How to Respond to a National Tragedy

Like you, my heart and head are heavy in the wake of Friday’s tragedy in Newtown, CT. Especially since I feel so helpless.

My gut is that’s how many of your supporters and prospects are feeling as well, and what will be top of mind for at least a couple more days. So be respectful and responsive, even though you’re pressured by the year-end push for support.

Here’s how to communicate best post-catastrophe:

1) Stay relevant
Put yourself in the shoes of your prospects and supporters. What are they focused on now?

Whatever it is, that’s your cue. Your own agenda must fall behind right now.

2) If your organization isn’t working to help the Newtown community or others affected by the tragedy, take a couple of days off from your asks
If your cause doesn’t make the cut, asking for support or action may even have a negative impact.

Like the as-if-it-never-happened email I received from a statewide children’s organization on Friday afternoon, urging me to support its work with children but making no mention of the morning’s atrocities. Or the two I received Monday from arts organizations.

I believe in these causes, but they seem irrelevant today, and are likely to tomorrow. Try me again in a couple of days.

3) Show you care
What you should do is show your support for the Newtown community and empathize with the shock and sadness your supporters are likely to feel via Twitter or a brief Facebook post.

Social media is an ideal way to let your supporters know you’re with them right now, and to share words of comfort. That’s the kind of response that puts a human face on your organization.

This morning’s post from the Girl Scouts of the U.S.A. is a good example of appropriate communication right now:

4) Even if your org’s cause is directly related to the tragedy—gun control, better care for those with mental illness, anti-violence, caring for children—still wait a couple of days to ask

Those in support of your issue are already making contributions and circulating petitions. But it’s all too raw to start persuading others, or even showing them how they can help avert future disasters like this one. 

Instead, craft your outreach for later in the week so you’ll organize most powerfully,  galvanizing disheartened supporters to join you in action for a better future.

The exception, of course, is if you’re helping the Newtown community directly, or care for children and must comfort parents by sharing your safety policies.

5) Whatever your issue focus, review and hold what’s already queued up to email or post on your blog for the next few days.
Hold in most cases. And before you send later in the week, see if it makes sense to integrate a mention of the shooting (only if it’s relevant, not to exploit it, of course).

I’d advise placing review of queued-up communications at the top of your crisis communications checklist, whether it’s a crisis within your org or outside of it. Automating outreach is a lifesaver, but also a potential snafu at times of crisis. It’s auto-schedule, not auto-pilot.

I’m sure the emails I received Friday afternoon and yesterday were cued up last week and not reviewed before sending. As a result, I received these “business as usual” communications, at a time when nothing was usual, which caused a huge disconnect.

Stay real, and stay respectful. That will ensure your relevance in good times and bad.

Here are some concrete ways to support the Newtown community right now.

How are you changing your outreach in the aftermath of the Newtown shooting? Please share your plans here.

P.S. Get more concrete guidance, tested templates and tools, and in-depth case studies for nonprofit marketing success via the free Getting Attention e-news. Subscribe today.

Nancy Schwartz on December 17, 2012 in Strategy | 16 comments
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