Crisis communications isn’t just for big corporations

Recently, WWF here in the U.S. had to handle a tricky situation: An ad, produced for WWF-Brazil — over which WWF-US has no control — got further than it should have in the approval process. The ad contrasted the death-toll of the Twin Towers to the 2004 Asian tsunami, pointing out that the destructive power of nature was more powerful than that of man — possibly true, but brutally insensitive at best, particularly given the time of year.

And though this ad was not produced or even vaguely condoned by WWF-US, the communications clean-up landed squarely in its lap.

That’s the nature of “crisis communications.” Something hits, and you better be ready to swing into action to provide perspective, a spokesperson, a process for managing the media coverage and communications to key audiences. Many nonprofits haven’t thought this through all the way, because it’s hard to imagine what crisis might really hit an advocacy group, or international NGO, or social-service agency. It’s true that most true crises happen to companies: Product recalls, food-borne illness, tampering, fraud.

WWF-US’s experience should give us all pause, though: Could they possibly have predicted this particular issue? No. Could they possibly have prepared? Yes. Think fire drills: It doesn’t really matter what caused the fire, just that you have a plan and you’ve practiced.

So now would be a good time to take out your crisis communications plan, dust it off, and run some scenarios. Is your line of communication clear? Do you have volunteers on your board or advisory council who should be looped in because of their expertise? Has senior management run through the plan in the past year? Is your organization in any new countries, situations or lines of work that require new thinking?

If you don’t have a plan, it’s time for you to make one. Good causes rely just as much on goodwill as any corporate entity does. One poorly managed crisis can take a big chunk out of that goodwill. It’s worth planning now to keep that from happening.

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