Advance Planning Is Key to Crisis Communications
By Barry Wanger

There is a good reason why executive directors of nonprofits and their public relations directors often don’t sleep well at night — they’re worrying about a potential crisis, the kind that can seriously damage a reputation, result in lost revenues, and force them to update their resumes.

When you hear the word crisis, often the first thing that comes to mind are those of the horrendous variety: a death in a nursing home, a child abused in a child care center, a shooting at a school, or an operation that goes tragically wrong at a hospital.

While all of these are, unfortunately, not uncommon occurrences, it is more likely that your nonprofit organization may be forced to deal with less serious, but nonetheless harmful, crises — the kind that you’ll survive, but could still make life unpleasant.

Can you imagine dealing with any of these situations:
  • The president of your organization is fired by the Board of Trustees because of alleged financial irregularities.

  • You’re ready to launch a capital campaign and a story hits the local newspaper about the fact that your admissions is down 22 percent this year.

  • The state agency that regulates your assisted living facility has just completed an audit and will soon publicly report that you are deficient in a number of health and safety areas.

If you handle the crisis correctly, you will survive and may even come out looking good. If you handle it poorly, you'll be looking for a new job — in another field.

During the past 25 years, we’ve worked with nonprofits dealing with crises ranging from the $200 million robbery at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and a university vice president caught in an IRS sting to a labor dispute at a community hospital.

While each crisis involved different tactics, there are some basic rules that apply to most situations you may encounter:
  • Conference with your crisis team to gather the facts, determine your strategy, and assign tasks.

  • Take responsibility for your actions and provide concrete steps you will be taking immediately to rectify the situation.

  • If there is an individual harmed in any way, show compassion for that person and for his or her family.

  • Get out all the information as quickly as possible. Your goal is to keep the situation to a one-day story. If new information continues to leak out, it will keep the story alive.

  • Make sure all the facts are 100 percent correct. Never release unconfirmed or speculative information, even if under heavy pressure by the media to do so.

  • Appoint one spokesperson to deal with the media. Prepare for the most difficult questions, in advance.

  • Provide media access as quickly as possible. It is better to say, “I don’t know but we’re working on it” than to provide potentially inaccurate information.

  • Alert your key audiences (staff, trustees, major donors, impacted families, etc.) to the crisis before they read or hear about it in the media.

Preparing for potential crises in advance may be even more important than dealing with them when they happen. Advance planning can help prevent some situations from becoming a real problem and lessen the chance that small issues will blow up into major disasters. Here are some tips:
  • Put together a crisis communications team that would include the head of the organization, the public relations director and/or a crisis communications expert, legal counsel, and security.

  • Develop a crisis communications plan and rehearse it once or twice a year. Keep it simple. A 50-page document may be impressive, but is probably too complex to use

  • Identify potential crises in advance so you can determine how to deal with them. You may want to go public with a problem before the news media finds out so you can control the message better

  • Identify the most appropriate spokesperson for each crisis. Usually, it is the president or executive director, particularly if the issue is a serious one.
Barry Wanger, APR, Fellow PRSA and president of Wanger Associates, specializes in providing public relations services for nonprofit organizations. Call him at 617-965-6469 or email