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Top tips for communicating in a crisis

23 July 2019

Bad things happen to good people and organisations. When a charity gets caught up in a crisis, it is crucial that it takes control of its communications to limit the fallout. At Forster Communications we have supported many charities dealing with crises, and here’s what we have learnt:

Don’t be surprised, be prepared

When you work for a progressive organisation, having a reputational crisis might seem unthinkable. However, it is worth thinking the unthinkable and pulling together a reputational risk register for your organisation just in case. In very basic terms, that means considering and writing down all the horrible things that might happen to create a reputational crisis for your organisation, then score them against the likelihood of them happening and their severity. Prioritise the risks that are most likely to happen and would have the severest impact on your organisation. Take them in turn and consider what you can do to minimise the chances of them happening, then consider what you should do as an organisation in response to them happening, including who you need to communicate with and what you need to be communicating. This might seem like an onerous exercise, but it will pay off should you find yourself in the middle of a crisis as should the worst happen it isn’t going to be the time or the place to be trying to come up with these things on the hoof.

Prioritise the people who matter

The temptation in a crisis is to focus on dealing with criticism, questions from external audiences (often on social media) and enquiries from journalists. However, that often means those audiences who are closest to you, like your own staff, volunteers, supporters and partners, are left in the dark or worse, hear about what is happening second hand. You need to respond to external enquiries, but the priority is to keep those you rely on and are closest to, updated and engaged on how you are dealing with the crisis.

Right is better than right now

It used to be so much simpler. A crisis hit your organisation, the media reported on it, you got calls or letters or emails in response to it and had a grace period to consider and respond. Social media has made it more complicated in that you get instant and, in some cases, overwhelming levels of responses, questions, criticism and vitriol when a crisis hits, all demanding immediate attention. If this happens, pause and then do two things: firstly, remember the previous tip and prioritise responding to the audiences that matter to you, those who are most affected by the crisis and the silent, reasonable majority who don’t rush out to give their judgements on what has happened; secondly, move any discussion and engagement off social media – it is not the place for nuance, debate or anything beyond a simple exchange. Signpost to statements, rebut or challenge any inaccuracies, broadcast updates on action taken.

Use the golden rules of messaging in a crisis

Follow these five golden rules when it comes to your messaging in response to the crisis:

  1. Communicate care, concern and empathy with the people involved / affected.
  2. Demonstrate calm leadership and appropriate and proportionate action in response to operational issues as they develop.
  3. Be active in response and avoid using the passive form or tone of voice.
  4. Acknowledge when things have gone wrong and communicate action taken to learn from mistakes and improve processes and performance to mitigate against them happening again.
  5. Only communicate on the facts known to you at the time – say when you do not know and don’t offer conjecture or directly respond to hypothetical scenarios or what if’s.

Front up
When it comes to crises, audiences are ruthlessly hierarchical – we want to hear from those in charge and accountable for what has happened. All senior leaders should have media interview training and be ready and able to be the face and voice at the time of a crisis

Follow up, learn, tell people what you’ve changed
Once you’ve breathed a sigh of relief that it’s over, consider the learnings while it is all still fresh, so you can refine your approach should a similar crisis strike in the future. Also, if you promised to update audiences on the actions you are taking, maintain that goodwill by doing exactly that on a regular basis.

Read more

For more on crisis communications check out the CharityComms best practice guide ‘Crisis communications for charities’

Peter Gilheany

charity director, Forster Communications

Peter is charity director at Forster Communications, the social change PR agency. He has spent 25 years working with and for charities on communicating around social change, from developing the Gift Aid It brand back in 2001 to creating the strategy for the movement to tackle loneliness in 2018. Along the way, he has worked with almost every high profile charity in the UK, writes regularly about communications issues affecting charities in Third Sector and PR Week and is a former trustee of CharityComms.