If your organization is anything like BoardSource, the news stories about Susan G. Komen for the Cure and Planned Parenthood have been a major topic of conversation the past few days. Throughout our hallways, women – as well as men – have been having personal and sometimes emotional conversations about the state of women’s healthcare and how it relates to politics and religion in America today.
But, at BoardSource, the talk about Komen for the Cure’s controversial decision to change its funding policy naturally leads to discussions about the role of the board in making decisions of this kind and in helping manage crisis situations like this. When an organization makes headlines, its leaders — the individuals who make the decisions — need to speak, and speak quickly and honestly. Irene Rozansky of R&A Crisis Management Services put it this way in a BoardSource article: “Board members have a fiduciary duty to exercise a high standard of care in managing the organization’s money and property. In an emergency, this duty should extend to helping the organization manage its communication with key stakeholders: customers, members, strategic partners, employees, regulators, news media, and the community.”
When dealing with a controversy, silence can breed suspicion, and that suspicion can too easily erode the public trust. Ms. Rozansky goes on to say:
“Being first means getting your message out first, which allows you to control its content and accuracy. This is a huge challenge in this day of immediate ‘news’ from camera cell phones and the Internet. If you are late, others will fill in the blanks with rumors or their own perception of reality, which may be incomplete or biased against you. Then you will have to clean up the mess by countering rumors or myths, draining time and energy from dealing with the critical incident. Being first carries more weight than all messages that come after, similar to being first to the marketplace with a new product. It also helps stabilize the situation, not to mention solidifying your organization’s good reputation.”
As we’ve seen in the recent events surrounding Komen for the Cure’s funding decision, a delay does not stop the conversation. It just means the conversation is crafted by an avalanche of news stories and angry Facebook posts. It’s not enough to respond to reporters anymore. Stakeholders want answers, and if our leaders don’t provide them, others will step in.
This is where a crisis communication plan becomes invaluable. In her book Generate Buzz! Strategic Communication for Nonprofit Boards, Sally Patterson says that a crisis communication plan should combine board and staff perspectives and address five sets of questions:
- Who is responsible for managing the crisis, and what are his or her duties?
- Where should the command center be for responding to the crisis? What resources will it need?
- Who should be part of the crisis control team, and what are its responsibilities?
- What information is appropriate to give to the public?
- Who will speak for the organization?
No plan can predict every aspect of a crisis. Should a crisis event occur, the plan will need to be tweaked to fit the individual set of circumstances. However, it’s far easier to finesse something that you already have rather than build a plan while the clock is ticking.
Who speaks for your organization in a crisis? If you can’t answer that question, then your organization should add its need for a crisis communication plan to its own conversations about the current controversy.