By Leza Raffel, The Communication Solutions Group, Inc
Association directors often devote considerable time and resources to planning for success, but most don’t even want to think about dealing with a crisis. Yet how you handle a crisis situation can mean the difference between survival and ruin for your association. Careful planning before a crisis is upon you is the key to making sure you have what it takes to weather the situation, so you come back to make your association even stronger.
Disaster can strike any association, and often it occurs when it’s least expected: Things could be going along great – your membership is growing, conference attendance is up, your corporate sponsors are happy – then out of nowhere, you’re facing a situation that spells trouble for your organization. A crisis can take many forms, large or small, including those for which an association is directly responsible, those caused by a volunteer leader, and those caused strictly by accident. For association, those might include:
• Accounting irregularities are found
• A natural phenomena – such as a tornado- destroys your upcoming annual meeting location
• Criminal activity by an employee.
• Product recall directly related to the industry your association represents
It’s not only a good motto for a boy scout, being prepared is your best defense in the event of a crisis. Before a problem ever occurs, sit down and brainstorm your worst fears, then start considering the best ways to handle them. This information can be formulated into a basic crisis plan that can be implemented in case the situation arises.
Your plan should include a specific crisis team consisting of trusted association leaders, legal counsel and perhaps even a public relations professional, who can all come together quickly to deal with the situation. One of the team members should be named the spokesperson that will interact with the media. It would also be wise to develop a standard press release format and a list of media contacts so you can get your message out quickly and effectively.
Before you respond publicly to the situation, make certain you have all the facts. Learn all you can about what has happened, and then consult with your team, including your legal counsel. While a timely response is important, accuracy is even more important. Don’t be afraid to say that you are unsure of all the facts but that you are looking into it if an immediate response is required.
Remember, your most important job is to protect the reputation of your association. Saying one thing and then having to change your story after getting all the facts is not going to help that cause.
It simply cannot be said enough: NEVER try to lie, hide or deny involvement. It will invariably come back to haunt you. You can be sure that the facts will come to the surface one way or another and you will have to face the fallout from not only the situation itself, but from your dishonesty.
Ignoring the situation is similarly unwise. Answering a question with “no comment” tends to make you appear guilty and uncaring – a double whammy against you.
Always act with care and concern. This starts with immediately handling any threat to human life that may arise from the crisis situation. Your members and the general public will be unlikely to forgive any negligence on this front.
In your first public communication after the crisis, make sure you express concern for all those affected by the situation, whether they are your members, your staff, or the general public. Put yourself in their shoes, and try to see the crisis from their point of view. Then take steps necessary to alleviate their concerns.
Consider all of your audiences and pinpoint the most effective means of communicating with each of them. For general media release, make sure you have a standard fact sheet about your association, along with information on the environmental factors that may have been involved in the crisis. The more information you provide, the more chances you have to influence what is said in the media about the situation.
While interaction with the general media is imperative, it is also vital for you to stay in close communication with your members, board and other stakeholder groups during and after the crisis. Phone calls, emails, meetings, mailings and other means of dissemination of information can not only help you through the crisis, but can help generate loyalty by giving these stakeholder groups “insider” status.
The cloud of a crisis situation might contain a silver lining if you look hard enough. Once the immediate situation is resolved, consider ways to turn the crisis into an opportunity.
The new policy will go a long way in deflecting future criticism of your past wrongdoing, and give you a more positive public image, as well.
Start now to prepare for potential crisis situations. Begin by putting together a simple plan and team. Then it’s time for a gut check. If you feel you’re already over your head, you might consider bringing on a public relations professional who can help you through the preparation process and be at the ready should a crisis occur.
You can’t know when disaster might strike, but you can be ready for it.
Leza Raffel is the president of the Communication Solutions Group, Inc. MASAE members are entitled to a complimentary, one-hour consultation. For details, call 215-884-6499 or visit www.comsolutions.com
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