Crisis Communication & PR for Nonprofits
Brian Goldthorpe, President of Privileged Communication recently joined us for an episode of Bloomerang TV. He gave us some valuable insights into crisis communication & PR for nonprofits. You can watch the full conversation here:
Steven: All right, hello, thanks for tuning in on this week’s episode
of Boomerang TV. My name is Steven Shattuck and I’m the VP of marketing
here at Boomerang. And today I’m excited to introduce our guest, he’s Brian
Goldthorp, he runs privileged communication, which is a non-profit
consulting firm, where he specializes in crisis communications and PR for
non-profit. So Brian, thanks for being here! Great to have you!
Brian: Thank you very much! I really appreciate the opportunity.
Steven: Yeah, this will be a fun chat! Can you tell a little bit about
what you do specifically at your firm and the kind of things you’re into?
Brian: Sure, I started my firm about five years ago and I really
specialize in two service lines. The first is messaging strategy and the
second is crisis management. They’re two sides of the same coin because
honestly, every non-profit organization or community based organization
that has a public profile, whether it’s with their stake holders or with
the general public, needs to be concerned about how they’re conveying key
message, whether those are messages in response to a crisis type situation
or they’re proactive messages about fundraising or about the mission of the
So, I basically try to help organizations come up with the best way
to discuss who they are and what they do, and what their challenges and
problems are, and make sure that they’re addressing those messages and
tailoring them for the most appropriate audiences, and then figuring out
what the distribution channels are to reach those people effectively.
Steven: Great, great, so crisis communications. Crisis PR. It seems
like almost every week there’s some story out there about maybe a company
behaving badly or a politician or someone and it kind of blows up on social
media. And it’s a real crisis for people, especially online. Non-profits,
they’re not immune from this right? This is something that can happen to
any charity as well.
Brian: Yeah, and it’s actually become– problematically enough non-
profits kind of become in the crosshairs a little bit. Since the economy
kind of fell over– you have two trends that converged that created this
problem. You have the economic downturn several years ago, and you also had
the kind of advent of popularization of social media.
So you have people becoming increasingly cautious and strategic about
how they spend their money, especially going to non-profit organizations.
So people were tightening their purse strings and they were taking a closer
look at what non-profit organizations were doing with the money that they
were being given.
At the same time, you had Facebook and Twitter and Linked-in and a
large amount of other tools that have become really popular ways of sharing
information. So those two trends converged, and unfortunately non-profit
organizations kind of ended up in the crosshairs. People are increasingly
comfortable with using those types of channels to be critical, whether it’s
baseless or whether they actually have something to back it up.
The media– the news cycle used to work in a way that something would
break in the mainstream press and then it would trickle down to social
media. Well, it works in both ways now, and so you can have one individual
who has a bad experience with a service-based non-profit organization. They
talk about their experience on social media, they end up getting
interviewed, and the next thing you know you have a crisis type of
situation for the organization on question.
And, when you have some of the larger non-profit organizations, the
Susan G. Komens of the world, that have some problems, whether it’s with
leadership, or whether it’s with poor staffing decisions, or whether it’s
with financial mismanagement, it creates a shift in the paradigm in terms
of how we think about non-profit organizations. They certainly are no
longer immune, and it’s really necessary that they plan appropriately to
make sure that they avoid crisis situations.
Steven: So there’s this kind of external threat and then you kind
alluded to an internal threat with maybe employees of the organization
maybe behaving badly online. I always think of that, I think it was the Red
Cross a few years ago, where an employee Tweeted from the corporate account
rather than her personal account and got them in a little bit of trouble.
So there’s that going on too, right?
Brian: Yeah, and you know, staff of any organization that has a public
image, they need to be careful about how they identify themselves both
through their professional and their personal social media outlets. And
obviously what they’re saying, what they’re posting, the images that
they’re sharing, and how that potentially reflects on the company.
Even more concerning than that, for me, is people who are stake-
holders of those organizations, not necessarily staff, but people who are
board members, people who are donors, people who recipients of programs and
services. When they take to social media, they don’t have the
responsibility to the organization necessarily as a staff member does. So,
the gloves come off a little bit more with those types of stake-holders.
So, everyone that has a vested interest in that organization has a
certain amount of responsibility for the way that public perception is
Steven: So, being careful is always good advice, but we all know things
happen that sometimes are out of the organization’s control. What does an
organization need to have or do should a crisis unfold or some sort of PR
disaster erupt around the brand. What are some things that a brand needs to
prepare themselves for, maybe have a plan in place, and what does that plan
actually look like?
Brian: Sure. For non-profit organizations the types of threats that
usually happen– they can be staff related, they can be related to finances
or financial mismanagement. They can have legal implications, whether it’s
a breech of contact– something like that if they have a partnership
agreement and let’s things go south with that partnership that can result
in a problem. The point being, you have a couple of buckets, during the
webinar on Thursday I’m going to kind of talk through in more specifics
what those buckets are.
But the– basically, you have different areas of specialization. So
in the– I recommend that every organization put together a crisis
management plan. It’s basically an action plan, it’s something that you can
execute immediately if a situation presents itself. And the hardest thing
for non-profits is to try to figure out who’s going to handle what
Typically, with a lot of crisis situations that take place for non-
profit organizations, there’s a communications component, there’s certainly
how you talk about that problem to your staff, and your stake holders
internally and also to the public. But often-times, there are legal
implications, there are implications that involve the accountant and the
CFO to be on board. So, based on the nature of the crisis, you have to
figure out how to activate that plan appropriately and make sure you assign
roles and responsibilities clearly on the front end.
That’s probably the biggest challenge, is really kind of getting
organized and getting situated with that plan, being familiar enough with
the plan to know how to implement it, and making sure you have the right
people at the table, and a very clearly defined set of roles and
Steven: So what are the dangers of not having that in place?
Brian: Worst case scenario is you say nothing– er, sometimes best
scenario is you say nothing and it takes you a little while to respond, all
in the meantime this crisis snowballs and it becomes bigger and bigger an
you still have yet not gone on record because you’re not prepared.
Worst case scenario, you feel the need to respond in some way, and
you exasperate the crisis, because you respond inappropriately, or you
share information that you shouldn’t have, or someone from the organization
misspeaks. So without something to execute that’s clearly strategic and
also, the point of a good crisis management plan is to allow the business
of the organization to continue operating while this crisis situation is
managed, and for the organization to be able maintain its reputation and
integrity and kind of weather the storm.
Without a plan in place, the likelihood of that happening goes down
Steven: Right. So, can you think of an example of maybe an organization
that you’ve worked with, or maybe that you’ve seen out in the world that
just nailed the response. They clearly had a plan in place, they enacted it
right away, and they were able to weather the storm pretty well, or very
Brian: Yes. Honestly there aren’t that many best practices in the non-
profit world. And it’s a bit of a– it’s always a bit of a process. But
there’s an organization here in Washington D.C. called Whitman Walker
Health which is a community based health center. And they had a situation
not too long ago where they got into a rather vitriolic dispute with a
Washington D.C. city counsel member. And this was a situation that played
itself in the media that the city counsel person involved was particularly
tied into to media and every– the conflict between the two really played
itself out in a nasty in the public. And also he was trying to make splash
for financial oversight and for being fiscally responsibility.
And his target was an organization that he alleged wasn’t doing an
appropriate job in terms of how they were allocating funding, and whether
they were using their funding responsibility. They responded clearly and
consistently from the very beginning. They allowed the president of the
organization to speak for himself. That because the allegations were being
made that the problem started at the top, not at the bottom, and that the
president of the organization should be thrown out, basically.
And so instead of communicating through a public relations
representative or an internal communications associate, they allowed as
much transparency as possible. They let the press get a hold of copies of
otherwise confidential board records and financial record and they let the
president of the organization kind of fight this fight toe to toe with the
person who was making the allegations.
That doesn’t happen a lot. A lot of times we put things– we feel the
need to buffer the leaders of these organizations from the crisis, and so
we put someone in-between the crisis and the person who is ultimately
responsible for it. In this day and age, that approach doesn’t work so
well. There’s so much transparency that you can create through social media
and the public has such high expectations in terms of the legitimacy that
they receive, that the more first person information you can provide, the
better of you’re going to be.
And also, there a couple of things throughout this particular crisis
that were alleged that they [copped] to. And they said, ‘look, we need to a
better job in this are and this area’, however, we are not saying that we
agree with everything that’s being alleged.
So, honesty, transparency, kind of core values that you learn when
you’re kid, really come into place when you’re trying to manage a crisis
Steven: Makes perfect sense. Great, you nailed it! Well Brian, thanks
for being with us, I want to give the last word here and tell folks where
they can find out more about you and firm. Where can folks find you online?
Brian: Sure, my website is secureyourrep.com. My email address is
[email protected] Brian with an I. You can feel free to contact me
there and hopefully somebody will join for the webinar that we’re doing
this coming Thursday.
Steven: Yeah, absolutely! We’ll post that on the blog so people who are
watching this they’ll see that as well. Do reach out to Brian, don’t wait
until it’s too late, because if a crisis is already unfolding I’m not sure
it’ll be as useful as Brian coming in and actually making plan and
executing that for you, so check him out for sure.
Brian: Yeah, it’s a lot easier to work with organizations– and
there’s also things that can be done to prevent a crisis from happening
before it strikes. I can certainly come in and I can clean things up after
the volcano has erupted, but it’s easier to keep the lava inside.
Steven: Yep, he’ll keep it inside for ya. Brian, thanks for us, it was
a lot of fun, and thanks everyone for watching and we’ll catch you need
week! Thank you!
Brian: Bye now!