Crisis Communications Report Card: Red Cross Responds to Exec Hanky Panky

Crisis Communications Report Card Red Cross Responds to Exec Hanky Panky

UPDATE: 11/30/2007, 1PM EST

Now the cat is out of the bag — Everson’s playmate has been IDd and more questions are raised. ARC I urge you to get out front with this pronto — with all the info you have on what happened, and your strategy for fixing it (including an audit of ARC’s Katrina relief spending).
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The American Red Cross(ARC) is facing its own disaster, that of another incapable president/CEO. Yes, the ARC board acted quickly in requesting president/CEO Mark Everson’s resignation once his dalliance with a staffer was discovered. But once again, the Red Cross finds itself in the middle of crisis (four ARC presidents have been forced out in the last six years). Too bad for ARC, but a great learning op for the nonprofit marketing community.

Commentators inside and outside the nonprofit world are spewing their takes — some positive (relatively) on the speed of the board’s action, some negatively on the damage that this crisis wreaks not only on the Red Cross but on other nonprofit organizations (especially coming at the height of end-of-year fundraising).

My take is that the Red Cross folks are doing a good job of crisis communications. But there’s room for them to do better (utilizing some of the same strategies they use when handling disasters, like RSS and “reverse 911“). Here’s what I’m seeing:

  • ARC’s press release on the resignation request and appointment of an interim CEO is linked from  its home page.
    • The content is clear but succinct, covering key details on ARC’s immediate response. Model crisis communications — fast on the draw but sticking to key facts.
    • The release was published on 11/17/07, immediately after news broke.
  • The New York Times featured these proactive quotes from ARC leadership in its first story, showcasing how ARC leadership is striving to re-focus attention on the mission of the organization, and the strength its staff:

“Although this is difficult and disappointing news for the Red Cross community, the organization remains strong and the life-saving mission of the American Red Cross will go forward,” Bonnie McElveen-Hunter, chairman of the Red Cross board, said in a statement.

“The Red Cross is more than one person,” said [Suzy C.] DeFrancis, ARC public affairs officer. “It’s 750 chapters and thousands of volunteers,” she said.

So far, ARC is following these crisis communications musts:

  • Having a plan (they must)
  • Sticking to messaging
  • Not delving into political agendas; staying above the fray.

Here’s where they need to do better:

  • The Times reported that the board chair is supposedly out of the country and unavailable for further comment. Rings false. And her voice is missing from the latest Times article. Make the board chair available 24/7, and make sure she’s strong and consistent in her messaging.
  • Deliver a second, and fully comprehensive, communication, accessible right from the ARC home page. If they don’t frame the conversation, others will.
  • Get involved where others are talking about the scandal — on blogs, MySpace pages, message boards, etc, rather than expecting audiences to come to the ARC site.
  • Design a distributed crisis communications plan for ARC affiliates (here’s where they are now), donors and volunteers.

I’ll keep my eye on this bubbling brew, and report back as it develops.

Meanwhile, make sure you’re ready for crisis communications. Or get that way quick by digesting these recent case studies.

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Nancy Schwartz on November 30, 2007 in Carnival of Nonprofit Consultants, Crisis Communications, Nonprofit Communications | 2 comments
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  • Hi Nancy,
    I think you forgot one big point in the Red Cross sex scandal story this week. One of the biggest lessons from watching politicians handle a PR crisis is the golden rule:
    Get out in front of the story and make sure to release all the information immediately.
    In our media cycle world, the difference between a big story that hits one day and then goes away… and one that has “legs” over several days and weeks is the extent to which the media learns more details as time goes on.
    For example, pay attention to Rudy’s current scandal over expenses tied to his affair. The campaign staff has done a poor job getting all the details out… and as a result, the story continues to get bigger and bigger.
    If the Red Cross board knows of additional details that are going to trickle out tied to this scandal… they would be well advised to get it out know and more on.

  • C

    You say “four ARC presidents have been forced out in the last six years”…who is the fourth? The past non-interim presidents include (in order) Mark Everson, Marsha Evans, Dr. Healey and Liz Dole…Lizzy resigned to seek her Senate Seat and was not forced out.

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