How can you ensure colleagues feel confident and well prepared to field incoming questions, scrutiny and criticism from the public and the media? Five experts from across the charity sector share their best tips
With charities still in the firing line of many media outlets, preparation is the most effective way to prevent a crisis, or to stop it from escalating. We’ve asked five frontline experts to share their best advice to help you plan and deliver your successful crisis comms strategy and ensure everyone in the organisation is fully on board.
Ciaran Price, policy officer, Directory of Social Change:
Everybody in a charity should have an awareness of what's happening in the sector and particularly what the potentially big media issues might be for the charity. If they know this, they are better positioned to help their beneficiaries and respond to what is a rapidly changing environment. It's crucial that staff are supported in finding out what's going on through policy briefings etc. Responding swiftly to misrepresentations and being transparent is important, as is establishing a limited number of key messages and trying to stick to these.
The first step is to have one person designated for handling requests for comments, and ensure everybody in the organisation is aware of who that is. Also, there may need to be a small internal group (including the CEO and chair, for example) to make decisions on how to respond and who can respond quickly. It’s also worth doing a risk register to try and map out possible issues in advance, and plan accordingly.
Your media spokesperson should be able to remain calm, balanced and engaging, even during a crisis or when being criticised. They should have a good understanding of the facts but also the confidence to realise that just because someone spouts out a few statistics that appear to undermine your argument, it doesn’t make them right and doesn’t mean you need to go on the defensive.
The chief executive should ensure that the charity does not become risk averse when dealing with comms. Lots of opportunities can be lost if we self-censor and don’t say what we think because we're too afraid of how people might respond. The CEO must realise that a comms screw-up isn't the end of the world. They need to have confidence in the media spokesperson and let them do their job, and support not undermine them.
Vicky Browning, director, CharityComms:
A substantial body of research now supports the view that better communication means a more highly motivated and successful workforce. Conversely, poor communication creates problems: a charity shop volunteer, unaware of key organisational values, gives the ‘wrong’ response to a customer’s query; an unbriefed press officer struggles to handle a journalist’s enquiry about the closure of a regional office. Where charities are working in conflict zones or dealing with health emergencies, the failure to disseminate a message, or the inability of an employee to make their voice heard at a critical time, can spell disaster. An engagement with organisational issues affects not only an individual’s approach to their work, but their sense of interest in and belonging to your charity.
Planning for a crisis before it happens is crucial. No one can prepare for every eventuality, but if you get your ducks in a row before a crisis hits, you’ll be much better prepared to ride the storm. This includes identifying any vulnerabilities your charity could face, agreeing who is in your crisis response team, setting up protocols and checklists, identifying and training good spokespeople, establishing effective information-sharing channels among staff, good media monitoring (both social and traditional), and creating ready-made statements which can be adapted as needed.
One principle used by many charities is “tell it all, tell it fast and tell the truth.” Your spokesperson needs to remain calm and courteous, even if the line of questioning is challenging or aggressive. They should be people centred, particularly in terms of expressing empathy for anyone affected by the crisis. And they need to engage with the interviewer, maintaining eye contact and trying to relax and be themselves.
If you can post a statement about the crisis on your website, you can ask staff to direct people there – this becomes a single source of information where you can articulate and update your position.
Maria Castellina, media manager, Friends of the Earth:
When you are expecting key moments in a campaign – such as, for Friends of the Earth, the recent government decision to allow fracking in Lancashire – planning is vital. By scenario planning, and preparing draft lines early, we were confident that everyone working on the campaign knew exactly how we would react and the role they would play.
In a digital age, media doesn’t stand alone. What you say to your donors, supporters and community allies should all chime with your media response. By making sure our communications were fully integrated, including internal communications, we were able to speak with a consistent voice, which helped to amplify our media presence in the breaking news agenda.
Not all media moments will come with a long lead-in time, but the more key campaign messages are bought into and rehearsed, the easier it is to respond quickly and consistently.
Bland lines, agreed by committee and delivered by spokespeople verbatim, are unlikely to convince or inspire. Work to the strengths of your spokespeople, and make sure they’re comfortable with the messaging that has been agreed. Help them to work out phrases which stick to your messages but fit with their speaking style. This will make them feel more comfortable, and will deliver an authentic message for your organisation.
Becky Slack, founder and MD, Slack Communications:
Those charities that don’t have a crisis management plan should write one. This should see trustees, the chief executive, programmes teams and those responsible for fundraising, PR and communications getting together to brainstorm the potential risks and the impact they could have on the business.
Making sure that the media team and the chief executive have been media trained is a must, they need to be a confident spokesperson in front of journalists, who will be looking for interviewees who can properly explain what they mean – one-word answers or responses full of jargon simply will not do.
Charities should stick to the facts and avoid deliberately missing out certain information if it doesn’t work in their favour. The charity needs to demonstrate that they are working to address or investigate the issue. If necessary, they should explain how they are doing this, either by conducting an investigation, speaking to relevant stakeholders, putting a service on hold, or working with independent auditors (etc).
Social media offers the opportunity for charities to publish the bits the journalists have missed, to add extra detail, correct any misconceptions and to direct people to where they can find more information on the website. If done quickly, this is far quicker than waiting for a press release to do the rounds. However, staff must stick to the agreed and circulated key messaging to avoid confusion and potentially adding fuel to the flames.
A carefully considered and effective media response plan is a key element of any charity’s risk management toolkit. It will be impossible to predict what reputational incidents may hit, and when, but every charity faces this risk, from the very large national brands to local charities under the spotlight of local media. And in the age of social media – quick responses are critical.
Your response plan needs to clearly set out for different levels of incident who is authorised to speak to the media and who should be consulted. The designated spokesperson needs to be sufficiently senior to have credibility, but also sufficiently close to the facts of the incident.
Like a fire drill – the plan needs to be tested through dummy runs using role playing. The tests need to allow for the fact that reputational incidents don’t arise between 9 and 5 Monday to Friday. Who is on call to respond out of hours? Who covers for periods of leave for key players in the plan?
Internal communications (trustees, staff, and volunteers) are often overlooked when responding to the media, as can be other stakeholders such as funders. You would not want them to hear of a major incident in the media first.
Useful resources to help charities formulate a clear comms strategy: