- Larry Small, brought in as secretary from Fannie Mae, gives himself perks to which he was accustomed in the private sector that are way out of line for a national nonprofit with 70 percent federal funding.
- The media uncover this, and there is unrelenting bad coverage, driving Congressional hearings and pressure.
- Small is gone, and the reputations of the Smithsonian and its board are heavily tarnished.
- Mark Everson, brought in as CEO from running the IRS to great acclaim, has an affair with a Red Cross official in the field, technically within his chain of command.
- The media uncover this, and there is unrelenting bad coverage, driving Congressional pressure.
- Everson is gone, and the Red Cross, reeling from previous turnover at the top, is very hard pressed to raise funds even in the wake of Hurricane Ike, causing reductions in its ability to serve and major layoffs.
It can't happen to you, right? You’re not that big, your board is careful about whom it puts in as CEO, the local press love the services you provide, you've never had problems like this.
OK, I'll grant all that—and still tell you with assurance that your organization WILL face a media crisis—probably multiple crises—during your career. Here's why:
- Somebody's going to make a mistake. It happens; we're human; we make bad judgments. We ignore the rules, or there are no rules in place even when there could and should be.
- That mistake is going to get out. Reporters are very good at finding out things; it's their full-time job, and since Watergate revived the "muckraking" of the early 20th century, the biggest career incentives are in investigative reporting. It just takes an unexpected lawsuit, a disgruntled insider, a loose comment, and boom, it's out, with more to come.
- You've got a lot of VIPs associated with your organization, and they make good copy when they're in trouble. Your board, if your organization is a nonprofit, or your political masters, if it’s a government entity, are local celebrities, so their actions are by definition newsworthy, especially if those actions look bad.
- Your organization is held to a higher standard. All "public trust" organizations are; that's one of the prices of direct and indirect (tax-subsidy) public funding. So a mistake that would be shrugged off if discovered in a for-profit organization can easily be a calamity for a public trust organization. Reputation is ultimately everything; without reputation, your ability to accomplish your mission is seriously impaired.
- And nonprofits are both loved and a tempting target—it's a juicier story. Yes, nonprofit organizations are good and do good, but there is still a populist temptation in many reporters—are these organizations really helping the community, or are they playthings of the rich?
What You Can Do about It NOW
Have a Crisis Plan in Place. Reach for it, don’t improvise it on the spot; you’ll miss something essential, and you won’t get the permissions in time. Standard elements include:
- A notification process. Key stakeholders (CEO, board, others) are identified and contacted.
- A position development and messaging process. The team/individual is identified to set the substance of the response, then the substance is transformed into a message that works.
- A spokesperson. Don't let internal politics drive this one; it's critical. A great message garbled is no help. See below.
- Assessment of results. Various services can help you assess how well you did and what else you could have done, for next time.
See any standard book on media relations for examples of crisis plans you can adapt.
- Only One (Trained, and Preferably Experienced) Person Speaks. Multiple voices blur the message or contradict; untrained spokespeople in a crisis WILL mess up, from ignorance of how the media think; inexperienced spokespeople, even when trained, will mess up from the high stress and media persistence and ingenuity when they smell a scandal.
- Know When to Hold 'Em. If it’s appearance rather than substance (you've actually done nothing unethical or illegal) AND you can explain the appearances effectively, hold your ground and patiently explain the background that helps the media understand why what looks bad is not. This approach is especially important where giving ground would set a PR precedent that would restrict your organization's ability to do legitimate, essential things, such as putting on locally unpopular programming or museum deaccessioning. But be sure you are right. If it's ethics and standards, and you have doubts, contact the relevant national organization, such as the national service organization for your kind of nonprofit, to confirm your thinking.
- Know When to Fold 'Em. If you are in the wrong, or you are in the right but appearances or the context (previous trouble) are so bad that you can't effectively explain, you take a different course. FIRST be aware of that internally and figure out a process to fix the problem, THEN admit you were in the wrong/missed something and explain the process you've created to fix it. Work in concert with one of the media’s favorite things to do: see itself not only as a truth-revealer but also as a society-fixer. They will love you even more than before for truly fixing something they uncovered, and they will praise you for it.
- And Don't Step into These Pits:
- Denying wrongdoing when you've been wrong. They will show it's wrong, and you will pay even bigger when they do.
- Saying "No Comment." The media (and public) perceive that as "pleading the Fifth"—a tacit confession of guilt. That's blood in the water to keep them investigating far beyond the issue at hand.
- Lying. Tempting ... since we’ve all done it to save face. It's the worst thing you can do in this situation. They will find out, and now you've got zero credibility for the indefinite future.
Two final thoughts:
- Be ready. Have a plan; think it through.
- Get help. If there's breathing space, get help in the moment, but at the least, seek it out afterwards to see what you did well, didn't do well, and how you can start to restore your reputation if the media coverage wasn't what you wanted.
Jason Hall, Public Trust Strategies
© 2009, Public Trust Strategies
Jason Hall is principal of Public Trust Strategies, a consulting firm specializing in helping organizations of all sizes build, enhance, or restore deserved reputations and influence with key audiences, and leveraging that increased reputation and influence to secure increased and sustained funding, and enduring public trust. He is also a professor at George Mason University, teaching master's courses in media and government relations and in ethics for public administrators. He is the former director of government and media relations for the American Association of Museums (1991-2007).