When Crisis Hits Home

A crisis is an unwelcome visitor in any organization, but you can minimize its impact with a crisis management plan—here's how to craft yours.

How would you or your chorus define a crisis? If Mike Wallace shows up at your door, and you didn't expect him for dinner, you're probably closer to a crisis than you realize. And that's the problem. A crisis is easy to recognize once you're in one.

Simply put: it's a crisis when you can't say, "Oh, let's just forget the whole thing, okay?"

Consider these possible scenarios:

  • Your artistic director unexpectedly dies, quits, or leaves town under very suspicious circumstances;
  • A member of your choir alleges sexual harassment;
  • Your development director is accused of embezzling hard-earned contributions.
  • A crisis has two realities: 1) what actually happened; and 2) what the public and the target audiences you strive to communicate with think happened through information channels that include the media and speed-of-light rumors.

It's no secret that a mishandled crisis can wipe out months - even years - of positive efforts to build credibility, awareness, and in the case of nonprofit arts organizations, loyal financial support systems and audiences.

The bottom line in crisis management: be ready and hope that's as close as you get to dealing with one. Because we can't plug a crisis into the calendar, thoughtful crisis communications plans cover a range of potential scenarios and include a very specific media relations component.

Crafting the Plan

A crisis communications plan can take several forms. A comprehensive guidebook with every element clearly defined and outlined would be preferable, although a more streamlined approach that identifies the crisis management team — from the artistic director to the board chair — and details responsibilities of each member, requires less time to develop. In either case, create these plans in collaboration with or under the counsel of a professional communicator, either on staff or from the outside. There may be communications firms in your area willing to donate the time and expertise needed to pull this type of plan together.

In addition to the plan itself, consider media training as part of the preparation, not only in the case of a crisis but also for regular interaction with reporters. The skills taught in media training sessions prove valuable in other arenas as well, not the least of which is with presentations.

The first step in the planning process is defining what may represent a crisis for your organization. Because there is a fine line between a simple problem and a full-blown crisis, it makes sense to schedule a brainstorming session with representation from both the artistic and the operational side of the organization.

Don't be lulled into a false sense of security. A crisis can happen to any organization of any size at any time, and for that reason, planning can never begin too soon. To start, it may be helpful to distinguish among three situations that would require some level of response from your organization.

  • A crisis is a situation in which the organization must react quickly and responsibly to an unforeseen event that occurs without warning and could have a negative impact.
  • An emergency is an unexpected event, such as a fire or bomb threat, that must be handled quickly and responsibly but may not have a long-term impact.
  • An issue is a foreseeable situation that may result in media attention, but is one that an organization can prepare for. For example, a disgruntled employee gets fired and goes to the media; or a volunteer, who has said he or she doesn't like how the organization is run, tries to generate some negative press.

Key Messages and Building Media Relationships

For each situation, key messages and responses would be developed based on individual facts and circumstances by communications staff or counsel in collaboration with the executive director, artistic director, and, if necessary, the board chair. These consistent messages would be delivered by identified spokespeople to targeted audiences using a variety of tactical elements that may include news releases, news conferences, face-to-face meetings, letters, phone calls, and email.

A full crisis communication plan would identify, at least minimally:

  • The definition of a crisis;
  • Organizational policies about dealing with a crisis;
  • Internal and external target audiences and how you'll reach them;
  • Members of the crisis management team and their individual and collective responsibilities;
  • Your spokesperson or spokespeople;
  • A media relations policy and strategy.

Once a plan is determined and approved, it's important that everyone in the organization understand what to do when a crisis hits and how to use the strategy as a road map to negotiate the twists and turns. That means not putting the plan on the bookshelf right away, but scheduling a training session with those who will be involved in its use and implementation. Review and update it periodically.

It's important to remember that dealing with the media doesn't only happen during a crisis. Whether your organization has regular contact with the press, or if you tend to stay away at all costs, there are several things to consider.

Building relationships with the media can help you build awareness of your organization in good times and often will pay great dividends in the event a crisis does occur. The credibility you establish with the press goes a long way in ensuring, as much as possible, that your messages are delivered clearly and accurately. But, whatever your relationship with the media, it is impossible to overstate the importance of being honest and accessible in good times and in bad. To act otherwise would end up making a difficult situation even more troublesome.

This article is adapted from The Voice, Summer 2002.