Rarely a week goes by that you don’t see a public relations nightmare happening at a local church, ministry, or nonprofit. From a leader’s moral failing, to financial improprieties, to inappropriate sexual relationships, there are many ways a crisis can damage or destroy an otherwise great organization. And sometimes a crisis happens that’s not even your fault. That’s why I asked Kathy Lovin, who does a brilliant job managing Public Affairs and Communications for The Salvation Army USA Western Territory for some coaching on handling a crisis. Here’s her excellent advice:
Phil Cooke: Most churches and nonprofits are busy with the cause, and don’t spend much time thinking about “crisis public relations.” Leaders are busy enough. Why is it important to take the time and have a plan in case something goes wrong?
Kathy Lovin: It’s the responsibility of leaders to communicate honestly with the public during good times and bad. There’s an axiom in news business: if it bleeds, it leads. Negative news draws an audience and boosts ratings. Since humans are flawed and bound to blunder into difficulties, we must have a plan to deal with potential crises immediately before our own story spins out of control and is the focus of negative news coverage. I recommend that every pastor and ministry leader think about what’s going on around them and talk to staff and volunteer leaders about the tricky things they’re managing. That’s called a “vulnerability audit” and everybody should be doing one regularly.
PC: You work with the Salvation Army – the largest nonprofit organization in the world. Should crisis planning be a problem for small organizations and churches too? Why?
KL: People are the same whether they’re connected to a large ministry or a small one. We’re all imperfect people and that means we’re going to blow it once in awhile. The worst thing we can do is to avoid dealing with difficulty in the hope that it will pass. Every organization should have a small team of people – including a lawyer – who can act quickly and give advice in the event of a crisis, as well as a leader in place that can be the official spokesperson to talk about it.
PC: What are the top three things leaders need to think about when a crisis happens?
KL: The moment you learn of a potentially damaging situation, it’s important that the leader 1) acknowledge it and express their compassion for those who are affected, 2) pledge to investigate and get to the bottom of it, and, 3) offer to give a follow up interview when more is known. We call that a holding statement. But after more is known, the team needs to be assembled to create messages that say the kind of things that will help restore confidence in the organization. Telling the truth – while protecting the privacy of those involved – is always the best way forward.
PC: What special dangers do we face from the Internet when it comes to moral failings in the workplace?
KL: Nothing has changed the news gathering business more than the combination of shrinking news room staffs and the rise of blogs and social media. This presents both headaches and opportunities. Unfortunately, much of what we see online isn’t fact-checked or edited by a professional with a commitment to the journalistic code of ethics, so it’s not always accurate. That’s why it is increasingly important that we have people in place with the authority to communicate the facts and answer criticism. Every organization needs to give someone the responsibility of responding with truth and grace to Facebook posts, Twitter updates, email messages, etc.
PC: If I have to deal with the local press, what should I remember?
KC: Reporters aren’t out to flatter or damage the people and organizations they cover: they’re in pursuit of as much of the truth as they can find. And, as a consequence of shrinking newsrooms, they really need us to help them tell our stories. If you get a call from a reporter, let them know that you’re busy and need to schedule a time to talk. Find out their deadline and offer to be available well in advance. Then, talk to your team about the three most important messages you will need to communicate and PRACTICE before you call the reporter back! Be upfront and frank with the reporter but decline to answer questions that you are not at liberty to discuss. Reporters understand the limitations placed on us by legal matters, commitments to confidentiality, etc.
PC: If you could leave nonprofit and ministry leaders with one important principle you’ve learned in your career dealing with crisis situations, what would it be?
KC: The most important function of my job is to encourage our people to give interviews during difficult times. There are no magic words to say, but a willingness to face the music will earn respect from reasonable people. For most of us, our natural instinct is be to hide, hoping the situation goes away. That doesn’t work. The public isn’t expecting perfection, they’re simply wanting to hear from us to know if we can be trusted. Bad things happen: it’s part of the human condition. Start planning for it.