brian: Absolutely. Thanks for giving me this opportunity. I’m excited
to be able to chat with everyone and share a little bit of
introductory information to crisis communication and crisis
Steven: This will be great. Just a little bit of housecleaning and then
I’ll hand things off to Brian.
What’s going to happen is he’s going to roll through his
presentation and then afterwards, we’ll jump right into a Q&A
session. We like that to be interactive. As you’re listening to
Brian’s presentation here for the next half hour or so, please
do send some questions our way through the chat box. If you hear
something that maybe you’d like explained or elaborated upon,
feel free to do that. We’ll see those questions and I’ll be
fielding those to Brian a little later on this afternoon during
the Q&A session.
Just so everyone is aware, I will be sending out the slides and
a recording of the presentation a little later this afternoon.
Look for that to hit your email inbox in case you need to bounce
early or just want to review the great information that we’re
going to hear a little later on.
I’m not going to take up any more time flapping my gums. I’m
going to hand it off to Brian to get us started. Brian, take it
Brian: Great. Thank you. I just wanted to thank Bloomerang again for
I’ve worked with elected officials and candidates for office and
I’ve worked with major corporations like AT&T and I always come
back to nonprofits and charitable organizations. When I was
growing up, my mother was the Executive Director of our local
YMCA. I’ve always kind of had that charitable streak in me. It’s
something that I’m very passionate about. I serve on a couple of
One of the things that has always been kind of a professional
challenge to myself is to try and figure out how to take some of
the skills and experiences that I’ve had outside of the
charitable arena and apply them to the nonprofit world. That’s
kind of how my interest in crisis communication and crisis
management for nonprofits came about.
I noticed that an increasing number of nonprofit organizations
and some of the most beloved nonprofits over the last four or
five years have had some problems with crisis management and
with managing their reputation. This has created a little bit of
a trickledown effect where local, community-based organizations,
no matter how large or small, are becoming susceptible to the
same types of challenges to their reputation.
As I discovered in speaking with people, most of them were
woefully unprepared for how to handle these situations. I think
we tend to view crises as problems that happen to celebrities
and politicians and major corporations and folks that are really
up front and center in terms of their public visibility.
Organizations that maybe don’t have the visibility of a Susan G.
Komen or a Red Cross don’t necessarily think about crisis
management often until it’s too late.
I’ve been inspired to work with nonprofits to try and minimize
this particular risk. That’s kind of the angle from which I’ve
approached this over the last couple of years. I’ve tried to
take the expertise that I’ve developed through crisis management
in politics and corporate America and apply those rules and
customize those rules to be really applicable for nonprofit
The goal for today’s discussion is really to provide a basic
introduction to what is crisis management in contemporary public
affairs. What is it that we’re referring to? I want to create a
shared understanding amongst all attendees of the kinds of
situations to look out for and basically to provide some
infrastructure that will allow you to think about your
organization, think about the unique risks that are presented to
you based upon the programs and services and the scope of your
mission and how you execute that mission so that you can start
to think about how you do some crisis planning internally.
I’ve been engaged by organizations that have already had a
crisis happen and I’ve come in to help them try to figure out
how to respond to it. I’ve also worked with organizations in
advance of a crisis to help them put together a plan so that
they have something tangible and concrete to activate if and
when a crisis situation does occur.
I’ll tell you it’s much easier to work with organizations in the
latter capacity to plan effectively ahead of time than it is to
work with those who get caught with their proverbial pants down.
I’m big on preparation and planning. You’ll notice that through
the course of the presentation. That’s a recurring theme.
I want to get started with just kind of a basic overview of what
crisis management is and honestly how we define a crisis as it
applies to nonprofit organizations.
There was a time when the only crises of note were political sex
scandals, when celebrities had problems with their reputations.
In this day and age, a crisis is something that needs to be
thought about in a much broader way. I define a crisis as any
situation that threatens a nonprofit’s reputation. It may
disrupt that organization’s ability to carry out its mission.
Using that definition, you have to cast a wide net to think
about the types of situations that can become crises.
For nonprofit organizations, a crisis can originate through a
variety of causes, from fiscal emergencies and legal woes to
leadership problems and staffing struggles. That’s to say that
you never really know where a crisis is going to come from. The
best thing that you can do is have a plan and be prepared to act
if something happens and also know where your risks lie and how
to minimize the likelihood that a crisis is going to occur.
Now, though the origins vary from crisis to crisis, the
importance of effectively managing these situations remains
constant. It really is playing an increasingly large role in
whether organizations are successful over time.
Never before have we lived in a media environment where public
opinion can so quickly change. From social media to digital
media outlets and the way that they interact in the mainstream
press, one false move, one bad stakeholder engagement, one
negative piece of press, one bit of information about financial
mismanagement, that’s all it takes, quite frankly. We’re living
in kind of a new era when it comes to crisis management. No
nonprofit organization is immune.
The practice of crisis management, when you see television shows
like “Scandal” on ABC, people get a very kind of skewed idea of
what crisis management involves. Basically, it’s a lot less sexy
than that. Crisis management is basically the standards that we
use to measure which scenarios constitute a crisis, and amongst
those, which require a response.
This is basically your litmus test for your organization. This
is something, again, that has to be customized for every
individual nonprofit. You need to figure out what types of risks
are those that need to be on your radar screen, how are you
going to assess those risks when they come up and, ultimately,
what types of crisis situations or potential crises are going to
warrant a proactive response.
Crisis management also includes the methods that are used to
respond to real and perceived crises. This is an important
point. A crisis does not actually have to be legitimate in order
for it to require a response in this day and age. Because anyone
can have an opinion and anyone can levy criticism or can make
claims about an organization at will through social media and
through other outlets, often you have to respond to the
perception of a crisis, the perception of financial
mismanagement, the perception of problems with the staff, and
the perception of an organization’s inability to effectively
execute its mission, as much as you do to a real crisis.
Those two are certainly related and it’s important in terms of
the content of the crisis response what you say about that
crisis, that you understand that this is something that’s real
or if it’s just the perception of a problem.
Crisis management also includes, and this is where we’re going
to kind of drill down through the rest of the presentation, the
communication. How do you communicate about this crisis
One of the things that often gets overlooked for nonprofits is
how do you communicate to your staff, to your board members and
to your partners, those stakeholder groups? How do you talk to
them about a crisis situation in a way that is going to keep
them engaged, it’s going to keep building morale, and it’s going
to make them confident that there is a plan in place and that
you’re going to be able to weather whatever storm is coming your
Certainly communication to external audiences, that’s any
members of the public who have an interest in the issue areas
that intersect with your organization’s mission, and also
includes the news media and organizational partners that you may
I’d like to tell you the dirty, little secret about crisis
management. There’s no magic bullet. A crisis mindset requires
the ability to think of the worst case scenario while
simultaneously suggesting numerous solutions. Trial and error is
an accepted practice. Quite frankly, it’s the one practice that
is most frequently used and probably most accepted. Most crisis
management experts will not tell you that trial and error is a
Often the first line of defense doesn’t work. It’s really
necessary to maintain several strategies in your contingency
plans and to always be on alert. I can’t stress this enough.
This applies to all communications in public affairs work. What
works for one organization is not necessarily transferable to
You need to have a crisis plan that has a comprehensive set of
strategies that has more than one approach. If your first line
of defense doesn’t work, you need to have something else that
you can activate. If you’re not able to proactively get out in
front of an issue, you need to have alternate ways of shifting
the narrative and really allowing to organization to determine
the terms of what the dialogue is about this crisis situation.
It’s important to be creative. You need to be reflexive and
flexible. You need to have a real, solid understanding of the
unique risks that are presented to your organization and a
laundry list of strategies to help deal with any problems that
I’ve alluded to this in the introduction. Why is crisis
management important, especially for nonprofits? In our social-
media-savvy, 24-hour-news world, it’s increasingly important for
nonprofit organizations to plan, prepare and preempt when
possible, crisis situations.
Now, charities are generally appreciated and they certainly have
far more goodwill than politicians and businesses. They’re not
necessarily perceived as being innocent like they used to be.
Well-publicized fiscal leadership and morale crises have
stricken some of the largest and most prolific nonprofit
organizations in the world. As a result, all nonprofits have
become more susceptible to public criticism and attacks on their
An additional wrinkle to that is, and I spoke with Steven today
and I alluded to this, as media has become more pervasive over
the last decade or so, people have also gotten more vigilant
about how their charitable donations are being spent. When the
economy tanked, there was less money to go around. The money
that was there to go around was being looked at with more
scrutiny by donors.
You have more visibility. You have less overall funding
available and you certainly have, I think, stricter compliance
and standards in the way that organizations are being looked at.
You have more visibility for the media kind of converging with
this trend of increased accountability for nonprofit
organizations to make sure that funding is being used in the
most appropriate way.
It’s vital for charitable organizations to establish a crisis
team. Create a manual that can be activated when a crisis
situation occurs. Complete some initial staff training, very
similar to this kind of a presentation that I’m doing today, so
that everyone across the organization, even if they have no role
in managing the crisis itself, has a shared understanding of
what’s at stake when a crisis situation happens and what to be
on the lookout for.
When the staff training is complete, it’s really necessary to
prepare yourselves for an aggressive and fast-moving news cycle.
One of the biggest challenges for an organization that doesn’t
often proactively seek visibility through the press is it’s very
challenging to all of a sudden have negative publicity. One of
the things that I try to do when I work with organizations is to
bridge that gap a little bit and say, “Look, you may not
proactively seek out media coverage, but if a crisis situation
happens, it’s going to find you anyway.”
We have to have a little bit of a paradigm shift with some
organizations to think about how best to respond to the kind of
media coverage that is going to come out and ultimately get out
in front of it so that the narrative from the organization is
the one that is dominant and that people are hearing the most.
A few more points about the importance of crisis management.
Your credibility and reputation as nonprofit professionals and
also as organizations are heavily influenced by the perception
of your responses during crisis situations. Your stakeholders
will expect you to emerge as a leader and minimize the impact of
a crisis at hand. At the same time, detractors or competitors of
yours are going to look for someone to blame. It can be an
extreme environment and it can literally happen overnight. It’s
really incumbent upon nonprofits to establish a sense of
normality and foster collective learning from the crisis
During crisis, one of the biggest challenges is to deal with any
strategic challenges that you face, some political risks and
opportunities, and make sure that the business of the
organization is able to continue. Any nonprofit professional
will tell you that their biggest concern is programs and
services or research or whatever the means by which they use to
execute the mission of their organization. Public perception
does not necessarily fall real high on that list of priorities.
As issues with reputation and with crisis management are being
handled, those things need to be compartmentalized a little bit
so that the business of the organization, providing services,
directing programs, conducting research, those functions can
continue to happen. That’s one of the biggest challenges for
If handled effectively, a crisis provides nonprofit
organizations with an opportunity to exhibit leadership,
illustrate value, safeguard your stakeholders and ultimately
educate the public. I often say a crisis is an opportunity to
turn a frown upside down.
I try to, out of every situation where all of a sudden a
nonprofit organization may have an additional public platform to
talk about who they are and what they do, turn that crisis
situation, turn the magnifying glass that has been placed on the
organization into an opportunity to let more people know about
who you are and what you do as a fundraising call to action, as
a call to action to help people understand the severity of
issues and problems that you might be dealing with. There are
ways to optimize a crisis situation so that not only are you
able to neutralize the threat, but you’re able to turn this into
a proactive and productive exercise.
I talked about preparation and planning, but I want to kind of
reiterate that now in a little bit more detail. Effective crisis
management absolutely begins early. It’s necessary to know what
your unique risks are as an organization. That often intersects
with your mission, with the population you might serve with the
nature of your stakeholders, with where your funding comes from,
whether it’s public funding, it’s grant funding, it’s donors, or
a combination of those.
You need to know how to assess your risks. Not all risks are
created equal. Some of those risks, unfortunately for
nonprofits, that are always the most problematic are those
related to financial mismanagement and often behavior of staff
and infighting between staff. Those are the kinds of stories
that the media loves to jump on because they’re salacious. They
have interesting implications for the overall health of the
organization and the public has an interest in those things as
well. You need to know what kinds of risks are the most severe
and which really warrant a proactive response.
Preparation and planning involves creating protocol and
critically assigning roles and responsibilities. One of the most
important parts of the planning process is to make sure that
staff and board members know who is going to be responsible for
what role. In some cases, this involves bringing in external
support as well.
Putting together that action plan is not just what you’re going
to say and the content of how you’re going to respond and who
you’re going to respond to, but it’s a staffing chart of who’s
going to be responsible for what.
How are you going to makes sure that the leadership of the
organization has the ability to sign off on strategy and tactics
quickly? Who is going to be responsible for communicating with
them? How is your internal communication infrastructure going to
interact with any consultants you have? If there are legal
implications, how are you going to engage your attorneys? If
there are financial implications, how do you engage your
A good crisis plan provides a roadmap for all of these different
scenarios and literally gives you a step-by-step formula to
follow in the event that a crisis hits.
I also recommend practice, and this is something that needs to
be customized for the organization. Doing an occasional fire
drill to help leadership prep for how to activate the crisis
response plan is not a bad idea. It’s not something that needs
to be done over and over again, but once the crisis plan is
written, having a couple of well-timed fire drills that are
coordinated by internal or external communication specialists is
a good way to really make sure that you’re on top of things and
comfortable with the strategies moving forward.
Taking these proactive steps early and often increases the
likelihood that you will make sound decisions, take responsive
action, and conduct effective crisis management. The only thing
worse than not proactively responding in the face of a crisis is
to respond inappropriately or inaccurately. Those kinds of
mistakes are made when a plan isn’t in place to figure out what
to do. You feel the pressure to respond, so you respond without
thinking about the implications of what it is that you’re
You see this frequently, and then an organization has to come
out and apologize for the response. It complicates the narrative
and it makes it seem like the organization is disjointed and
disorganized. A big part of crisis planning is to avoid those
things from happening.
I’m talking a lot about communicating during a crisis. The
primary goal of crisis communication is to protect an
organization’s reputation when it’s facing a threat. Most often,
the goal is to minimize the damage and, as I said before, enable
the organization to continue to function at full capacity
throughout a crisis. As I said, many crises also present
opportunities to communicate new ideas and objectives. Crisis
communication can play a significant role by transforming the
unexpected into the anticipated and responding accordingly.
In addition to preparing, anticipation is a big theme that I
talk about when I work with nonprofit organizations. This gets
beyond just the step-by-step plan. This gets into how we create
an opportunity from the crisis situation. How do we turn this
around and really optimize it? It’s necessary to anticipate four
key things. You need to anticipate the purpose, goals, goals of
your communication, as well as the messages that are going to be
needed during the crisis.
Some of those will be embedded into your plan and you need to
make sure they’re consistent with the overall narrative and
mission-driven language of the organization. You can’t go off-
script. Just because you’re in a crisis situation doesn’t mean
that you kind of betray the identity of the organization. You
need to weave that language into the content of your crisis
You also need to anticipate what kind of philosophy you are
going to use. What’s your approach that you will likely use
during this crisis? I’ll talk about that in the next slide.
You need to anticipate what things are going to be of most
interest to the news media based upon the nature of different
crises and potential stories both at the beginning and as things
Unfortunately, most crisis situations don’t start and stop in a
single news cycle. Often, the first information that is reported
is only a part of the story. Usually, there are other layers to
be uncovered. Once other media outlets become aware of it,
they’re going to dig for things. Often, a crisis situation is
going to unfold over a period of days or a period of weeks. A
nonprofit, the hope that they can do is to get out in front of
it and become the source for media when they’re reporting on
this particular story.
It’s important to anticipate specific questions that the media,
policymakers, the general public, and other stakeholders are
going to have and, to the best of your ability, script some
answers to those so that the organization is communicating
consistently and concisely.
I mentioned philosophical approaches to communication in the
previous slide. I just want to run through these really quickly.
The philosophical approach often times depends on what types of
programs and services or what type of mission the organization
has and also the nature of the crisis. There are really four
major different approaches.
You can lead with concern. You can convey empathy and caring.
This is most applicable if you have an individual who somehow
has been harmed by the actions of the organization, whether it’s
a donor who feels their money has been mismanaged or it’s a
recipient of a program or service who feels that they have been
slighted by the organization.
Another philosophy is to acknowledge uncertainty and share
dilemmas and possible outcomes. There are some situations where
it’s just a challenging situation. Instead of pretending that
you have all the answers when you may very well not, it’s
important to recognize that there’s a little bit of uncertainty,
that this is a process, and indicate what steps you’re taking as
an organization to get out in front of this issue and being
committed to being transparent and sharing your progress with
your stakeholders, the general public, and the media as things
It’s also important to foreshadow potential or likely
developments. This gets into how the story evolves. If you feel
that the beginning of the crisis is going to snowball or you
feel that there’s going to be other information that comes out,
it’s better to cop to it early. If you talk about those
situations up front, it takes the wind out of the sails of
people who might be wanting to chastise you or criticize you for
it. That’s another philosophical approach that can be engaged
depending on the nature of the crisis.
The fourth approach is to aggress and guide expectations. We
expect, as the general public and also your individual
stakeholders, a lot from our nonprofit organizations. We expect
them to run on very little overhead. We expect that you all
deliver a very high level of programs and services. We expect
that you’re going to be able to make everyone happy all the
time. That’s, unfortunately, not reality. Sometimes your
approach needs to simply be to level expectations and to make
sure that people understand that there are complexities to the
work that you do. There are complexities to running a nonprofit
organization. Let them in on your process a little bit. Be
transparent, be open, and be honest.
I’ve mentioned stakeholder audiences throughout this
presentation. Specifically, if you wanted to compartmentalize
them or itemize them, we’re looking at issue experts. These are
people who are frequently contacted by the media because they’re
considered experts in their field. Their field will typically
intersect with your mission or the way that you execute your
If you take a health-and-human-services-based nonprofit
organization, you may get someone from the NIH that’s an issue
expert. You may get someone from a rival nonprofit organization
who’s recognized as an issue expert. That’s an important
stakeholder audience because if your organization ends up in the
crosshairs, it’s those experts who are going to be contacted to
comment about you and about the situation.
Your employees, arguably the most important stakeholder
audience. Nonprofit organizations are nothing if they don’t have
morale and a sense of pride within the people that are working
there. Communicating clearly and effectively with your employees
about how a crisis situation is being managed is important.
Board members and other leaders are an important stakeholder
audience. Your partners and collaborators, these are
organizations that you may work very closely with, that you have
some kind of a symbiotic or reciprocal relationship with.
They’re going to be very important to keep in the loop as well.
Then you have the general public, people that happen to have an
interest in the work that you do, in the services that you
provide, in the people who you help, or in the way that you go
about your business. Sometimes it’s referred to as an issue
public or an interested public. Then you have the news media.
That, nowadays, spans everything: traditional and digital media,
people who have blogs, to The New York Times. It really covers
everything. Also external public affairs staff, people that are
feeding information to the news media.
The goals of communication during a crisis are particularly
important. You want to foster trust and credibility through
timely, transparent, and, when possible, proactive
communication. You need to identify and explain any risks or
potential risks. The goal is just to address and ease the
concerns of your stakeholder audiences. It’s important to
minimize harm and reduce the scope and magnitude of a crisis.
You do that by achieving high awareness and, if necessary,
taking steps towards change.
One of the biggest problems that I’ve encountered, and this is
particularly relevant on the political side and I don’t know why
politicians are so unwilling to recognize that they’ve made a
mistake, but the willingness to not only own your mistakes but
to commit to being a proactive participant in making the change
that is necessary so that those mistakes don’t repeat
themselves. You generate more credibility and goodwill by being
honest and open and committing to change, if necessary, than you
do with any other message during a crisis situation.
You need to give guidance, provide options, and make suggestions
for helpful action. If you can accomplish those goals from a
communication standpoint during a crisis, I think you’ll be
pretty successful in weathering whatever storm comes your way.
In terms of my last slide, and I want to make sure that we have
an opportunity to answer plenty of questions, I just identified
some keys to success. This is a little bit of a summary of some
of the things that I’ve talked about already.
You need to maintain connectivity with all stakeholder
audiences. Minimize the disruption of daily professional
responsibilities. Create an opportunity from every crisis. Be
proactive and get out in front of the conversation and the
narrative. Be accessible to all audiences, particularly the
media. You want to become, like I said before, the source on a
crisis that is relevant to your organization. Show sincere
empathy for any people, places, or organizations that have been
affected by the situation.
Be as transparent and honest as possible, provided there are no
legal implications in doing so. Part of the crisis planning
protocol is making sure that the right people are involved in
the tactical or strategy conversation. A lot of the situations
that have to do with especially financial accounting and how
nonprofits are running their organization could potentially have
legal implications. You need to makes sure that legal counsel is
present and also that accountants and CFOs have a role in that
conversation as well and that everyone is on board with the
message that is going to be sent.
It’s also important to keep really detailed and secure records
of all external communication. Make sure that you secure your
private correspondence and confidential or internal information.
I’ve seen this far too often where things have been accidentally
sent to the wrong distribution list and subsequently have been
leaked to the media.
It happened with an organization I was very involved with, a
national nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. There was a big
struggle between their executive director and a couple of
members of their board. One of the members of their board
decided to send this information to the media. They say
inadvertently. I’m not sure how that happens exactly. It
ultimately ended up that the organization completely fell apart.
Once the media got wind of it, everyone started kind of circling
the wagons and they had no crisis plan. They had no way to deal
with a situation like this. The folks that were already kind of
pitted against one another ended up having a more public dispute
and ultimately the organization did not recover.
It’s important as another key to success to communicate early
and often during a crisis and to become the source for the
media. Communicate crisis response messages through several
channels, including traditional and social media. You don’t have
to wait for the “press” for third-party validation. You can send
messages about your crisis response through Facebook and
Twitter, your own organization’s blog, your website, and your
email. You don’t have to wait for the media to cover a situation
if you really want to get out in front of it.
Ultimately, a multi-faceted crisis communication plan is the
best. It is something that will serve your organization well. It
will help create a shared understanding across your organization
and across all staff and all board members of the types of
situations that your organization is particularly vulnerable to.
It will minimize the likelihood that those situations will
become truly problematic. I like to say the best crisis plan is
one that you don’t have to implement. If you do it correctly,
you can’t completely control it, but you can minimize the
likelihood that a crisis situation will come up.
With that said, I want to take some time for questions. We can
Steven: Great. That was awesome, Brian. Thanks for all that info. Wow.
That was really fantastic. I hope everyone enjoyed it as much as
I did just listening along. Awesome information. I think you got
some people thinking because we’ve got a lot of questions here
in the chat room. If you haven’t asked a question yet, maybe
there’s something on your mind, please feel free to chat those
We’ll just roll through these until we run out of time. We’ll
hopefully try to get to as many questions as possible. Brian,
I’ll just kind of go through these as they came in.
Leah here was wondering, “When there’s a bad incident that we
cannot deny but could not have prevented, is it better to talk
to the press or should they avoid comment? Is there ever a
situation where silence is the best policy or should you
absolutely always respond to the press?” What would you say to
Brian: Unfortunately in this day and age, silence or no comment isn’t
really effective. Actually, people view it as an admission of
guilt. I’ll give you an example. This is not a nonprofit example
but a governmental example. Some of you may have followed some
of the bad behavior the United States Secret Service engaged in
when some of their agents had been traveling overseas. There was
an issue in Cartagena, Colombia, that was really problematic.
They were called to the carpet and went to a congressional
hearing. The director of the Secret Service at the time, his
only comment to the press in advance of this congressional
inquiry was, “No comment.”
When he got before Congress, he said basically, “I’m not
admitting to anything. I’m here because I’m being forced to be
here by law. I’m not admitting to anything and I really have no
comment. I’m not committing to making any change, to change the
behavior.” This was in the face of insurmountable evidence.
Ultimately, that type of non-response was viewed as an admission
I think that a response of some variety is necessary. If it’s a
situation that was truly unavoidable, explain it. If it’s a
situation where there was actually some wrongdoing, take
responsibility for it, commit to change if necessary. It’s the
only real way to move on in an efficient fashion. If you let it
linger, the chance that it will become bigger than the initial
problem goes up dramatically.
Steven: That makes a lot of sense. I’m going to kind of bounce around.
There’s a question that kind of dovetails into that. What about
timing? Talia here was wondering, “Is there a limited window of
opportunity to respond or is it a better late than never
situation?” Is there a rule of thumb that you should respond
immediately? Should you take some time to maybe craft the
response and make sure you’ve got all your ducks in a row and be
a little more comfortable rather than rushing? What’s your sense
on timing of response?
Brian: Responses should be efficient, but they shouldn’t be haphazard.
You shouldn’t feel pressure to respond unless you’re confident
that you have a strategic response prepared. Like I said before,
the only thing worse than not making a comment is to speak
incorrectly, inaccurately, or inappropriately. Those are the
things that can make the crisis really blow up. You need to take
the time that’s necessary to craft the appropriate response. It
needs to be a priority, but you shouldn’t feel pressure to
respond if you’re not ready. It is always appropriate to say,
“We will be making a comment shortly.” You can always buy
yourself a little bit more time.
Steven: That’s good. Right away you can say that and then craft the
actual response with a little bit more time. That makes sense.
Steven: Cool. We’ve got another interesting question here. How do you
communicate when confidentiality is an issue? They can’t convey
details but they still have to manage their crisis. Obviously
this is going to be an issue for nonprofits. Financial
implications, maybe if they’re in healthcare, they can’t divulge
those kinds of details. How do you balance out that situation
where you can’t really tell the whole story but you still have
to manage the crisis?
Brian: It’s tricky. It needs to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis
and it needs to be done in collaboration with legal, either
internal legal staff or external legal counsel, however you
handle your legal concerns and considerations. Anyone who has a
role especially as it relates to finances, anyone who has a role
in financial oversight and accountability, they need to have a
seat at the table as well.
Often, a way to handle that is to not have the typical
spokesperson. Whether that’s the president or CEO or executive
director of the organization, have them defer to the legal
counsel. It’s seen as much more accepted practice if an attorney
says, “This information is confidential. We can’t share it,” as
opposed to it coming from someone who is not a legal
Sometimes you have to pivot the spokesperson in order to send
that message and have it be taken seriously. Otherwise, it looks
like the executive director or the leader or whoever the
spokesperson is, is deflecting.
Steven: That makes sense. Brian, you told a story towards the end of
your presentation about maybe some folks who didn’t handle a
situation very well. Can you think of a success story, maybe
someone who handled a situation really well, maybe something
that you saw or someone that you worked with?
I always think of the Red Cross a few years ago when one of
their employees accidentally tweeted from the Red Cross’ account
rather than their personal account and they got into trouble. I
thought they handled that pretty well. Is there another
situation that stands out in your mind where somebody just
nailed this, all the things you’ve been talking about?
Brian: I worked with an organization based in Philadelphia which is
called the Mazzoni Center. They had dealt with issues where
their medical director for a while was being kind of harshly
criticized on social media. This person has a peerless
reputation. He’s someone who has a lot of respect, who has great
accreditation, and has really been responsible for helping this
particular community health center grow.
He had an engagement with a patient that the patient wasn’t
happy with the advice that he gave him. It turned into a
situation where this person took to social media and really
called his reputation into question.
This particular situation is difficult because you’re dealing
with medical information. There are definite confidentiality
The way that they dealt with it was two-fold. One, there was a
very succinct statement that was released almost immediately
through all of their media channels, which were basically where
the doctor said, “I have a commitment to all of my patients. I
welcome this person to come back in and have a complimentary
visit with me to talk about additional treatment options.”
Then they rolled out, in really quick fashion, a series of
success stories from other patients that were all in first
person from that patient’s perspective and talked about some of
the challenges that they’ve overcome from the services that they
received. That was rolled out within two or three days of this
situation starting. They had a bank of these human interest
testimonials and they figured out how to activate them quickly.
Steven: I love it. Social media is obviously a huge issue. You touched
on this in your presentation. This is something that has kind of
made this whole situation worse or opens the door to a lot of
things. There was a comment in the chat that I really loved.
Cheryl said, “Keyboard courage. I have been in the crisis-
sensitive world for 20 years, but keyboard courage has broadened
our challenges.” People maybe being a little less afraid to
voice their opinion online through social media.
How do you deal with this? Is this just something that we have
to deal with, that we have to live with, that people are going
to take to social media to say things whether they’re founded in
reality or not? Or are there some things that you can do to
mitigate this keyboard courage that people have?
Brian: I often say that there’s no accounting for crazy.
Unfortunately, there is a lot of crazy out there. There are
people who, for whatever reason have… Honestly, the more
success a person or an organization has, the bigger the target
on their back becomes. People are comfortable sitting behind
their keyboard as close to being anonymous as possible and
making horrible claims and allegations with no fear of
repercussion or consequence. It’s the world that we live in.
What’s important with social media is figuring out what warrants
a response. Everyone’s opinion isn’t legitimate, quite frankly.
If someone has a serious concern where they take to the
organization’s Facebook page or their Twitter account and
they’re talking about something that honestly has to do with how
programs and services are provided, how the organization
functions, then the best response is to say, “We are welcome to
have a one-on-one dialogue with you.” Offer the opportunity for
that person to actually confront you. That’s the best response.
If there’s something that has actually happened where someone
has been wronged and the organization is at fault and they take
to social media, admitting guilt quickly or taking
responsibility quickly is probably the best way to put that fire
out. Unfortunately, most social media attacks are not
legitimate. They’re not cut from that particular cloth. They’re
usually people who, if you asked them to meet with you one-on-
one, you’re never going to hear from them.
Steven: Kind of kill them with kindness and they’re not going to keep
going with it.
Brian: Sure. You kill them with kindness but you stop short of
recognizing the legitimacy of what they’re claiming until you
have an opportunity to investigate it further.
Steven: This question of legitimacy is the subject of a question that
Judy asked here. Judy was wondering, “When a nonprofit is proven
to be innocent or not at fault,” so the claims have no basis in
reality, “How do you get the press to communicate that and not
just the accusations?” It seems that people are always willing
to share the accusations and the juicy details and all that but
they’re not going to go back a week later and say, “Hey, it
turns out this group wasn’t at fault and all that.” Or does that
happen? Can you make that happen?
Brian: You can make that happen. The best way to make it happen is to
give the press the actual information. Instead of filtering it
through a spokesperson and just releasing a statement that says,
“Hey, we were vindicated,” you actually give… If there’s a
written record or some kind of supporting material that the
press can read and they will draw that conclusion themselves,
provide them the information and let them report on the
information as opposed to feeling like they’re a mouthpiece for
your organization. Does that make sense?
Brian: That’s an effective way to deal with it. It’s also important
when the reputation of the organization is at stake, the leader
of that organization, when appropriate, when there aren’t legal
implications, and other things involved, I recommend that the
executive director or CEO, whoever is at the top of the food
chain, be the spokesperson. Don’t have it go through a publicist
or an internal communications person. They can help with the
messaging strategy, but the figurehead of that organization
needs to be comfortable being the person who’s quoted and is
commenting. Making that person accessible to the media will
increase the likelihood that you get positive coverage.
Steven: A nonprofit has their own distribution channels that maybe they
didn’t have 10 years ago. You’ve got your blog and all your
social media channels. It seems like you can use that as well
and not have to worry too much about the press.
Brian: Absolutely. The news cycle comes and goes every single day,
almost every hour. If the organization wants to make sure that
it goes on record and is making a very clear statement, do that
through your channels. Send the information to the press, but
you know that you’re still going on record through your own
content creation channels. If the press doesn’t report
accurately on it, then at least you can still use your channels
Steven: That makes sense. Great. That’s a lot of the questions. I know
we’re kind of running out of time and I don’t want to go over
because I’m sure folks have work to get done or lunches to eat.
I do have to mention, Brian, that while you were talking, there
were a lot of people asking for some templates, some response
plans, some documents, maybe some resources. Is there anything
out there that you would recommend? Certainly I would invite
people to work with you on those kinds of things. Have you seen
anything good or have you made something yourself that the folks
can download, maybe a physical asset like a template or a plan
or anything like that, or maybe some tips for making their own?
Brian: I have different resources in my toolkit. I’m not a fan of
templates for crisis management plans because there are certain
areas that you need to cover, but it really needs to be
customized for that organization based upon their unique set. I
can kind of provide an outline of content you need to include.
In terms of what that content looks like, that’s going to be
unique depending upon the organization.
If you Google search “crisis management template plans,” you’re
going to find a whole bunch of responses. What’s hard about
utilizing some of those generic, off-the-shelf solutions is not
having the customized part of it. You may have a template that
provides you with 50% of the picture, but the rest of it you
need to fill in yourself.
I want to extend this offer to anyone on the call. It’s to make
myself available for a free consultation to organizations that
want to talk a little bit about their specific needs as an
organization. I do have a lot of tools in my toolkit and
resources I’m willing to share. Figuring out what are most
appropriate and which are going to be most useful for your
organization is probably something that warrants a one-on-one
I want to extend that offer. If anyone wants to have an hour
conversation with me where we can talk specifically about your
organization’s needs and create some resources, then I can email
some follow-up information to you. I’m happy to do that. I’ve
always been passionate about supporting nonprofit organizations
and I think this is a space that’s becoming increasingly
critical for everyone to have a plan and really have a shared
understanding of how to move forward.
Steven: Great. That’s a very generous offer. I hope some people take
advantage of that, for sure. Do reach out to Brian. Follow him
online. Follow him on Twitter. This is a serious PR pro. This
has been really great, Brian. Thanks for sharing all your
knowledge here for an hour or so. It’s been a lot of fun.
Brian: Great. Thank you.
Steven: This has been recorded. I’ll be sending that out a little later
today. I’ll send out Brian’s slides. You can review them. I’ll
send out his contact information if any of you want to take up
that offer. I hope you do, for sure.
Check out our website. We do these webinars once a week. We do
these weekly. We’ve got a lot of interesting things here planned
for April. We’ve got some folks coming on to talk about prospect
research, capital campaigns, donor retention. Check out our
website. I think there’s a typo on that slide. I put too many Os
in Bloomerang. Sorry about that. Check out our webinar page.
These are free and open to the public. Register for something
that you think looks interesting or could help you out.
With that, we’re about out of time. I’ll say a final thanks to
Brian and I’ll say thanks to all of you for hanging out with us
for about an hour and listening. Thanks to those of you who were
good sports and sent over some questions. That made it fun, for
With that, we’ll cut it there. Thanks for joining us. I’ll be in
touch a little later on with some of the resources from the
webinar. Thanks for joining us. Have a great rest of your day.