Some people think you only need a crisis communications plan when a crisis presents itself. Those people are wrong. Creating a plan of action when there is no crisis to speak of will make sure that if and when your nonprofit organization experiences a crisis, you’ll be ready.

When it comes right down to it, crisis communications are all about the strategic way you can restore and preserve your organization’s reputation. The following plan (broken down into two parts) will help you do just that.


1 – Issue vs. crisis – know the difference

First of all, it’s important to be able to recognize the difference between an issue and a crisis.

  • An ISSUE is something negative that an organization must deal with. It doesn’t have any long-lasting impact on the reputation or bottom line of the organization but, if left alone or handled badly, could turn into a crisis. An example of an issue could be negative comments about your nonprofit posted online or a tweet gone wrong situation.
  • A CRISIS is something that does have a long-lasting effect on the reputation or bottom line of an organization. An example of a crisis could be a scandal or corruption of the leadership (think Lance Armstrong) or a natural disaster that affects or prevents an organization from carrying out their activities.

It’s important to know the difference between an issue and a crisis and be prepared to handle each.

2 – Create a worst case scenario

We generally try not to think of the worst thing that can happen, but when making a crisis communications plan it helps to know what a true crisis is. Gather your team together and go to that dark place – think of things that could negatively impact your organization and hypothesize some of the negative effects a crisis could have.

One caveat: the world (especially the online world) is unpredictable. Don’t worry about thinking up every doomsday scenario; coming up with plans for the most obvious ones is enough, and the plan you put in place will help guide you through those you didn’t see coming.

3 – Build your team

Decide who will be the first to respond to an issue or crisis. Maybe it’s your Executive Director, or maybe it’s your Board President or Director of Communications. You might even want to make a few different plans based on your doom and gloom scenarios. Create some ideas for how that person could address the crisis. This will also help prevent a staff member from going rogue and making the situation worse.

You’ll also want to think about who will be responsible for writing, approving and posting further updates, whether or not you will respond individually, and the timeframe for how long you intend to provide updates. Nothing needs to be set in stone, but having a loose idea will be invaluable during the rush of a crisis.

4 – Have an escalation plan

Similarly to building your team, think about who needs to be involved if an issue escalates to a crisis, or if a crisis escalates further. Think about who should be informed when and what those triggers will be. Then make sure everyone knows their role and is prepared for their involvement with the plan.

5 – Practice makes perfect

Think about getting the members of your crisis team together to practice a scenario. There are agencies that specialize in crisis simulation and most take a day or less to complete. If you see value in media training for your staff, think of crisis simulations as another part of that preparedness.


6 – Don’t let it fester

Once you discover the crisis it should become your crisis team’s first priority. Don’t let it wait – the longer it goes unacknowledged the worse you look. That doesn’t mean you should be hasty or rushed, but the crisis should jump to the top of your to-do list as soon as you find out about it.

7 – Gather the facts

It is crucial to make sure you have all the important information before you make a complete, solid and well-informed statement to your public. If you don’t have the full picture within an hour of the crisis occurring, put up a placeholder message acknowledging that you know something is happening, that you’re learning everything about the situation, and that you’ll be in touch. Remember, rumours will fill the void if you don’t.

8 – Craft a statement

Now that you have all the pertinent information, craft a thorough statement. Decide who will deliver it:

  • Executive Director?
  • Board President?
  • Communications Manager?
  • Someone else?

And how:

  • Press release?
  • Facebook post?
  • Video message?

Your statement should acknowledge the crisis and its severity and aim to alleviate any fears your public might have. If the crisis occurred because of a mistake or error within your nonprofit, tell your public what steps you plan to take (or are already taking) to fix it. If the situation can’t be fixed, tell your stakeholders how you plan to make them feel better and how you will improve going forward. And remember, communications are a two-way street. Be prepared for people to engage in conversation with you, and engage right back with them.

As for format, there are a number of factors that might have influence, including:

  • Where you plan to share it first
  • What your normal method is for sharing news
  • The forms of content that work best for your organization

9 – Address the crisis where it happened

It might seem like a no-brainer, but make sure that the first place you address the crisis is the place where the crisis is occurring. For example, if the crisis first broke on YouTube, you should consider shooting a video and posting there first. But if the crisis first broke on Twitter, you should respond there first, perhaps using a tool like TwitLonger to get your message out.

Think of it this way: social media is one giant house party, and each channel is a different room. If someone is talking smack about your nonprofit in the kitchen, why would you address it in the living room? Go to where the issue is.

10 – Take responsibility and forget about blame

It’s tempting to ease the pressure on your company by finding somewhere else to place the blame. Don’t. In fact, leave blame out of it all together. Now is the time for taking responsibility and instilling trust for your company in your community, not for pointing fingers.

Final thoughts about your crisis communications plan and things to keep in mind

Don’t forget about internal communications

Your staff need to all be informed and on side. If there is fear or uncertainty internally the mood can quickly turn frantic, killing morale and firing up the rumour mill. Avoid this by being transparent and making sure your internal and external messages match. In an age where anyone in an organization can be a spokesperson with the help of social media, making sure your staff is on side is crucial.

Transparency is key

The key in all of this is to be transparent, both internally and externally. Being honest and open, accepting responsibility, and explaining what you plan to do about the crisis will go a long way toward minimizing the erosion of trust and will put your organization on the road to building it back up again.

The Rainbow human connection

When it all comes down to it, a crisis plan is just like any communication plan: it’s about you talking to people who are interested and invested in your organization. The stakes may be higher or more dire than normal, but it’s important to remember to speak to your audience in a human, sincere way.

Meg Shannon

Meg Shannon

Meg Shannon is a communications and PR professional based in Toronto. After working in the not-for-profit world for seven years she made the jump to a communications agency. When not working with clients and campaigns she can be found working on her own blog, Palate Practice, playing soccer, or re-watching Downtown Abbey for the zillionth time.
Meg Shannon
Meg Shannon