When Something Goes Wrong and the Media Calls

From Managing Special Event Risks, Nonprofit Risk Management Center & Nonprofits' Insurance Alliance of California, 1997, p. 41-42

Incidents occurring at a public event may attract media attention. Such attention represents an opportunity to either strengthen a nonprofit's reputation or create lasting damage. The recipe for an effective crisis media communications strategy is 90 percent preparation and 10 percent delivery. Even highly polished CEOs run the risk of missteps when a crisis hits. Mistakes can be made when the chief executive's focus is on other critical matters - helping victims, minimizing damage and losses, and restoring operations. In most instances, you should not forego the opportunity to send a message about your organization to a large audience.

Adequate preparation is essential for an effective response to the media during a crisis. The following guidelines will enable you to turn a potentially risky activity into an opportunity for your organization:

Designate a media spokesperson (and at least one back-up) who has been trained in media relations and interviews:

The persons designated to speak for your organization should be trained to provide an appropriate response under adverse circumstances. Keep in mind that anything that anyone in a position of authority says to the media can be used against the organization in any litigation that results.

Make sure that everyone knows the identity of the designated spokespersons):

Instruct non-authorized persons, including staff and volunteers, not to talk to the media.

Remember that "no comment" says a lot:

"No comment" fills pages in the minds and imaginations of readers and viewers. What is the organization trying to hide? Isn't there anything it can say about this dreadful event? Count on the fact that a skillful reporter will find someone to comment about the incident -- including your organization's handling of the crisis.

Stay calm and "on message:"

The key is focusing on the message you want to deliver. Advance preparation is necessary.

Deliver a positive, truthful message about your organization:

While it is important not to evade a reporter's questions altogether, always begin your response with a positive message about your organization which incorporates your commitment to safety. For example, "The mission of the Bayview Youth Sports Organization is to promote safe recreational activities for disadvantaged children in this community.

Our commitment to safety is reflected in our safety training programs for athletes, rigorous screening and training program for volunteer coaches, and provision of appropriate safety gear for all our participants." If you do not know the information, admit that fact and if appropriate, pledge to find out as soon as practical. Establish a time and place to provide information updates.

Show concern and compassion:

Compassion for victims and those who are disadvantaged by circumstance, physical disability or economic status is at the heart of the work of many community-serving nonprofits. The public expects a nonprofit spokesperson to demonstrate compassion. Never dismiss an incident where victims are involved as inconsequential. Instead, make the organization's concern clear For example, "We are deeply concerned about the accident that occurred today involving one of our athletes. We are committed to conducting a full investigation of the circumstances surrounding the accident and taking whatever precautions are necessary to prevent unfortunate accidents such as this one from happening again."

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