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Writing a charity crisis plan: some essentials

10 June 2022

When your charity is facing any critical or crisis issue, it will be judged on how it resolves the situation and how it communicates with its stakeholders.

Get either of these wrong, and your reputation could suffer – leading to a drop in donations, withdrawal of support, and potential closure.

However, communicating quickly and effectively helps maintain trust in your organisation, provides reassurance, offers a balanced version of events, and minimises the long-term impact.

So how you communicate during a crisis is crucial. Aim to be:

  • Human – every communication should display humanity and concern
  • Responsive and proactive – both internally and externally, to contain rumours and take control of the situation
  • Timely – avoiding the vacuum of information that could foster speculation
  • Responsible – taking issues seriously, being accountable, and, if appropriate, apologising
  • Open and honest – sticking to the facts and offering as much information as possible
  • Relevant – ensuring communications relate to the problem and are updated as circumstances change
  • Consistent – aligning messages across all channels of communication

The key to getting all this right is to have a robust crisis plan in place. Rough House Media have been helping charities do for years so we thought we’d share some tips on how to get this right. Here are the most important elements to include:

Risk Register

The first step is to audit your risks, so you know (broadly) the problems which might arise, how likely they are and how damaging they could be. It helps to divide them into three categories:

  1. Internal issues: an IT failure, a safeguarding problem, or staff error
  2. External issues: caused by factors beyond your control – for example, the cost of living crisis or changes to regulations
  3. Acts of God: for example, the global pandemic

With your team, brainstorm, discuss and note everything that could happen. Leave nothing out.

Then assess how likely each thing is to happen and how damaging they would be, scoring 1-10, to reach an overall total risk factor. Prioritise specific action plans for those scoring highest and create generic plans for the rest.

For each risk, record:

  • Which member of staff/department has ultimate responsibility
  • The communications contact (if appropriate)
  • Likelihood vs damage
  • What action you have taken/could take (eg, writing holding statements)
  • Which stakeholders need to be informed

Contact information

The last thing you need when a crisis strikes is for vital members of the team to be out of contact so have all their contact details listed and accessible,

This should include a designated Crisis Management Team, which has overall responsibility for managing your charity’s response, your communications team, spokespeople, all staff, external stakeholders and the media. Include anyone you may need to draft in, such as web designers, external PR companies or additional press office support.

In addition, list your charity’s social media channels, with details of account holders and login details. Put in place protocols for handling social media in a crisis, including what your staff can and can’t do.

It is worth establishing in advance who will fulfil which roles within the communications team. These include:

  • Handling and logging calls and ensuring inquiries are responded to
  • Writing and distributing holding statements, press releases, social media
  • Organising interviews and briefing spokespeople
  • Monitoring the press and social media
  • Updating social media
  • Logistics and support (e.g planning press conferences)
  • Log-keeping (all communications, decisions and actions)

Action plans

Create action plans for potential risks. First establish your guiding principles, the key messages which should underpin all communications during a crisis, such as a commitment to openness and transparency, and that your beneficiaries are at the heart of all you do.

Then, liaising with the team responsible for each issue, draft holding statements for the most damaging risks, plus generic statements for the rest.

These provide the media with an initial update about a situation, showing you are on top of the situation, are committed to openness and will take action. They establish you as a source of information and give you time to investigate. Ideally, they should:

  1. Show sympathy, humility and transparency
  2. Stress you are investigating and resolving an issue
  3. Avoid ascribing blame
  4. Be honest, admitting if you are at fault
  5. Promise regular updates
  6. Be robust and clear

As the situation evolves, these statements should be continually updated. In addition, create questions and answers for the main issues which might occur, and for commonly asked questions. 

A step-by-step crisis response

When a crisis first breaks:

  1. Gather the facts as quickly as possible and assess the risk level
  2. Brief key staff, convene the crisis management team and organise your communications team
  3. Review your crisis plan, refresh and roll out your response. This includes:
    – Updating key messages
    – Writing and distributing holding statements
    – Establishing an internal code word to use in all crisis-related communications
    – Organising messages under a traffic light system: e.g. RED for proposed, AMBER for being cleared, GREEN for cleared
    – Aligning messaging on your website, social media and customer services. This helps manage telephone traffic
    – Establishing which different stakeholders should be informed, when to contact them and the channels to be used
    – Monitoring press and social media
    – Responding to and logging all press calls
  4. Alert switchboard and customer services and ensure they know how to respond to media queries
  5. Draft and issue communications for internal and external stakeholders. Communicate to the most important stakeholders first, then other target groups

Once all this is in place, make sure you:

  1. Keep updated as the situation evolves and new information emerges
  2. Frequently review media and customer messaging, including the website
  3. Continue to monitor media and social media and respond to negative comments and update stakeholders
  4. Consider whether staff need to be relieved and whether external PR support is needed.

Having a written crisis communications plan, which clearly sets out potential risks and how to deal with them, that you can easily adapt and roll out, will enable you to respond quickly and effectively. So, no matter what crisis emerges this will help protect your reputation with your staff, your beneficiaries and the wider public.

Rough House Media provides a range of crisis services, including crisis strategy, training and simulations, as well as on-the-spot support.

Further resources:

Banner Image: lucas law on Unsplash

Ann Wright

director, Rough House Media

Ann runs Rough House Media and has more than 25 years’ experience working with the media – from both sides of the fence. She draws on her experience as a print journalist and TV producer working on high profile and prestigious BBC programmes. She works with charities including the Charities Aid Foundation, the International Red Cross, Bowel Cancer UK, the Royal Hospital Chelsea and Orbis to prepare their spokespeople to face hostile questioning and on their crisis preparedness.