A good reputation gets people talking. A bad reputation gets people shouting. So how do you prepare for a crisis or hit to your nonprofit’s reputation? Phoebe Netto shares her expertise.

A good reputation gets people talking. A bad reputation gets people shouting. So how do you prepare for a crisis or hit to your nonprofit’s reputation? Phoebe Netto shares her expertise.


Life buoy

Nonprofit reputation and trust are critical – perhaps more important for not-for-profit organisations and charities than for businesses. No-one wants to have crises but when disaster hits, it can completely shatter an organisation, distracting it from its core work indefinitely – even if it’s not at fault. Consequently, an organisation can become exposed to staffing difficulties, significant financial cost, lawsuits and damaging publicity, all of which could dry up donations and support, stopping momentum and souring all goodwill.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Preparing for crises is critical and ensures a process and focus at a time when your organisation as a whole will be feeling vulnerable and fearful. In most cases, a crisis management plan with clear procedures and responsibilities ensures a state of readiness when problems hit, goes a long way to reduce the impact of the issues, and in many cases prevents things from spiralling out of control.

How to prepare

Firstly, work on your reputation and goodwill before a crisis. You can’t guarantee a crisis won’t ever eventuate, but it certainly helps when you are starting with a bank full of goodwill and a great reputation.

Secondly, conduct a crisis management health check – run through potential scenarios and review your current state of readiness against best practice. Perhaps you are able to conduct simulation exercises to test your organisation’s readiness and review its performance. A deliberate investigation into your processes will help identify any roadblocks and you can then nip issues in the bud to reduce the likelihood of preventable problems.

Third, have only one spokesperson for the organisation and make sure all staff/volunteers know what to do if they receive a complaint or media enquiry, and how to redirect it and to whom. A good idea is to document this information, and ensure it is distributed, explained, role played, and constantly top of mind.

If you aren’t sure, get some help. Preparing for issues or emergencies with a communications expert eases any anxieties and helps the team work more cohesively on a day-to-day basis. It also ensures a management plan with clear procedures and responsibilities and training for staff if needed.

Communication is key

It does not matter if the crisis is directly your fault or a result of deliberate, naive or negligent behaviour on your part, silence is not an option. If you are silent, people will always fill that silence and it will usually be with negative implications, assumptions or even inaccurate assertions.

In most cases you would start with a holding statement in the event of media interest relating to the issue. This can be done even before a problem eventuates, or when you first become aware of the issue or potential issue. These statements are only released if and when it becomes necessary, and can be modified to suit different audiences (e.g. media, customers, and other stakeholder groups). But it means that you are prepared and are not on the spot without the right words to say. Good PR support will guide on the best way to use the statements and how much or how little should be said.

If an issue or tragedy has occurred and your organisation is neither at fault nor responsible, you can still state that you regret the situation and are saddened by it. In some cases you can also contribute positively by offering support and care; people look to you for that and expect it of you.

However, if you are responsible for a bad outcome or for failing to deliver on your duty, then the best course of action would be to act quickly. Remember, silence is not an option. By apologising you are in a better position to take control of the situation and stakeholders will be more likely to forgive an organisation if it speaks out appropriately.

Some circumstances call for more than just a short written statement or public apology. Connecting with your stakeholders and putting a face to your organisation via the appropriate channels and media is essential. In other instances you will need to consider an offer of restitution and set up multiple communication channels to respond to concerns, provide regular updates and once an issue has resolved, give assurances of what has changed. This will engender trust or at least respect for your organisation again.

Although charities and not-for-profits must be mindful of the balance between litigation and reputation management in their responses to crises, this balance needs to include being decent and human.

The bottom line is: as an organisation, seek to do the right thing first and foremost. Be prepared for issues, but be human, communicate and don’t ignore your stakeholders or behave indifferently – after all, their continued support is what keeps your organisation going.

Phoebe Netto

Phoebe is the founder and Managing Director of Pure Public Relations, a PR agency that services small and medium-sized businesses, charities and not-for-profits. She is also a member of the Red Cross NSW Divisional Advisory Board.



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