Friday, January 15, 2010
The Circling of the Vultures
Surviving a Nonprofit Public Relations Disaster
It's every nonprofit director's worst nightmare. You struggle for years to build a donor base and a solid, supportive board of directors. You write reams of grant applications and contracts and send out tens of thousands of fund-raising letters. You recruit and hire talented, energetic people to carry out your programs. You do the marketing and development work to create a positive image for your organization in the community. You work with troubled kids, people with disabilities, seniors or low income families. You work with a staff that's over-worked and under-paid.You're always short of money. You're never short of problems.
Then one dark and stormy night......
Something bad happens and you find yourself in the midst of a swirling controversy. You don't have a public relations staff, you don't have a lawyer on retainer and you find yourself with the vultures circling overhead and the sharks swimming circles around your feet. What do you do to minimize the damage?
What You Should Have Done Already?
1. Create a written crisis plan: Before something awful happens, you should create a written plan for what to do if something awful happens.
2. Get help creating the plan: Hire a PR specialist. Lawyers are all well and good, but they are concerned primarily with winning a case in a trial. The advice they give you will not necessarily help you save your reputation and may do exactly the opposite. You may wind up being found not guilty in a legal court, but you can lose mightily in the court of public opinion.
3. Get board approval for your crisis plan: Make sure everyone on the board understands the lines of responsibility in a crisis and who speaks to the press and who does not.
4. Get to know local reporters: Send out regular press releases. Look for good stories you can give to various reporters as an exclusive story. They don't forget you when you do that. Drop little thank you notes when they cover a nice story about you. Get on their radar and stay there.
5. Have a PR person on speed dial: If you don't have one of your own, have a PR person you can call to come in to handle the media while you handle the crisis.
Keeping Your Head
My first experience of a nonprofit PR crisis was when a child died at the organization I worked for. A murky story emerged that implicated a staff member, ambulance and emergency personnel in the child's death. The organization, while doing excellent work with really tough to manage kids, did not have a reputation for getting along with the community. The nonprofit's response to criticism had been aggressively defensive. For the past couple of years, I had been working to soften our image in the community and reduce the impact of our peppery executive director on community relations.
When the incident happened that would close the center, our lawyer immediately suggest that no statement be made to the press. Despite my warnings that not making a statement at all made us look guilty. The director adopted the lawyer's recommendation and the press tore us up. We had no defense and the reporters and editors with whom I did have a relationship were hurt that we wouldn't talk to them, even though many supported us.
I went to the board chairman over the director's head and was authorized to talk with the lawyer. The two of us worked out a statement I could release finally and we managed to get some positive coverage in the local press. The state closed us anyway, but as a result of a coordinated effort that I organized in concert with board members and staff, we were able to force the state to do a slower, multi-stage closure that reduced the damage to the children. I helped the lawyer write the appeal to the judge that got us a court order. As a result, the state had to allow staff counselors to help the children make a slower supported transition that did not do nearly the emotional trauma to the kids. The sudden swoop and grab closure that was planned by state officials would have done incredible psychological damage to the already traumatized kids we had in care.
Public Relations is not just about getting stories in the newspapers and TV. Public relations helps you create an image of your organization in the minds of your staff and partners in projects as well. PR can help you control events during a crisis by helping everyone involved to understand what's going on and what to think about it.
At another agency, we had a public perception problem from before I arrived. One frozen winter day, a hyperactive child snagged a bicycle and impulsively rode out on a frozen pond near his cottage on the agency's boy's campus. He slipped and fell off the bike and through the ice. Staff who were hot on his trail fished him out of the pond and carried him to the emergency room in the nearby town. He was chilled a little and caught cold, but was unhurt. But while he was at the hospital, someone decided this would be a good story and called the newspaper.
The paper dispatched a reporter photographer who came onto the campus unescorted. The staff, in their hurry, had left the bike out on the lake and no one recovered it, preferring to wait and fish it out after the ice melted. It was a mistake.
The reporter snapped a shot of the forlorn little bicycle sitting on the ice beside the hole through which the boy had fallen. It made the front page without comment from the agency and for years people in town held the belief that the nonprofit program didn't watch out for its kids.
I worked hard to boost our image in the community, but a year into my tenure, a second incident occurred. It was not our fault. An 11 year old boy got loose from his caseworker when they arrived to check the boy into our program. The kid took off through the woods, eluded staff members and later stole an unattended school bus that had keys in the ignition. He led police on a rush hour chase and turned the bus over on a major throughway.
We fielded calls from reporters all afternoon. By the time they got word and called us, we had a set of talking points prepared, I had the full story and knew what I could tell reporters and what I couldn't. When the reporters called, I asked straight up what their impression was as to the story behind the incident. I told them I wanted to be able to answer their question directly and offered to go on the air with radio and TV and on the record with print media. They knew me so they all told me frankly, that people were under the impression that we did not watch our kids. I told them I would be prepared to talk directly to that concern.
I explained the background of the case, There was a poignant back story that could not be told to the public and could not legally be given on the record. Because the reporters trusted me, we wound up with two very fair stories with our statement fully included. One TV station didn't cover the story at all. Because we had a plan for responding to the media, we didn't take a hit from the incident. Because we helped facilitate the reporters' tasks we earned brownie points with the reporters for making their jobs easier. We also controlled access to the facility and avoided the problem of unsupervised news crews wandering the campus.
Preparing a Crisis Plan
Define What is A Potential Public Relations Crisis: The first step is to make sure your staff understands what kinds of incidents have the potential to be a PR crisis. Depending on the type of work you do, set your team down and brainstorm what sort of horrible things could happen to you and make a list of those things. Put the list in the front of your Crisis Plan, alphabetize the list and give the page number where the plan for that particular crisis can be found. Include a general crisis management chapter and then single page lists of steps to take for each identified potential crisis. The Crisis Plan will include more than public relations advice, of course. It will include procedural, program and emergency response to each crisis. Make sure that in the course of responding to any emergency that your staff responsible for public relations are properly informed and allowed to participate fully. Here are the PR related elements of each crisis protocol.
1. When to Call: Describe in the protocols how soon after the onset of the crisis, you should call.
2. Who is Responsible to Call: Make sure you make it clear who on the scene of any crisis is responsible to inform the public relations team. If that person isn't available, be sure to assign a second and third level staff member to get the word out.
3. Who-To-Call: List in order who to call The first thing in any crisis is to inform whoever will need to respond to the press if word gets out. Have backup persons to call if the people at the top of the list are not available. The executive director and public relations director should be top of the list. If you don't have a PR director, inform whatever staff member handles PR duties or the phone number of your agency's PR consultant. Normally, if using a consultant, the decision to call him is likely to be the executive director's. Also list who should be copied by e-mail so that they know something's up. If your board has a media or marketing committee those people should at least get a message from the PR director or ED.
4. What to Do: Lay out a set of protocols describing what should be prepared for the press, supporters, staff and directors to keep them informed. The first step is to get the full story into the hands of someone who can write. Write up a list of talking points designed to answer any possible questions. Then start working on a basic press release. If there are legal ramifications to the story, the PR staffer needs to clear any press release or talking points list with the lawyer.
5. How to Identify and Set Goals for PR Activities: For each activity, the PR team should be able to quickly set goals and objectives for the PR response and list specific activities designed to achieve those goals and objectives. For instance, in the "hole in the ice" episode above the teams goal objectives and activities should have been:
(a) To Prevent Negative Publicity
Objective - Control the flow of information to the public
Activity 1: Send all reporters to the PR coordinator
Activity 2: Allow no photos or interviews except through
the PR coordinator
Activity 3: Provide general press packet and press release
or talking points list to reporters
(b) To Improve Relations with Reporters
Objective - Build positive relations with media outlets
Activity 1: Write talking points and press release and get
approval from legal and ED
Activity 2: Send out press releases to anyone that calls
Activity 3: Provide different story angles to each media
representative as far as possible
Lawyers have a pretty good opinion of themselves. They are always convinced they are right and they know more than you. They distrust any release of information that doesn't come through them. If you send them a fully written list of talking points and a press release, the lawyer is likely to chop it to bits. I learned early on that the easiest way to get copy approved was to call the lawyer first, explain the situation and what your goals are. Explain that you have to make a statement. "No comment" is a tacit admission of guilt in the press. In court your can't be convicted for not speaking in your own defense, but this is not true with the media. Ask for his advice about what to avoid saying and ask permission to send a copy of your talking points, statement and/or press release and would he give you some notes on any problems with the manuscript.
After the stories come out, send thank you notes to reporters who write stories that include your statement or run your press releases. Thank them for their balanced reporting and compliment them for it. You want to leave a positive impression in their minds about you and your agency. Later, if you get a good story they might be interested in, you will have cleared a path to that reporter that will make it easier for you to get your story published.