How to Communicate in the Midst of Tragedy: 9-Step Checklist

Update: How to Re-Assess and Re-Engage

Review these useful insights from nonprofit marketers and fundraisers like you. Please add your thoughts, experience and questions.

Like you, my heart and head are heavy in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings on April 15. Especially since I feel so helpless.

I had a completely different post planned for the morning after, but wanted to respond a.s.a.p. to the questions, worries and just totally-wrong communications I’ve seen going out since the bombings and all the fear-inducing activities that have followed it already.

Most of this outreach was harmless, but simply a mismatch with what’s on our minds right now. Because most of us are feeling horror, sadness, fear, uncertainly and a sense of helplessness and vulnerability.

Here are my right-now recommendations for your organization’s response to this crisis and to others that, unfortunately, we will face together. Already follow-ups are undermining our collective sense of safety and well-being.

Please share your strategies, and add your questions and feedback here. We are so much smarter together.

 1. Immediately—Get Off Auto-Pilot

Given our collective state of mind, some of the nonprofit outreach I saw post-bombing was off the mark—like the e-invite I received at 7:19 PM that day from Save the Children via Harris Interactive, asking me to respond to its survey.

This email came in as the details of deaths and serious injuries continued to flow, including the death of an 8-year-old boy and the critical status of his mom and sister. It was obviously auto-scheduled and on auto-pilot.

As a result, this ask missed the mark by 1,000 miles, coming across as a huge “who cares.” If I was in charge of this survey, I’d put it on ice for now.

Be aware that we could have all so easily made similar mistakes. I have. In fact, this was just one of many pre-scheduled tweets, Facebook posts and emails I saw in the hours following the bombings when we were in the spell of first shock.

These “business as usual” communications, at a time when nothing was usual, which caused a huge disconnect. And yes we’re all just trying out best at times like this, but slow down.

Our state of mind doesn’t get more ungrounded than it is right now. Be ultra-sensitive.

 2. Immediately—But Don’t Go Dark Either

Your cause and work is vital to making this a better world.  And although it may seem easiest to go dark right now, please don’t. Your network counts on your work to carry our world to a better place.

Proceed slowly and strategically, based on accurate and timely insights and thoughtful assessment, but do proceed. The last thing we need is staying stuck right here.

 3. Immediately—Activate Your Relevancy Lens

Relevance rules more than ever in the shadow of a crisis or tragedy like this one. What’s top of mind for your network is the only lens that matters, now more than ever.

Put yourself in the shoes of your prospects and supporters. What are they focused on now? It’s likely to be fear, horror, sadness, empathy, helplessness and/or anger. That’s your cue.

Your own agenda must fall behind for the first few days post-crisis—at the very least—unless there’s a real, organic link to bombing-related issues.

It’s never productive to communicate into that environment at the moment of. You’re not missing an opportunity if you pause to assess and re-tune, and you risk alienating your network if you blindly push on with plans.

4. Immediately—Show You Care & Offer Right-Now Help

Show your support for the affected community and empathize with the shock and sadness your supporters are likely to feel via Twitter or a brief Facebook post.

This is a same day or next two days approach in most cases; after that it’s not additive, and will seem like you’re jumping on the bandwagon. If you’ve missed that, fine. Just note for the next time.

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

Here’s a good model tweeted by the Community Foundation of Sarasota County.


5. Immediately—Pause Scheduled Outreach Till You Review

Immediately un-schedule what you have lined up to release the day of the crisis and for the balance of the week at the very least. You’ll reschedule what’s in line with your base’s state of mind after a brief review.

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

6. A.S.A.P—Review Your Marketing & Fundraising Plans for the Next 10-14 Days

> Link your message to the bombing only if there is an organic link (e.g. children’s health and well-being, violence prevention, gun control, public safety, anti-terrorism.) Otherwise, avoid trying to capitalize on a tragedy. You’ll fail, miserably.

If your organization isn’t working to help the Boston/Marathon community or related issues, consider taking a couple of days off from your asks. Those in support of your issue are already making contributions and circulating petitions. But it’s too raw  today to start persuading others, or even showing them how they can help avert future disasters like this one.

> Depending on the mood and focus over the course of the week, pick the right time to dive back in with a moving forward focus. That may be in a few days, but may be more.

Instead, craft your outreach for down the line (that may be a few days, a week or even later—you’ll need to assess for your community and your organization) 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 affected community directly.

> Change any metaphors or analogies you use that feature bombs, explosion and the like in not-yet-published content for the next two weeks, at least.
hese are some of the most-used references, usually used in a positive way (but there is no positive now). Think exploding with daffodils (from a Facebook post morning after the bombing from one of my favorite botanical gardens) or the fact that the star’s first Broadway show absolutely bombed (in the e-newsletter scheduled to drop the day after the bombings from one of my performing arts clients).

Comb your content carefully. Over-caution is the way to go here.

> Get speedy input on your revised approach today with colleagues on the ground and members of your marketing advisory group

These are the folks who are in touch with your base (and are your network members), and you need their insights.

If you don’t have a marketing advisory group already in place, reach out to a few current supporters in each of your segments, asking for five minutes of their time for a quick call.

7. A.S.A.P.—Share Your Revised Approach With  Colleagues & Ask Them to Share What They Hear

Even though your colleagues’ may not have been aware of your plan for your marketing and fundraising outreach going forward, update them on what’s changed and why.

Here’s why:

  • It’s just basic respect, and you should do this on an ongoing basis.
  • Many of these folks are in close contact with your target audiences in their daily work, and have the opportunity to focus those conversations appropriately—but only if you share your approach!
  • They’re also most likely to get the feedback that shows you you’re taking the right path, or have to recalculate. Ask, train and support them in doing so. It helps all of you!

8. Next 10 to 14 Days—Move Forward With Your Ear Close to the Ground

It’s still early in this tragedy, and events are yet to unfold. So stay close to what’s top of mind for your network (and the rest of us) through this week and next.

Go ahead and schedule coming campaigns across channels, but review what’s scheduled on a daily basis. Engage at social listening at every point along the way.

9. By End of April—Craft a Crisis Communications Plan That Includes Shared Tragedies Like This One

I recommend 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.

Crises like the Boston Marathon Bombings and the ensuing scares are shared crises. In many cases, crises outside of your organization impact your network of supporters and partners equally, if not more than, crises that effect your nonprofit.

What are you considering changing, or unsure about? Do you have guidance to share?  Please share your plans, questions and recommendations worries here. We are so much smarter together.

More post-tragedy guidance:

How to Communicate Post-Disaster — Guidelines for Respectful but Effective Outreach (Haitian earthquake)

P.S. Make sure you’re on top of time-sensitive guidance like this with the Getting Attention e-update. Subscribe today.

Nancy Schwartz on April 16, 2013 in Crisis Communications | 50 comments

  • Maria FYI

    Thanks Nancy. Our FB page had already posted a supportive photo but after reading your post, I added a message to it which added value because it speaks to our own mission, but expands it to the greater community.

  • Lindsey Gillette

    #6-so important! I received a email this morning from an athletic clothing company. Today’s featured item was running shorts…bad move.

  • Joanne Fritz

    Ahhh…beautifully said, Nancy. I have written about getting ready for a crisis of one’s own, but I love how you cover what to do or not to do when the tragedy is not yours, but another’s. Tact, sympathy, good thoughts…..all so important. Thanks so much.

  • Beth Kanter

    Excellent advice Nancy!

  • Tina Cincotti

    This was so important for me to read today, Nancy. Thank you. As a lifelong Bostonian and someone who is in the area where the explosions occurred almost daily, this is quite a surreal experience. The best advice I can give is that, whatever you do, make a genuine. Anything insincere or scripted, esp to those of us literally living with this, is worse than nothing at all.

  • Pingback: How to Communicate In Midst of Tragedy | Nonpro...()

  • Ash Shepherd

    Thanks Nancy as always for a useful post. After hearing the news one of our first thoughts was to check and halt our automated communications over the next few days. Thanks in large part to other posts like this one you have shared previously regarding communicating post traumatic event.

  • Marlene Oliveira

    Nancy, you cover this topic so throughly and specifically, it really is a must read for nonprofits today and over the next few days. What much of this comes back to is common sense and reasonable behaviour. In evaluating what to do, nonprofit communicators should leave room for listening to their gut feelings and instincts. If proceeding with a planned communication doesn’t feel right, hold back until it does. If you feel your organization has something relevant and appropriate to add to the conversation, step in.

    I really appreciate you coming forward with important resource so quickly.

  • tomwatson

    Excellent Nancy! I’m going to share this with my NYU students tomorrow. I’d add only that tone matters – use the inside voice, say less rather than more, don’t appear to be trying to capitalize, and keep things minimal for a short while.

  • Joe Boland

    I would add to make sure you have a plan and guidelines in place to deal with an emergency/tragedy/disaster. While you can never anticipate what may occur, every nonprofit should have the system in place and the infrastructure in place to be flexible with their communications in the event of an unforeseen incident. The tools should allow fundraisers to easily and quickly adapt messaging to fit what is happening and to make it mission-appropriate at the same time.

    Tremendous article, Nancy!

  • Nancy Schwartz

    Thanks so much for adding your takes, everyone. We are so much smarter together.

  • Nancy Schwartz

    Such an important point, Tom. Thanks for adding.

    Pls share back anything your students have to add—a fresh perspective can highlight surprising gaps.

  • Nancy Schwartz

    The pause you emphasize is so critical, Marlene, and we’re so afraid to take it. I’m taking mine now.

  • Nancy Schwartz

    Ash, any other guidance to share from your experiences?

  • Nancy Schwartz

    Authenticity is vital here, Tina, and thanks for emphasizing that. Any other guidance from the Boston region?

  • Nancy Schwartz

    Lindsey, how are you handling this today?

  • Nancy Schwartz

    Good response, Maria.

    Possible to share the link here? Models are the absolute best learning tools. Thanks.

  • Nancy Schwartz

    Anything to add, Beth? Social-media wise, metrics-wise or otherwise?

  • Daniel

    A very thoughtful and insightful article. Thank you, Nancy. One comment, regarding the statement about not remaining silent. I’m already deluged with the vast number of well-meaning people and organizations trying to send condolences to their networks. I’m not sure if our non-profit organization would be adding anything or merely sounding like a “me too.” Do you recommend that all organizations send out something?

  • Nancy Schwartz

    Daniel, you ask a great question, and I wasn’t clear above.

    I do think that a tweet or Facebook post today or tomorrow, simply sharing sorrow, if a good idea (if that fits with your org’s voice, and the wants of your audiences).

    Beyond that, I’d just keep it as an active context/filter for forthcoming plans and messages in the next 10 days or so.

    What do you think you’ll do?

  • Laura Amerman, CFRE

    I think your advice on not going dark is so important, especially for orgs that post frequently. Suddenly going dark isn’t very authentic. It’s sort of like people who won’t go to funerals because they “don’t know what to say.” You’re a grownup, figure it out.

    I also found the “Food Spotting” posts yesterday to be especially discordant. I’m not especially interested in that type of content on a good day, but during a national tragedy it’s really “off.”

  • BuffyBSchwartz

    Excellent advice Nancy, thanks for the good tips and reminders. One thing to consider is developing a statement about the crisis, and then making sure that staff, board and any key partners have it, and know when and where it will be distributed. Additionally, communication staff need to make sure they inform all staff and board of any communication changes/delays based on a crisis, as appropriate.

  • Marc Koenig

    Good thoughts.

    I guess my takeaway is that automated marketing is a powerful tool, but it’s doesn’t mean unconscious marketing. You need to be agile enough to adapt to the daily circumstances. If you want to have true engagement from your fans, YOU need to really engage: and that means being aware enough to reschedule your regular marketing messages and being sensitive.

    I’d also add to be gracious to those who violate this checklist, and not be too eager to put them down. Responding to a tragedy isn’t natural – so of course, people are going to screw up, usually not maliciously. Tragedy isn’t an occasion for self-aggrandizement or self-righteousness. :)

  • Nancy Schwartz

    Marc, thanks for adding two such important points, particularly the latter. We’re all trying our best here.

    How have you been guiding your clients to proceed today and for the next week? Any specific examples you can share, anonymously if that’s best?

  • Nancy Schwartz

    Buffy, exactly. Make sure you have your all-org team informed and ask them to share their suggestions, and the feedback they hear.

    No communications or fundraising team can excel in a silo.

  • Pingback: How to Communicate In The Midst Of Tragedy: 9-Step Checklist | Vision Consulting LA()

  • Ash Shepherd

    Only that at a time when our humanity is so boldly called into focus let the human side of your organization come through. If your cause is related then empathize in appropriate supportive ways. If your work is not really related don’t force it to be, simply show support.

    Imagine how much trust building could come from an organization encouraging their community to take the next month to donate time and money to another cause simply because it is the right thing to do right now. We forget from within organizations that most people are connected to multiple causes. We shouldn’t fear that, we should embrace it as a demonstration of our commitment to stronger communities in general. If your supporters are truly with you, they will be back when you need them.

  • Dolly

    I was planning to send an e-newsletter this week that talks about how awesome our fundraiser was on the 28th where people slept outside in solidarity with homeless youth. Now I’ll do it next week – but is that too soon? And I feel like any mention of Boston will seem trite and weird (we serve teens and young adults, not children, and we’re in New England but not in Mass.). Is it terrible to send a positive newsletter even next week, even if the subject is homelessness?

  • Nancy Schwartz

    Laura, it’s confusing to know what to do next but going dark isn’t it. That just stops progress. Blogging on that today and will add the link here.

    What are the “Food Spotting” posts?

  • Nancy Schwartz

    Wow, so powerfully said Ash. Hope you won’t mind if I include that in my follow up blog post today! I’ll credit you of course.

    We are so much smarter together.

  • Nancy Schwartz

    Dolly, great question and one so many orgs are asking themselves right now.

    I’m blogging more on that today and will share that link in a bit but pls, don’t go dark.

    At this point, no reason to go out specifically with a message of support and empathy for Boston region. But, review your e-news and see what the opportunities are for you to link the human right to have a home with the right for personal safety—which is an authentic link. The bombings will remain near top of mind for quite a while.

    Any thoughts or additional questions?

  • Chris Tuttle

    Great post, Nancy. And I would agree with most everything.

    But, a couple thoughts:

    1) The first example of the scheduled email may have not been possible to stop at this point. Many software systems allow for scheduling of email in advance, the lists and message are sent to the system’s email servers where they are queued to go out at the assigned time.

    Depending on the system, list size, time of day and other factors, it may simply not be possible to remove.

    Maybe they could have replaced an image in the email on the server with one explaining this and a “our survey is on hold” message or something… or maybe update the website where the email was pointing. But there are a lot of variables we are not aware of.

    2) This entire disaster has been tragic… of course. But it’s also reminding me how privileged we, in America — and most “First World” countries — are. Attacks like this occur often in many countries around the world and no one in America seems to be expected to stop what we or our organizations are doing to advance our missions.

    So yes, US based organizations marketing to US based constituents after a US based tragedy should indeed be cautious. But the ability to do so is a privilege that I suspect we take for granted.

    Ideally, an International organization in this position could have suppressed/delayed receipt of the email for those in the country of the diaster.

    3) I think it’s also important to highlight “who did it well.” Especially as these can be more obvious and less subjective. For example, “Run Or Dye,” had Facebook Promoted Ads running when the attack happened. After a few people noted them and asked Run Or Dye to suspend, they responded that they were doing just that, with respect for those affected by the Boston tragedy.

    Just some thoughts I’ve been having as I’ve seen this play out the last few days.

  • Nancy Schwartz

    Hi Chris,

    Great points and I thank you for adding.

    I’ll be posting this morning with examples of doing it right. Any chance you can email me screenshots of the Run or Dye stuff, or a link?

    Any other models of doing it right to share? Thanks!

  • Pingback: How to Communicate In Midst of Tragedy | Health...()

  • Chris Tuttle

    Certainly. nancy at ga? Just noticed I don’t have it on file.

  • Nancy Schwartz

    Yep! thanks.

  • Kerala Taylor

    Thank you for this checklist — it will serve as a basis for our evolving crisis communications plan. One thing we struggle with is that as a nonprofit that builds playgrounds, our tone is consistently exuberant and joyful. While a lack of outdoor play growing up can lead to many horrible things (including violence), we emphasize the positive effects of play, including the simple joy it brings to children. So it’s difficult to “break character” — so to speak — when it comes to addressing such gruesome tragedies. But you’ve given us some great starting points!

  • John Haydon

    Nancy – Excellent post on this topic! Look for link love tomorrow. :-)

  • Nancy Schwartz

    Thanks, John. Your input, and that of so many others, is shaping a strong tool for us all going forward.

  • Kris Putnam-Walkerly

    This is fabulous, thanks Nancy!

  • Nancy Schwartz

    Kris, what can you add, from the grantmakers point of view–for grantmaker outreach and for their grantees?

  • Duane Peters

    There is a typeo in the last sentence of the third recommendation. assess, not asses. LOL What was that about ‘slow down?’

    >It’s never productive to communicate into that environment at the moment of. You’re not missing an opportunity if you pause to asses and re-tune, and you risk alienating your network if you blindly push on with plans.<

  • Pingback: The Promised Arts PSAs | Sue Edworthy Arts Planning()

  • Ash Shepherd

    Of course and I am flattered. Sharing is the point after all isn’t it :-)

  • Daniel

    Great suggestion, Nancy, I think we’ll take your advice! Our monthly eNewsletter goes out in a few days, and we’ll make mention there–tying it in with our work with environmental education for children and our prayers for the children who had to witness the violence.

  • Joann Ricci

    Thanks Nancy for these important reminders. For those of us who have had to deal with unfortunate natural as well as manmade disasters, your recommendations remind me how important it is to have an emergency plan especially for communications and other day to day work…one that is planned when no imminent danger is at hand, with the input of all relevant stakeholders and with clear understanding of “who will do what” when the time comes. Stay Strong Boston!

  • Pingback: How to Communicate in Midst of Tragedy | Extra-...()

  • Pingback: How to Communicate in Midst of Tragedy | Nonpro...()

  • Pingback: 9 recomendaciones para comunicar en circunstancias de crisis | E-Voluntas()

  • Pingback: Passover Crisis Communications: Nonprofit Case Study | Nonprofit Marketing | Getting Attention()

<< Back to Main