Crisis Communications

Update: May 25, 3pm: TNC’s CEO and director of external affairs did an excellent job facilitating their live chat with supporters and critics. They answered some very hard questions.

But my core question remains — is TNC fulfilling its brand promise in accepting BP funding? If not, that brand is busted. They’ll need to reach out to their base to take their pulse.

Update: May 25, 2pm.  Good listening on TNC’s part, which is a crucial component of crisis communications. I received an email from a staffer on TNC’s digital media team at 12:13pm– just over an hour after this post went live–making himself and colleagues available for additional questions. We’re deep in conversation and I’ll keep you posted.


Just when I thought I was done writing on how vital it is for every  organization to stay true to its mission and values  and the brand that conveys them in its actions, The Washington Post blows the cover on BP’s funding of top environmental organizations.

The Nature Conservancy (TNC) was highlighted in the article but the Post also reported that other leaders in the field–from Environmental Defense Fund to Conservation International–have benefited from BP dollars as well.  And although TNC responded quickly with a blog post from chief scientist Peter Kariva, and invited supporters and others to participate in an online chat this afternoon with CEO Mark Tercek, the comments on Kariva’s post (accumulated in just 24 hours at this point) showcase the anger felt on the part of TNC supporters.

This is brand gone bust big-time; far bigger even than the Komen-KFC cause marketing debacle since it’s all-organization and long-term rather than a single campaign.

There’s simply no way an environmental organization should be funded by a natural resources mining company–their key principles are radically opposed.  Yes to pragmatic consultation as a productive partnership. No to taking funding and participating in BP’s greenwashing campaign. Not that it’s black and white at all, but on these fronts — I think it should be. At least if TNC sticks to its mission and values, as expressed by its tagline Protecting Nature. Preserving Life.

Conversation on this mess is passionate, with emotions running high. Because all of us who’ve supported the environmental movement don’t understand how or why these organizations we’ve supported in multiple ways have betrayed us. And betrayal is exactly what it feels like when an organization we’ve supported and counted on for years (never more than now, with the oil spill tragedy underway) proves to be something other than what we thought (and it said-via its brand) it was.

The web is full of conversation on this story. Twitter friend Pam McAllister, a former TNC staffer, is deep in conversation with me and asserts that TNC has integrity, supporting its definition of its relationship with BP as “constructive engagement.” Katya Andresen asked me what TNC’s PR folks should be doing and blogged on it.

What’s your take on TNC’s (and the other organization’s) funding relationship with BP? Please comment below or email me to share your thoughts. I’ll share the conversation out with the community.


P.S. TNC should have followed these guidelines for guarding its brand and developing the right partnerships. Hindsight.

Nancy Schwartz in Branding and Messages, Crisis Communications, Partnerships | 12 comments
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How to Communicate in the Shadow of Disaster -- Guidelines for Respectful but Effective Outreach

As I read accounts of Haitians struggling for basic needs post-earthquake, I’m struck by the number of lives that have been taken and touched by this disaster. It’s almost all one can think of.

That’s a significant communications challenge for the nonprofit organizations delivering aid: How to mobilize giving while communicating respectfully about their efforts and impact on the ground? How to keep giving going even as the earthquake, and the plight of survivors, is no longer top of mind? And what about the many other organizations not directly providing relief efforts but soliciting donations to pass on to relief organizations, or the majority of nonprofits that must maintain their communications and fundraising initiatives despite the world’s focus on disaster recovery?

What is the place of nonprofit communications in the wake of disaster, particularly when even the most recent crisis of epic proportions—the January 2010 7.0 earthquake in Haiti—has generated less giving than the Hurricane Katrina relief effort?

For a nonprofit, the answer lies in the way (if any) your organization is involved in the relief effort. The following guidelines derive from an analysis of news of, and fundraising for, relief efforts in the response to the Haitian earthquake and the plight of its three million survivors in need. Review them today to ensure you’re taking the most effective path in this tricky time.

P.S. Here’s another useful guide to read right now: You’re Not in Competition with Haiti.

P.P.S. More effective messaging is a priority for all organizations. Learn how to craft the most essential message — your tagline. Download the free 2009 Nonprofit Tagline Report, filled with must-dos, don’t dos, case studies and 2,500+ nonprofit tagline examples!

Nancy Schwartz in Campaign Marketing Models & Tips, Crisis Communications, Nonprofit Communications | 1 comment
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How Correcting Errors of Substance Builds Credibility Your Base's LoyaltyBack in November, I received this email from the folks at Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). It’s a powerful example of how acknowledging an error of substance (i.e., not a typo or missing photo) can be a good opportunity to reinforce your organization’s brand (in this case, reliability, accuracy and passion for the truth).

Here’s what happened:

  • In striving to write a succinct review of a recently-published article, EDF implied the incorrect reason behind wasted electricity in the electricity production process.
  • When the error was pointed out by an EDF member (an engineering professor), EDF morphed this mistake into a clarion call on its commitment to accuracy as the only way to “promote meaning solutions to our environmental challenges.”
  • Sam Parry, EDF’s director of Online Membership and Activism reached out to the initial email list with a pro-active apology, correcting the error, thanking the professor and asking readers to let him know whenever they spot an editorial error.
  • Outcome: Sam scored on multiple fronts — 1) Thanking EDF supporters for their support, 2) Stressing the organization’s passion for truth-telling and 3) Engaging supporters to help EDF perpetuate its focus on the “business of truth telling.”

Most communicators are mistake-phobic. We labor away — conceiving, writing, designing and finally…publishing our communications. And when something is wrong — no matter who finds it — it’s dismaying.

But it doesn’t have to be. Some errors are due to sloppiness, and that’s truly dismaying. But errors like this one can be a real opportunity. Congrats to EDF for seeing the opportunity in the mess, and responding artfully but authentically.

P.S. Don’t miss out on in-depth articles, case studies and guides to nonprofit marketing success — all featured in the twice-monthly Getting Attention e-update. Subscribe today.

Nancy Schwartz in Case Studies, Crisis Communications, Nonprofit Communications | 0 comments
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JCC Crisis Communications Mastery Turns a Mess into MagicWe’re loyal members of the local JCC (Jewish Community Center, a combo YMCA and cultural center) and were taken aback to receive an email a few weeks ago on plans by a Kansas group to picket the Center.

CEO Alan Feldman first contacted us on October 21st to alert us that members of Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) — an anti-gay, anti-Semitic extremist group from Topeka, Kansas — were planning to picket on Tuesday, October 27th. Feldman delivered this news with concern, but also with reason and calm. This warm yet professional tone reinforced my faith in him, which was particularly important as he’s been in the role just a few months.

In his initial email, Feldman matter-of-factly described the picketing plan and the security strategies in place for that day. He acknowledged that the threat was upsetting but reassured us that there was no real danger.

In his follow-up email the next day, Feldman acknowledged the passion of members’ responses but spoke firmly against acting on the many suggestions for a counter-protest. Instead, he invited members to a more productive response; joining area clergy and educators in a community dialogue while the protest was in action. “While we agree that we must speak out against intolerance, we believe that any counter-demonstrations outside will only further their agenda for publicity and dilute our message of tolerance and equality,” Feldman said.

The dialogue was attended by more than 150 members and others in the area, whereas the protest didn’t interfere with JCC operations. Feldman closed this chapter with a thank you email on October 29th, commending the community for joining together to combat intolerance and bigotry, and thanking those from the police to JCC staff for their hard work in mastering a difficult time. “By not altering our daily routine, we were able to demonstrate our commitment to the Jewish community in a peaceful and powerful way. Thank you for joining us in promoting tikkun olam (repairing the world).  Our mission is to build an inclusive Jewish community that celebrates the strength of its diversity,” he said

In taking control of a real threat to motivate community-building, Feldman succeeded in turning a negative into a success story. Here are the keys to his success:

  • He acted quickly, but calmly, on hearing of the planned protest. In addition to ensuring that members weren’t surprised or heard it elsewhere, this early response gave Feldman the opportunity to show how the JCC was on top of the situation.
  • He didn’t get his hands dirty by slamming the WBC.
  • Instead, he (and the JCC overall) took the higher road, using the protest as an opportunity to schedule a community dialogue.
  • He provided members with enough, but not too much, information. Feldman kept us updated but didn’t feed our frenzy with daily or hourly updates. He filtered through only what was useful for us to know.
  • Feldman took control of the crisis, ending the story on an up note, thanking all who helped the JCC through this difficult time (it was a great opportunity to strengthen bonds with those in the area) and encouraging all members to perpetuate their tikkun olam.

Take a close look at Feldman’s examples so you’ll be poised to make your next crisis into magic. There will be one, so why not work it to your organization’s advantage?

Flickr photo: k763

P.S. Don’t miss out on in-depth articles, case studies and guides to nonprofit marketing success — all featured in the twice-monthly Getting Attention
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Nancy Schwartz in Case Studies, Crisis Communications, Nonprofit Communications | 1 comment
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Music video fan or not, you’ve probably heard about hip-hopper/producer Kanye West’s bad-boy behavior at the MTV Video Music Awards (VMA) on Sunday evening. (Video here if you don’t see it above.)

West jumped on stage as country singer Taylor Swift had just begun her acceptance speech for best female video, grabbing the mike from Swift to attest that Beyonce deserved the award.

Swift was so rattled she couldn’t continue but the show moved on. Of course the cameras focused on Beyonce in the audience who looked astonished then immediately rose to give Taylor a standing ovation. Great move, Beyonce. Because if you or your organization is taken on by a crazy advocate, you are stained by that crazy behavior or approach. The best response is to separate yourself as far as possible.

But Beyonce did even better. When she won the Video of The Year Moonman for ‘Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),’ she said a few words and then invited “Taylor to come out to have her moment.” You can see it here. Win-win. Not only did Beyonce show herself to be more a star than ever via taking the high road, but in doing so she turned around what had become ugly into something positive. That’s effective crisis communications!

Here’s what your organization can learn from Beyonce’s quick response to a potential disaster:

  1. Act quickly — that’s when your response really counts.
  2. Establish distance between your organization and any crazed fan or advocate that’s supporting you.
  3. Make sure your response is right on target — there’s no room for correction. Be prepared.
  4. Take the high road — you’ll win every time. Get down and dirty along with your “opponent” and it’s likely you’ll stay wallowing in the mud.

Is your organization poised to turn a messy situation around? If not, it’s time to sit down, envision possible crisis likely to emerge, and how you’ll take them on — now!

Nancy Schwartz in Crisis Communications, Fresh Takes, Nonprofit Communications | 4 comments
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Reaching Out with Swine Flu in the Air I’ve heard from many nonprofit marketers lately who are unmoored by the uncertain environment in which we’re living. Swine (a.k.a. H1N1) flu is just the icing on the cake.

Folks are wondering how to respectfully engage with so much competing for attention and anxiety at an all-time high. So here are a few of my guidelines for effectively sharing stories on your organization’s impact, even now:

  1. Take your base’s pulse. Never assume you know how they’re feeling/thinking. Ask!
  2. Respond appropriately. The pulse enables you to do so, so make sure you’re on the mark. When you are, you’re much more likely to engage them.
  3. Relate your organization’s work to current crises, if there’s a real connection.
  4. If your org is in the middle of the crisis, talk about it.

Read the full set of guidelines and two case studies here.

P.S. Don’t miss out on in-depth articles, case studies and guides like this one — all featured in the twice-monthly Getting Attention e-update. Subscribe today.

Nancy Schwartz in Crisis Communications, Current Affairs, Nonprofit Communications, Strategy | 0 comments
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Aw Nuts Peanut Council Showcases Effective Crisis CommunicationsSince we have a 5-year-old who’s a peanut butter devotee, we’ve been following the peanut salmonella scandal closely. Our first step was to check the labels of all our peanut products against the FDA list of tainted products (all clear).

But I was astounded by the Peanut Council’s proactive and strategic response to the industry crisis. After all, peanut-based products have already taken a huge hit with the prevalence of childrens’ nut allergies. And now with this, the peanut industry is fighting for its life.

Here’s how they’ve handled this criss:

Way to go, Peanut Council for your best practices in crisis communications. When your org is facing a criss — follow the Council’s cue to go fast, thorough and non-defensive.

P. S. Don’t miss out on the in-depth articles, case studies and guides on nonprofit crisis communications and more featured in the Getting Attention e-alert. Subscribe today.

Nancy Schwartz in Case Studies, Crisis Communications, Nonprofit Communications | 0 comments
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How To Communicate Effectively in the Shadow of DisasterWhat’s the place of nonprofit communications in the wake of disaster, particularly when even these crises of epic proportions have generated far less giving than Hurricane Katrina or the Indian Ocean tsunami relief efforts? And how about when human life is not at stake, but there’s massive economic and environmental devastation at play, as in the current flooding in the Midwest.

For a nonprofit, the answer lies in the way (if any) the organization is involved in the relief effort, or related issues. Read the full article for comprehensive guidelines for nonprofit marketing in tough times.

These guidelines derive from an analysis of news of, and fundraising campaigns for relief efforts in, regions struck by the recent earthquake in China and cyclone in Myanmar.

P.S. Disaster isn’t the only challenge in your communications context. Read these articles on nonprofit marketing strategy for more tips for challenging times.

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Nancy Schwartz in Case Studies, Crisis Communications, Nonprofit Communications | 0 comments

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).

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 in Carnival of Nonprofit Consultants, Crisis Communications, Nonprofit Communications | 2 comments

Corzine Owes NJ (and All) Citizens a Wear Your Seat Belt CampaignUpdate — May 2, 2007

Corzine has apologized, and voluntarily paid his $46 fine for failing to wear a seat belt. I appreciate that, but hope he’ll take it further to full-scale “wear your seat belt” activism. The opportunity is there.
You’ve probably heard about Governor John Corzine’s (NJ) critical injuries (12 broken ribs, broken sternum and collarbone, broken femur, and many more) resulting from an automobile crash late last week. Strange thing? Corzine was not wearing a seat belt, even though doing so is required by NJ law. That’s a model?

I wish Governor Corzine a speedy and thorough recovery (NJ needs him bad), but hope that includes a mea culpa in terms of the arrogance conveyed in breaking the seat belt law, and the terrible example he’s set for folks nationwide.

The New Jersey seat belt law calls for a $42 fine for non-wearers. There are no points involved and it is not a moving violation.

What I’d love to see is Corzine making bad out of good by personally spearheading the Click It or Ticket seat belt safety campaign that was already scheduled to launch in late May. The seat belt safety campaign will include radio and TV ads, plus increased law enforcement.

The campaign will be in full-swing long before the governor recuperates from his injuries, so what better opportunity for Corzine than to be the star of the campaign, showcasing his healing process (and advocating for seat belt wearing state (and nationwide). And he should extend the campaign from its current three-week run.

Drama gets attention, and this is drama. So get well soon, Governor Corzine. Your family needs you and we need you — in the state house and as the spokesperson of the Click It or Ticket campaign.

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Nancy Schwartz in Crisis Communications, Nonprofit Communications, Social Marketing | 0 comments

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