When an organization is in crisis, the danger of long-term damage begins immediately. In his latest book, Leading Congregations through Crisis, author Gregory L. Hunt suggests three characteristics of a crisis:
(1) we’re caught off-balance,
(2) our usual coping mechanisms don’t prove a match for the problems as we perceive them, and
(3) we experience high-level distress that impairs our normal functioning.
Off-balance. Unable to cope. Distressed to the point of impairment. A crisis is not the aggravating problem that erupts on Tuesday and the staff resolves by Thursday. A crisis is big enough to up-end the organization, and you can’t always see it coming. It may have staff, donors, and even clients questioning their willingness to stay with your organization.
Your board can prepare to lead through the crisis that hasn’t happened yet. Develop an emergency response plan that adapts quickly to whatever may come:
First alerts: At the first sign of real trouble, who needs to know? For staff, the alert will typically move through communication channels to the CEO, who then takes it to the board. The crisis contact person on the board is usually the chair. The board contact triggers a process to determine who will speak, what to say, and when to say it.
Who will speak: Have a single spokesperson for a given audience, but don’t forget that the organization has multiple audiences. Donors, staff, clients, and the public each have special interests and concerns. You may need more than one spokesperson. Assign a spokesperson to each audience who can speak with authority and credibility.
What to say: Whether the board assigns one spokesperson or several, there can be only one message. Have the board and the CEO (perhaps with senior staff) decide the best way to tell what happened, why it happened, what is being done, and what impact the audience(s) can expect. When addressing each audience, keep in mind that what the board may intend as “nuanced communication with its diverse constituencies” often gets heard as deception if the explanation varies from spokesperson to spokesperson or group to group.
When to say it: Finally, have the board sketch out the order in which the audiences will receive the news. Strive to ensure that those within the organization have the information before those on the outside. Move the message outward from the board and staff to other audiences based on the strength of the relationship with your organization. For example, plan to contact key donors and volunteers before speaking with the media or making announcements, whenever possible.
10-minute Board Discussion:
Which are the key audiences we need need to reach if a crisis develops?
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