Peter Gilheany, director at Forster Communications, outlines a practical toolkit for communicating in a crisis.

Unfortunately, crisis communications is a growth industry within the voluntary sector at the moment for multiple reasons – financial pressures, criticism from government, and chickens coming home to roost around issues like bullying, discrimination (on the grounds of race, disability, sexuality, gender or otherwise) and sexual harassment. All voluntary sector organisations should have plans in place for how they would respond to a crisis and this is the lowdown on what you need to consider:

1. Be prepared

Do the planning now so you’re on the front foot if a crisis strikes. This means putting together a simple risk register and crisis response protocol.

The risk register is laborious but important. Write down all the terrible things that might happen as a result of the charity’s activities.  This is likely to include:

  • operational problems or issues;
  • internal strife or disagreement;
  • issues with suppliers, partners and stakeholders;
  • an external event or action by a third party that will have a significant effect on you; and
  • reputational issues that may arise as a result of stakeholder and/or public scrutiny in relation to a charity’s past or present connections (for example, historical links between the charity’s assets and the transatlantic slave trade).

Then assign two values to each – likelihood and impact. Prioritise those most likely to happen and that would have the biggest impact. Then you’ll need to consider and agree two things:

a) what you can do to minimise the likelihood of them happening and mitigate the impact; and

b) how you will escalate and handle the communications around them, including your responses.

The crisis protocol sits alongside the register and lays out who needs to be involved in any responses, approval processes, channels you will use and how you will deal with further responses, questions or challenges.

This might seem like a lot to take on, but it is much easier to do as much as possible ahead of time than trying to do it on the hoof in the middle of a crisis.

2. Get help

You may not have anyone in your team with crisis communications experience, so consider bringing in an external consultant to support you with it. If a crisis gets out of hand, it can have a serious negative impact on an organisation, so some expert help can be a good investment.

3. Prioritise the people who matter

It is tempting when responding to a crisis to prioritise those making the loudest demands or being the most critical, but they aren’t necessarily the most important audiences to engage. Your own staff, trustees, volunteers, supporters, funders, partners and beneficiaries are the most important and you should put them first in your comms.

4. Messaging

Each crisis is different but there are some core principles for the messages you put out in response to them.

  • Express empathy – someone is likely to be impacted in some way in each crisis, so communicate feeling for them.
  • Communicate reassurance – many will be concerned or panicked about a crisis and the impact it will have on them or things they care about. They need to know you are dealing with it and showing leadership around it.
  • Outline appropriate and proportionate action – it is tempting to go over the top when responding to a crisis but that can simply make things worse. Take the heat out of the situation by being considered when outlining the action you are taking, particularly when you may not be in possession of all the facts and the wider context.

5. Use the right channels

Use the channels you control directly to reach your most important audiences, such as phone calls, messaging systems and emails.

Use social media to post responses and signpost to your website for further information – such as a Q&A – but don’t engage in dialogue on social media, it is a zero-sum game. Respond to any inaccuracies or defamatory remarks by rebutting them and linking to any Q&A but again, don’t get into an exchange.

6. Be visible

Crisis communications is one of the situations when leaders earn their corn. People want to hear from those who are accountable and responsible, so your leaders should be front and centre in the communications – the CEO for operational issues; the chair of trustees for governance issues.

Visibility also means showing your workings, outlining where you have gone wrong or made mistakes and explaining why you can’t disclose every aspect of an issue rather than simply leaving things out of your communication.

Forster Communications is a specialist values-led consultancy that works with businesses and organisations that want to make a positive impact. Forster Communications, along with Bates Wells, was one of the founding UK B Corps.

This article is taken from our forthcoming publication, Managing in a Crisis. Make sure you’re subscribed to our mailing list to receive it on release. We’ll also be discussing this topic and more at Spotlight: the annual Bates Wells Conference on 22 November – virtual places are available to book now.