When a major event or tragedy happens, and dominates the news, charity communicators have an important role to swiftly steer and articulate our organisation’s response. Times like when the news of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine broke or when Royal or celebrity deaths dominate UK news coverage.
We know that we need to act quickly so that our charity can make a positive contribution. We know that a wrong-footed response could impact our reputation. We know that our staff and supporters need to feel informed and valued in tough and uncertain times.
Drawing on my experience of crisis comms on major incidents at Transport for London and for a government department, I would recommend prioritising five things to help deal with big news events:
1. Prepare for the ‘known unknowns’
It is important to dedicate regular time to horizon scanning for potential news events that could affect the charity.
‘Known unknowns’ are events that you know, if they happened, would receive high media interest. You’d have to handle them reactively, and most likely your Board would want to know what you are planning to say. It could be incidents that may affect your community, the wider UK public, or your ability to run your operations. It could be sad or difficult news about patrons or high-profile figures related to your charity.
Could you make sure this horizon scanning is added to your regular comms catch ups or leadership team meetings? Is there a clear process to escalate to your crisis response team (which comms should be part of)?
2. Decide what this news means to you
With a major news event, we may feel that we want to say something but also feel wary of wading in on a topic. It really is a gut call. This is why it’s so important to have spent time thinking about what might warrant a crisis response.
Questions you can ask yourself to think through to help you decide to issue communications include:
- What does this mean for your priority audiences? Will they expect you to speak out on this news?
- Are you clear about your position as a charity on this news, or on whether you will be going to do something differently because of the news?
- If you don’t comment, are you confident that others won’t fill in the gap? Will you get challenged for not having a position on this news?
- Think ahead to the next 24 hours, 72 hours, and in three months’ time. How do you want people to perceive your charity’s response to this major news event?
The way Refugee Action addressed the news of the Ukraine crisis as it broke, when initial footage was being shared, is a good example of how, when appropriate to your charity, you can react to major developments in a timely and meaningful way:
3. Think about whether you need to hit pause
A big question for charity communicators will be whether to pause communications. Maybe you’ve issued a comment, but the question now is whether you keep your usual content going.
Again, it’s important to go back to basics and think about what your audience will need. Will they want to engage? In the event of a tragedy, would a pause on communications be a way to show respect?
Or could you limit content to purely urgent and important operational information? For example, tweets that your services are still open or an email to your supporters to explain how you are available to help during this time. Before you do decide to pause, think about when it would be appropriate to restart too.
Another important task is to review all scheduled communications. Check your planned social media posts. Is there anything that will be disrespectful in the current climate? Look at whether any other upcoming communications might need more support. For example, if your CEO is speaking at a big conference, they could need speaking notes on this news.
4. Spend time on your messaging
What you say following a major news event needs to be relevant and useful, particularly in a time of tragedy. Stick to the facts and do not speculate. Even if that means you can’t say much.
As ever, particularly in uncertain times, be wary of disinformation. If you need to share external sources, make sure you are confident in their reporting. If there is a major event or tragedy, it’s always best to stick to official sources of information.
Be human. Show empathy to those who may have suffered or who are upset. Be clear in your communications what it means for the communities and clients you serve.
The way the British Heart Foundation reacted to the death of Prince Philip is a good example of being both empathetic and showing how the news connects to their cause:
5. Think about the impact on your people
Your own staff and volunteers should always be a priority audience. In times of uncertainty, we need high quality engagement on what a major news events means to us. If major news is sensitive or distressing, try and discuss in person, rather than through an email update. That could be an all staff Zoom call, managers phoning team members, or a quick office huddle.
Think about the personal impact on staff and volunteers. Do they need some space and time to cope with the news? Can you signpost to your Employees Assistance Programme or other sources of support? Remember to keep the channels of information open with repeated offers of support. People process big news in different ways and at different times.
Look after yourself and your team too. There’s some important advice in the Charity Comms Wellbeing Guide. Coping with a major news event as a communications professional can be difficult. But it’s also incredibly rewarding as we can see the difference we can make.
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