When a Crisis Hits, Don't Panic. Have a Plan

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In a today's media world, speed is critical.

To effectively spread the word about your work, you need more than a strong message. You also need to be able to deploy this message to the right people at the right time.

If you move too slowly, you will miss opportunities to gain attention and change minds.

And if your organization is at the center of a controversy, the inability to respond quickly can have disastrous consequences.

If you’re slow footed, you’ll lose customers or donors. You’ll also risk damaging your hard-earned reputation.

But you can take advantage of breaking-news opportunities and respond promptly to crises if you plan ahead.

One way to do this is to create a rapid response protocol.

A rapid response protocol will give your organization the process and the tools it needs to take advantage of breaking news opportunities or prepare for an unexpected crisis.

If done well, your protocol will also include some pre-written talking points and key messages that you can grab and use during fast-moving news events.

Here are some of the key questions we ask when we help organizations develop rapid response protocols:


Who are your designated spokespeople?


When news breaks, you need to have the right people prepared to speak on your behalf. Figure out who those people are ahead of time -- rather than when the bullets are flying.


Some organizations choose one person as a key spokesperson. Others have a trusted group that might include the executive leadership, board members, the head of communications or other key leaders.

No matter your approach, make sure you know that you can reach at least one of your spokespeople on short notice and that they are well equipped to speak about your organization and its work.


Which issues do we care about most?


If your organization is looking to take advantage of events in the news, it's important to spend some time discussing the types of issues you care most about. By doing this you'll be able to create filters and alerts that will help you identify opportunities quickly.

It will also help you develop draft pitches ahead of time that you can customize and deploy on the fly.


What are your key messages?


Your rapid response protocol should include a handful of key messages that connect with the issues your organization cares about and that convey your values and mission.


These messages become the raw materials for written statements and social media postings -- and can serve as a guide for your spokespeople if they're speaking to reporters.


And, by working through them ahead of time, you can cut down on the amount of time that's needed to get approvals for news releases and written statements.


Who are your highest priority media targets?


You don't want to waste time deciding which media members and outlets need to be contacted.

Develop a short list of your highest-valued media members and spend time cultivating relationships with these reporters and editors.

These relationships will be incredibly valuable when events are moving quickly.


What is your process for releasing information?


Who has to sign off on written statements, news releases and social media postings? Is there a way to ensure that you can get these approvals quickly during crises or breaking news opportunities?

It's important to talk through this process ahead of time to make sure you're not stuck later.

If you need to wait on a your board chair to approve a statement, for example, you might get stuck if she's away or he has his phone turned off at his daughter's dance recital.

Work through what happens if a key decision maker is unavailable. You might need to give multiple people the authority to approve what's released publicly -- or to flatten your process to ensure that there are no hold ups.


What resources do we need?


Some organizations do not have the resources in house to respond quickly to breaking news.

If this is the case, you might need to have a consultant or agency who can enlist work on your behalf. It's important to identify that resource ahead of time -- rather than scrambling to find someone during a crisis.


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Once you've answered these questions, it's important to put your protocol in writing and ensure that it is in the hands of the right people.


Some organizations identify a rapid response team that can deploy during breaking news events.

Each member of this team should have a copy of the protocol -- as well as a list of email addresses and cell phone numbers for people they need to connect with quickly.


Finally, it's important to make sure your protocol is reviewed regularly to ensure that your key messages are up-to-date, your spokespeople are prepared, and your media list is up-to-date.