Crisis Communications 101: Best Practices for Nonprofits
Every nonprofit will face a crisis at some point. How your organization responds to that crisis will define your audience’s opinion of your nonprofit, so it’s crucial to establish a clear communications plan to tackle crises effectively.
The best time to develop your nonprofit’s crisis communications plan is not when you’re already in the middle of a situation. Instead, preparing ahead of time will allow you to respond quickly as challenges arise and the situation evolves.
Let’s walk through several core components of an effective crisis communications strategy.
1. Design an internal process for drafting and approving key messages.
During a crisis, you won’t have time to establish a chain of command to approve your communications before they’re sent to audiences. Identify the team members who will approve your messaging ahead of time so that everyone knows what their role is amid the crisis.
Your crisis communications approval chain should consist of:
- Your communications or PR manager and media relations officer. These individuals can quickly create timely messages and send them to your wider audience.
- Your CEO or executive director. Involving your CEO or executive director in major crisis communications is crucial to ensure your messaging stays on brand. They have a deep understanding of your brand and your organization’s trajectory.
- Your legal team. Depending on the nature of the crisis, you may also include your legal team to review messages ahead of time.
- Board members. Board member approval may be useful for reviewing your follow-up communications after the crisis concludes, since it can take some time to gather an emergency board meeting.
Assign roles within your chain of approval ahead of time so that everyone knows who to contact to get their messages approved before sending them out. Each message should be approved for accuracy, brand alignment, and consistency.
2. Develop core messages.
As a crisis unfolds, your team will develop messages on the fly to respond to the situation. You might post on social media, send emails, hold a press conference, publish a press release, hold a TV or radio interview, or publish updates on your website’s blog.
No matter how they’re being delivered, these messages should:
- Reflect your nonprofit’s core values and leverage your impact story
- Accept responsibility and take accountability where necessary
- Express concern for those affected by the crisis
To speed up the process, you can use tools such as generative AI to brainstorm ideas for compelling messages that reassure your audience. You can input specific details about the situation, such as what the crisis entails and who is affected.
However, we strongly advise you to reformat any ideas you receive from generative solutions so each message reflects your nonprofit’s brand and voice. Authenticity is critical in essential communications. Use AI solutions to help generate ideas, not draft your entire message for you.
3. Identify essential audiences and the best way to reach them.
Another critical aspect of your crisis response plan is identifying the audiences you need to get in touch with and the right messages and platforms to connect with them.
Use these strategies to align your message with the right audience and platform:
- Identify the core groups you need to communicate with. Amid a crisis, you’ll need to stay in contact with an internal audience of staff, volunteers, board members, and beneficiaries. You must also communicate to an external audience of donors, grant funders, corporate sponsors, government officials, and other community members.
- Choose the right message for each audience. Use predictive models and audience personas to anticipate the style of messaging that will resonate with each audience. For example, some groups may prefer one or two lengthier, descriptive messages, while others are looking for numerous brief updates.
- Choose the right platforms to deliver your messages. Social media is effective for immediate updates. Email is best for longer, more in-depth messages, as are blog posts on your nonprofit’s website. Consider each audience segment’s preferred communication platforms to ensure you reach each group on the channels they use the most.
Create two-way communication channels with your audience members so they can submit any questions or concerns. Assign a communications team member to sort through and respond to these inquiries quickly and efficiently.
4. Select the right spokesperson to deliver your communications.
Assign each of your communications team members to an audience. Each team member should handle a specific role to ensure your messages reach all audiences, no matter their preferred communication platform.
- Your CEO sends an email addressing the situation to your donors, corporate sponsors, and grant funders. They also host a press conference and a Zoom Q&A to answer questions.
- Your legal team works with local government authorities to ensure compliance throughout your crisis recovery process.
- Your PR manager handles ongoing social media and email updates throughout the crisis to donors, volunteers, beneficiaries, and other stakeholders.
- Your media relations officer keeps the public informed through press releases and media interviews.
Leaders like your CEO and board members should take the time to speak personally to vital stakeholders such as major donors and corporate sponsors. Meanwhile, your PR manager and marketing team should create messages for a wider audience to keep the general public up to date as the crisis unfolds.
Using this holistic approach, you’ll be able to update all relevant stakeholders promptly.
5. Create contingency plans.
By definition, a crisis means something has gone wrong. But within the main crisis, you might face several additional hurdles that make communications difficult.
Consider the following examples and the issues that arise from them:
- Perhaps your community has faced a natural disaster and you’re experiencing loss of power or cell reception. How will you communicate with other community leaders to determine where assistance is needed?
- You may have designated a specific board member to play a key role in your crisis communications, only to discover they are at the center of the current crisis. Do you have other people who can fulfill their role?
- During a crisis, you might receive new information over time that contradicts your initial messaging. How will you issue corrections, ensure transparency, and present a united, reliable front?
Ultimately, expect the unexpected. Something may occur that is not addressed in your playbook. Maintain open communication with your internal team and allow crisis team members to pivot as needed to address changing circumstances.
6. Partner with experts as needed.
Nonprofit communications experts can offer critical stability and expertise during times of crisis. They can quickly get up to speed on the situation and work with your team to send timely, thoughtful, on-brand communications.
Here are a few services nonprofit consultants provide:
- CRM and internal analytics consulting to ensure your technology tools are organized and ready to assist during crises
- Crisis communication consulting to help draft your response procedures
- Post-crisis support to incorporate lessons learned and help maintain your reputation in the community
Consider establishing a relationship with a nonprofit communications expert during times of relative calm. This ensures that the consultant can get to know your organization and its mission and values on a deeper level, allowing them to provide better support when a crisis happens.
These tips will help place your nonprofit in the best position to effectively respond to crises. Above all, your crisis communications should be driven by transparency, accountability, and accuracy. This will help maintain trust with your audience and reassure those impacted by the crisis.