What not to do in a crisis

Penn State University and the nonprofit Second Mile have major media crises on hand in the wake of sexual assault charges against former football coach Jerry Sandusky.

The New York-based nonprofit A Better Chance, which sends talented students to high performing schools across the country, has scrambled to publicly distance itself from Second Mile, even though it placed 30 adolescents in the residential program between 1988 and 2001.

When it learned of the charges against Sandusky, the nonprofit Fresh Air Foundation contacted Pennsylvania authorities to alert them that up to six children had been placed in the Sandusky home through its program in the 80s and 90s.

The university and nonprofits that worked with Second Mile were suddenly thrust into the spotlight when the story broke that Sandusky is facing 40 grand jury charges of sexually abusing eight young boys. Even though it’s been more than a decade since either A Better Chance or the Fresh Air Foundation had connections with Sandusky, both organizations found themselves making headlines and issuing careful statements about their former relationships with the coach and his organization.

The Penn State scandal, along with last week’s pepper spray incident at the University of California, Davis, should remind us that all organizations are subject to crimes, scandals, media attention, and public outrage, and all organizations should be prepared to handle a crisis.

The first official statements released by both Penn State and UC Davis after the respective incidents are good lessons in what not to do. Calling the assault allegations “presentments,” Penn State President Graham Spanier announced his “complete confidence” in and “unconditional support” for the athletic director and the VP charged with perjury and failure to report information under the Child Protective Services Law. In his statement to the press, Coach Joe Paterno took care to claim his own innocence, stating that “while I did what I was supposed to…I can’t help but be deeply saddened these matters are alleged to have occurred.”

Penn’s Board of Trustees quickly issued a heartfelt statement to the community, expressing its members’ horror and sorrow and pledging swift, decisive action to uncover the truth. But in defending themselves and their own against the grave charges, and distancing themselves from what people were feeling, Penn State leaders had ready left lasting damage to the university in the public eye.

UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi also took the well-known “CYA” approach in her initial statements to reporters, condemning the police officers’ actions but defending her own role in the incident. Katehi then angered the campus community with the announcement of a 90-day timeline for a task force to investigate the incident. Subsequently, after calls for her resignation, she announced “full responsibility” for the attack on the protesters, suspending the campus police chief and the two officers who used pepper spray and shortening the investigation to 30 days.

Few nonprofit leaders are prepared to deal with devastating scandals like those at Penn State and Davis, and most won’t have to. But regardless of a nonprofit’s size or line of work, basic knowledge of how to handle sudden media attention is an important organizational capacity. For a start, honesty, humility, and empathy with what victims and the public are feeling are key to communicating in a crisis. (Don’t be this guy.)

Effective crisis management also includes anticipating risks and vulnerability before incidents happen, and developing a plan of action that designates roles, coordinates response strategies, and protects the organization and those it serves. A solid crisis communications plan can reduce tensions, ensure a timely and accurate flow of information, and ultimately save a nonprofit from ruin.

Do you have a crisis communications plan? We’d love to hear from members who have developed (and used) this important tool. We’re also interested in hearing from nonprofit leaders who’ve had formal media training–who taught you and what did you learn? Thanks for sharing!

In the meantime, check out these related links:

BoardSource on crisis communications planning.
Mission Controls Fact Sheets on Crisis Management, from the Nonprofit Risk Management Center.
Lessons learned about social media in crisis communication, on NTEN.
A great crisis communications toolkit, including policies, checklists, and examples of decision-making tools, from the Colorado Nonprofit Association.
Brad Phillips, aka Mr. Media, says to be prepared for three types of questions from reporters: those you don’t know the answer to, those that call for speculation, and those that ask for a personal opinion.

The Alliance for Nonprofit Excellence wishes all our members and readers a very happy Thanksgiving.


One response to “What not to do in a crisis

  1. Pingback: What not to do in a crisis (Part 2) | npexcellence

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