When Bad Things Happen to Good Organizations

Three tips for getting ready, before you have to be

Bad things can happen to good organizations, just like they can happen to good people. Unintended consequences from deeply rooted issues, as well as unpredictable life events, can strike nonprofit organizations just like they do everyday individuals.

But the organizational onus to react appropriately looms greater for the institutional than the personal. The limelight looms longer, and the public gaze is more critical and unforgiving. This begs this question: Are your team members ripe for dealing with the unexpected, at the most inopportune times? [/tweet] Are you ready for prime time in the event of the untimely death of a member of the leadership team or charges of ethical violations that rock your nonprofit’s principled brand? What about allegations of illicit activity or literally being in the eye of the storm as the victim of a natural disaster?

All this and more can happen to the very best of social-change outfits and progressive, conscientious companies. That’s why a crisis communications plan can help internal PR teams handle each phase of the responsive-and-react stage with professionalism.

Here are three steps to get ready for the improbable, the unlikely and, in some cases, the unavoidable:

Expect the unexpected. This common saying may seem like a cliché, but it couldn’t be truer when it comes to media relations. Even well-oiled organizational machines will eventually hit a blip. And insiders’ preparation for unforeseeable circumstances can mean the difference between a major nightmare and, simply, a not-so-great day.

While internal PR teams are usually focused on helping others understand media relations – through coaching, practice interviews, coverage analysis and strategic recommendations – these very same experts should put themselves through a similar process, routinely. Ongoing preparation and professional development should be par for the course for PR managers, media relations directors, communications leads and any others who deal with reporters and producers as part of their jobs.

“As a group, come up with ideas about situations your organization might encounter. Base them on current trends and even the most seemingly impossible odds,” says Wakeman. “Keep the conversation going, and make brainstorming about these issues, as well as how your team would manage them if they occurred, part of the departmental way of being.”

Have a plan. Moving from thought to action is a necessity; brainstorming about possible crisis-level scenarios is just a start. Internal media teams should then, as a collective, begin developing mock action plans for the potential high-stakes calamities and dicey predicaments. The process of creating these plans can be shared endeavors, wherein each contributor develops his or her own complete media response plan – with everyone later sharing their ideas and then, as a team, selecting the best parts to curate a new strategy. As an alternative, departments may assign specific components of action planning according to team members’ typical functional responsibilities.

Don’t make the real thing the practice run. Contingency plans for the most unexpected, unlikely or unfortunate issues must be put to the test. And PR departments must carve out a time and place to do so.

Each day in a PR department or on a media relations team is different. At one moment, a PR coordinator might be screening incoming calls from reporters, and at another moment, the entire team may be working together to make sure a news conference goes off without a hitch. In prized moments, there is calm over the team, and everyone can focus on those long-term, more strategic projects that get put on the backburner, given the events of a typical week.

“We are all so busy,” Wakeman acknowledges. “For some of us, there are almost never enough hours in a day. But PR teams have to practice, practice, practice for crises yet to come. One day, some organizations will experience ‘the impossible’ in real life, and they have to be ready.”

Join us in our Facebook community, where we ask: Is your organization ready for the worst from a PR perspective? When was the last time your team did a mock drill? What do you think is the absolute worst media relations snafu a nonprofit can face?

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