Crisis Communications for Nonprofits During the Pandemic
By Jackie Herskovitz Russell

Jackie Herskovitz Russell
Jackie Herskovitz Russell
Facing an enormous, and perhaps even existential, crisis due to the coronavirus pandemic, nonprofits of all stripes and sizes need to communicate to their key constituencies – quickly, concisely, and without stumbling.

Crisis communication in no uncertain terms has come to the forefront of nonprofit work, as organizations seek to anchor themselves against an unrelenting tide of change that is affecting their operations and fundraising. Most critically, they need to get the right message to clients and customers, board members, volunteers, employees, the public, vendors, state agencies, other nonprofits, companies, and the media.

While the COVID-19 situation is unique, the way in which organizations should message around it are based on the foundation of good crisis communications: be quick, clear, concise, and seek closure.

COVID-19 provides another point on which to focus: compassion. No matter what's going on in your organization—from layoffs to working overtime—it’s important to empathize with those who are the recipients of your good work and who likely are being hit the hardest.

Here are 10 tips for crisis communications:
  1. Set the team. Have a communications team in place, hopefully before the organization is in crisis mode. The team should be made up of the company’s leaders including HR, a legal expert, and someone well versed in the media.

  2. Appoint one spokesperson. While there may be different audiences for the messaging (shareholders, the media, employees, etc.) there should be one voice of authority for each audience, if not for all of the audiences, so that messaging is consistent.

  3. Get the story straight. Write one paragraph or one page that explains what has occurred. Having a succinct and accurate story is at the foundation of successful communications. If the leadership cannot agree on what occurred or why, they won’t be able to explain it to the public.

  4. Start with the end in mind. How do you want the situation to end up? Plan accordingly, backward.

  5. Be honest. Cover-ups are always worse than reality. Avoiding bad news prolongs the inevitable while ensuring that a cloud of suspicion hovers over your organization for a long time to come.

  6. Take action. After explaining the issue, immediately provide the actions the organization is taking to achieve greater understanding of what occurred and right wrongs.

  7. Pick your core message. Be sure to say it, even if not asked. Act like a politician who is more apt to use a question as an opportunity to state her own agenda than provide the requested information.

  8. Know what to avoid. Knowing what you don’t want to say in advance is helpful so you can choose your wording carefully or pivot. Practice answering the tough questions.

  9. Have a clear internal communications policy in place. Instruct employees, board members, donors, and volunteers on communications do's and don’ts. Explain what is appropriate for them to say in public, on social media, to their neighbors, and the like. Word of mouth is the original social media.

  10. Orchestrate the communications order. When announcing a layoff, for example, whom should the organization tell first: employees, board members, the public, or the media? No one wants to read about his potential pay cut on Facebook. But if 500 employees know, the media is soon to find out. And if the media know, then the public is close behind, which means the messaging on the organization’s website needs to reflect the current situation. This is tricky and each situation warrants a unique and sensitive approach.

    A critical best practice is to get all the messaging straight and ready up front, before informing anyone. Release the news to a trusted media source under embargo with a strict release date, and then systematically and all at once inform employees, volunteers, corporate sponsors, donors, volunteers and the public. The communication methods can include newsletters, phone calls, constant contact, individual emails, and the like. Get the messaging set for the website and social media before announcing anything to anyone and then push the buttons on both simultaneously. Think this through and operate accordingly.
A key point to keep in mind when communicating in a crisis is that everything (both good and bad) is temporary. Knowing this will be helpful in navigating your way through the crisis. Remember, the Chinese symbol for crisis is made up of two other symbols, one for danger and the other for opportunity.

A key point to keep in mind when A critical best practice is to get all communicating in a crisis is that everything (both good and bad) is temporary. Knowing this will be helpful in navigating your way through the crisis. Remember, the Chinese symbol for crisis is made up of two other symbols, one for danger and the other for opportunity.

Keep calm and communicate without fear.

Jackie Herskovitz Russell is president and founder of Teak Media + Communication, a PR firm that serves nonprofits and responsible companies. Email her at jackie@teakmedia.com.
March 2020