Case Study: Effective Communication in a Crisis

I was recently involved in a situation where a nonprofit had to deal with a quickly escalating negative PR issue. I learned a lot about how to manage the issue quickly and effectively.

The situation: a video was posted online that showed a board member conducting herself in a manner both contrary to organization policy and generally accepted behavior. The board member continued to add fuel to the fire in the video’s comments in an attempt to defend herself, and also publicly identified herself as a board member of the organization. The video rapidly went viral with people sharing and commenting on it from around the world. The organization’s leaders were receiving many messages demanding they do something about this board member.

We knew we needed to get a statement out quickly but we also wanted to make sure we didn’t make things worse for the board member. 

Here are key points we tried to keep in mind:

  • How could we establish our position as a trusted provider of timely, accurate, and empathetic information on the situation?
  • How could we get a message out that was both timely and effective?
  • What was our role in correcting misinformation?

In the end, we crafted a statement that had three key parts. 

  1. We acknowledged the issue. We talked about how the incident violated the code of conduct of the organization.
  2. We sincerely apologized, both to the particular individual harmed and to the community at large.
  3. And finally, we shared what we were going to change to avoid this situation in the future. We explained that we had removed the person from her role on the board (make sure your bylaws have clear information on how to do this) and mentioned specific training that would be provided to all board members around the code of conduct. 

While it felt like it took us a long time to put this statement out, the response was immediate. The people who had been sharing the video also shared our response and complimented the organization on the strong message we shared. The public response quickly died down and we were able to get back to our regular work.  

What did we learn along the way?

  • The organization had a strong code of conduct and bylaws that allowed for the removal of a board member. These policies and procedures are not always in place so I highly recommend you review this. 
  • Don’t rush to respond right away but do respond as quickly as you can. It was hard to have all our energy going to this issue for a week but the fallout of not responding would have lasted far longer.
  • Get outside help. As a consultant, I was a step removed from the situation, which let me focus on helping the organization respond effectively and efficiently. I am no expert in this area but I had the time and clarity of mind to be helpful. Find someone who isn’t directly involved to help you strategize your response. It will also help you get some perspective that not everyone knows about what is going on. 
  • Make it clear to everyone who is responsible for communicating with the public and the media. In a crisis, everyone wants to be helpful and share information, but you don’t want more than one person making public statements or even talking about the incident outside the board meetings. It creates confusion and frustration quickly. 
  • We were lucky that there wasn’t a traditional media response to the incident. It remained only on social media. We didn’t have to have anyone be interviewed, but if we had, we would have found someone who was comfortable on camera, able to answer questions on their feet, and who was skilled at sticking to the crafted message.
  • This wasn’t an ongoing issue. We were able to provide one public statement. If a situation continues, it is wise to put out additional statements and include when further updates will be coming.

Because the board member’s actions had been targeted at a particular individual in the community, we also reached out to that person and conveyed our apologies, which was appreciated.

In the end, our relatively quick response and a clear statement of the actions we would take were welcomed by the public. I definitely recommend putting a basic crisis plan together before you need it, however.

Learn more about creating crisis communication plans.

Business illustrations by Storyset

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