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Nonprofit Arts
Development Guide

Chapter 6: Crisis Communications Planning

Crisis - Any situation that threatens the safety, the integrity, reputation or funding of your organization and its business.

If a crisis happens tomorrow, do you know what your crisis response plan is? Do you have a crisis response team with roles and job descriptions? If key personnel are away, can you track them down?

The purpose of the Oklahoma Arts Council's Crisis Communication Plan is to give us a proactive, specific plan to follow during a crisis. A realistic crisis management plan doesn't have the answer to every question. It just fills the gap between how our brains work normally and how they work during a crisis. Once the crisis hits, it's too late to start deciding who's in charge of what.

Do You Really Need a Crisis Communication Plan?

Remember the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska? This was a textbook example how not to manage a crisis. The company was slow to respond, its leadership was invisible, it limited communication and offered up no credible spokespersons. The result was one of perceived arrogance and permanent image damage. More than a decade later the Exxon name remains linked to "Valdez."

A crisis plan allows you to lower your vulnerability and create strategies to deal with a full range of problems you might encounter. An effective crisis plan moves you from a reactionary mode to one taking proactive steps that aid in agency and community healing and puts you back in relative control. With a proper plan, your organization will show full transparency and establish communication channels capable of reaching critical audiences quickly. By planning ahead, those crucial networks and relationships you need during a crisis will already be built before a crisis strikes.

Manage issues before they manage you. If you choose to ignore a potentially bad issue, odds are it will not go away. Better to constantly scan the environment, anticipate the bad stuff, and tell the senior managers?and when you do, have action steps and key messages already formulated.

Before the Crisis

Step 1 - Create a list of possible crises that could affect your organization.
This list ranks your crises, with the most damaging and/or most likely to occur at the top. Distinguish between these categories:

Step 2 - Select three or four highest ranking crises and consider the following:

Step 3 - Create a Crisis Team

Step 4 - Select a media spokesperson

Step 5 - Identify your target audiences/stakeholders - internal and external

Step 6 - Create pre-prepared materials

During a Crisis

Step 1 - First Alert

Step 2 - Assess Situation Quickly

Step 3 - Inform Key Groups/Constituents

Step 4 - Create Action Plan/Prepare for Media Calls or Visits

Step 5 - When Reporters Arrive

After the Crisis

Step 1 - Debrief

Step 2 - Recognition
Provide recognition both informally during the crisis and more formally after it's over. Don't forget to include those who didn't get to work on the direct response - the ones who "kept the home fires burning" - and anyone from outside the organization who contributed to the crisis response.

Step 3 - Celebrate success
At some appropriate time after the crisis ends, let your people celebrate their hard work. If you've done a good job and weathered the storm, there's a good chance your public profile will be better than it was before the crisis. If so, capitalize on it! Follow up with key audiences after the crisis ends?but not too much later.

Step 4 - Expect Media Follow-ups
If your crisis had a high profile, expect that media will do follow-up stories in the future especially on milestone dates (six months later, one year later, five years, etc.)

Advice for the Spokesperson

Be available. Conduct regular media briefings until it's over. Tell the media how much time has been allotted and stick to it. You are in control. Start with a prepared statement. Use plain language, no jargon.

Answer each question with a positive, stand alone statement. Don't be defensive or try to debate. This is a message delivery environment you're in, not a conversation. Every sentence out of your mouth has the potential of becoming a sound bite (quote). Make it count.

Listen carefully to the question for a word or phrase that you can use in your answer. This puts you in a clearly responsive posture. You are answering the question, but on your terms. You have that right!

Keep your ego out of it. The reporter might try to tweak you to get a response that you otherwise wouldn't want to give.

Keep your focus on your target audiences. In the final analysis, they are who you need to persuade and convince. Not the reporter.

Say "I don't know" if you don't have all the answers. You do have to be willing to say you don't know when, in fact, you don't know.

Talk about what you ARE DOING, not what you're not doing. "We have detailed procedures to deal with this event and have trained our employees?"

There is no such thing as "off the record."

Body language is important.

"No comment" is a dangerous phrase. A reporter typically hears that you're hiding something. 'No comment' has the potential of turning up the emotional temperature and triggering a downward spiral toward disaster.

There are questions you legitimately may not be able to answer. Reporters usually can accept the reason why, whether it's a personnel matter, a competitive issue, a matter in litigation, or, in the case of a public company, an SEC prohibition. Certainly, there may be other reasons, just as legitimate. All you have to do is say so. And use language that is positive and helpful.

How to Make a Crisis Worse