Crisis Communications

What and your colleagues labored for years to fund, design and (finally) open your highly-visible museum (or cause/issue-focused organization)?

What if—because the museum’s reason for being is so close to folks’  hearts and heads—the design and build is highly scrutinized for the many years it takes to launch?

And what if, when the museum finally opens, it gets hammered with criticism because….you’ve been creative, resourceful and realistic in terms of budget needs and sustainability, building in revenue streams from a good restaurant, a gift shop and private event hosting ? Or—really—because the museum’s focus is SO sensitive.

This is exactly the position that The National September 11 Memorial & Museum finds itself in right now. What would you do? 


Nancy Schwartz in Crisis Communications | 21 comments
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Crisis CommunicationsThe recent triple murder at a Jewish Community Center (JCC) and Jewish-run retirement home in Kansas City—by a white supremacist, because he thought his victims were Jewish—generated empathy and concern among everyone I know. It was made even worse by the timing just a few days before the anniversary of 2013’s Boston Marathon massacre.

But for us Jews, about to celebrate Passover the next evening, it spurred extra sadness, anxiety and fear. Like many other peoples, Jews are periodically targeted for acts of hatred and violence. And this one, coming on the eve of such an important holiday, was especially frightening.

I was awed by the way community leader Alan Feldman, CEO of JCC Metrowest, conveyed calm, reassurance and hope to members and student families in this right-things, right-now email. He implemented this six-point approach:


Nancy Schwartz in Crisis Communications | 3 comments
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As I read accounts of Typhoon Haiyan survivors struggling for basic needs, I’m struck by the number of lives that have been taken and touched by this disaster in the Philippines.

That’s a significant communications challenge for the nonprofit organizations that work 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 Typhoon, and the plight of survivors, fades from 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, like most of the your organizations, that have to carry on with communications and fundraising initiatives despite the global focus on recovery in the Philippines—nonprofits counting on the gifts they hope to generate via their year-end campaigns?

For every organization, the answer lies in the way (if any) your organization is involved in the relief effort. Here’s my recommendation:


Nancy Schwartz in Crisis Communications | 4 comments
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The crises of recent days—both person-made (the D.C. naval yard massacre) and natural disasters (flooding in Colorado)— highlight the delicacy of communicating effectively in the shadow of disaster.

Crises like these emphasize the fragility of human life and daily life as we know it, so naturally send many of us into a personal tailspin, even if we’re not personally affected. And your network has been immersed, whether they have wanted to be or not, in crisis coverage.

As always, relevance rules and should remain your framework for communications decision making. Here’s how to stay sensitive but relevant post-crisis.


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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:

Nancy Schwartz in Strategy | 16 comments
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Once your organization’s reputation is seriously damaged, it’s difficult to restore trust and focus on successes.

And once your organization’s reputation is damaged multiple times—as is the case for Susan G. Komen for the Cure, with its screw-ups in de-funding Planned Parenthood, suing other organizations with “cure” in their organizational or program names and partnering with the heart-stopping Kentucky Fried Chicken—restoring confidence and support is almost impossible.

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Thanks to guest blogger Joan Stewart for sharing her timely advice.

What a week for learning about crisis communications! Here are five important lessons that Rep. Anthony Weiner taught nonprofit communicators. You’ve heard them all before but Weiner’s massive missteps clarify how important they really are:

  1. Never lie. Weiner thought he could fib his way through the crisis. But at almost every media interview, he got himself tangled up in his own lies and kept changing his story.
  2. Don’t criticize the messenger. Weiner called a reporter a “jackass” for asking a logical question, and that showed he was combative.
  3. Prepare talking points and stick to them. Weiner agreed to numerous media interviews but kept digging a deeper hole because he wasn’t prepared.
  4. When dumping bad news, tell it all, tell it first and tell it fast. The drip-drip-drip of bad news throughout the last two weeks helped this story grow long legs.
  5. Take full responsibility and apologize. Weiner claims “responsibility for my actions” but adamantly says he won’t resign. Expect politicians from both parties to pile on throughout the week and keep this story at the top of the news. A resignation would end the media frenzy.

Learn more here about how your organization should respond in a crisis.

P.S. Get more in-depth case studies, templates and tools, and guidance for nonprofit marketing success — all featured in the twice-monthly Getting Attention e-update. Subscribe today.

Tips reprinted with permission from “The Publicity Hound’s Tips of the Week” ezine. Subscribe here and receive free the handy cheat sheet “89 Reasons to Write a Press Release.” Follow Joan Stewart on Facebook and on Twitter.

Nancy Schwartz in Crisis Communications | 1 comment
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Planned Parenthood faced a communications crisis last week when a clinic manager was videotaped covertly by actors working for an anti-abortion group, while she giving advice on getting medical care for under-age prostitutes. The stunt was designed to power the group’s campaign to cut off public financing for Planned Parenthood.

But Planned Parenthood responded to this crisis swiftly and comprehensively, emphasizing its commitment to “stay focused on giving women the health care they need and deserve.” Most importantly, Planned Parenthood didn’t leave it at traditional crisis communications. It acted swiftly to articulate the strategy behind the video stunt and to terminate the manager in question, as the organization does not provide health services to minors. And it leveraged the strong relationship it has with its community online…

I was pleased to hear from Planned Parenthood almost immediately after the news hit, via Facebook. I’m one of the organization’s 97,000 likes which means I saw this update before I heard the story elsewhere:

That was followed by several updates over the next few days, dripping out the organization’s response as the sequence of events became clear. Planned Parenthood’s use of Facebook for immediate and ongoing outreach — positioning the action as part of a de-funding attach, reinforcing its own values and focus, asking for support, pledging to do the right thing — motivated strong and vocal support for the organization.

Ironically, Planned Parenthood’s outreach to its Facebook community on its Facebook presence (a.k.a. audience research) had caught my eye earlier last week:

What better way to hone your social media presence than asking your community? Planned Parenthood has received 194 comments to date in just one week. The staff has taken an active role in the discussion, asking for clarification and thanking commenters. And the feedback they’ve received is really useful. Here’s a sampling:

  • It would be great to have info about volunteering/interning opportunities for young people with plenty of free time to give to good causes.
  • Seems like a lot; I see several posts per day, and I glaze over at least half of them.
  • Great idea to poll your supporters! Have you developed a formal strategy for utilizing social media? You can include more posts, links, and information without clogging the newsfeed by using customized tabs. If you want tips/strategies, I’d be happy to share! Keep up the good work.
  • I don’t know if I’d separate the info– I like the posts; hard to separate health info from the political since a lot of yourr health services are constrained by politics.

P.S. Learn how to strengthen your nonprofit’s marketing impact with the new 2011 Guide to Nonprofit Marketing Wisdom.

Nancy Schwartz in Social Media | 0 comments
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Mila Rosenthal, Executive Director of HealthRight International, is a Letter to the Editor (LOE) expert with a significant record of success. Read on to review her most recent success — a strong, concise, pointed Letter to the Editor of The New Yorker — and Rosenthal’s tips for your own efforts.

Re: A Deadly Misdiagnosis
December 6, 2010

Michael Specter describes the way that sketchy private clinics in India are preying on people at risk of tuberculosis, and simultaneously undermining an under-resourced public-health system (“A Deadly Misdiagnosis,” November 15th). When public and private health-care systems compete, poor people are often the victims, caught between lousy care and unaffordable care. We see this in Vietnam and in Russia—anywhere that a government is unable to devote sufficient resources to the public-health system, or unwilling to regulate a private one. Unfortunately, in countries such as these, diseases like TB will continue to spread until they reach populations rich enough to afford good treatment. According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has the right to health and well-being, which includes medical care. As Specter’s article illustrates, letting only the principles of the market shape health care in poorer countries means that most people will be denied that right.

Mila Rosenthal, Executive Director
HealthRight International

Here are Rosenthal’s tips for your Letters to the Editor:

  • Identify which type of Letter to the Editor you are writing. Rosenthal distinguishes between the letter to correct the public record and the advocacy letter, crafted to get your message out on an issue. Her New Yorker letter is the latter, designed to magnify the issue covered in the article she’s responding to, and to position HealthRight International as a major player in the health rights field. She does a great job in both respects.
  • Ensure that your letter is reviewed by your organization’s media expert. Rosenthal stresses the importance of the right program (in a large organization) submitting its Letter to the Editor, on the right issue at the right time. “Remember that an organization is likely to have a letter placed only once or twice a year,” she cautions.
  • Encourage local offices or activists to submit Letters to the Editor in local papers. National or international organizations have a lot to gain from local and regional coverage, says Rosenthal.
  • Self-publish your nonprofit’s Letter to the Editor whether they’re published or not in the target channel. HealthRight headlined the letter on its home page and covered it in depth on its website.

More on Writing Letters to the Editor that Gets Published and Read

How to Write a Letter to the Editor that Gets Published and Read (Case Study)

How to Write a Letter to the Editor that Gets Published and Read – Part Two – Letter to the Editor Tips from an Expert (Case Study)

P.S. Learn how to strengthen your nonprofit’s messaging with the all-new Nonprofit Tagline Database and 2011 Tagline Report.

Nancy Schwartz in Media Relations and Press | 1 comment
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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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