December 8, 2023

Putting out Nonprofit PR Fires: Crisis Communication

By: Kaisa Lightfoot

It’s much more than “stop, drop and roll”.

I don’t know about you, but I worry. I worry about if I’ve left the stove on, if I forgot to respond to an important email, or if I said something that hurt my coworker’s feelings that one time a billion years ago.

Now can you imagine being in charge of a nonprofit organization’s entire image? Bottom line, nonprofits must serve their mission. They cannot do this to the best of their ability if the organization’s reputation is floundering. That is why there is help online for these organizations to really make the best out of their business and excel in it too. Sites like are where you can find help with organization to keep on top of everything and not run the risk of dropping the ball. The software available to these businesses is so advanced these days it is hard for anything to go wrong. However, nonprofits are there to serve a mission and if this purpose is not achieved then help might be needed.

Take two different nonprofits who have found themselves in recent (recent in the nonprofit world) years-Susan G. Komen in February 2012 and Oxfam International in February 2018.

Neither of these organizations used social media to their benefit. In Komen’s case, their controversial announcement to defund Planned Parenthood incited a tidal wave of criticism, which Planned Parenthood leveraged using social media to raise nearly $600,000 in 24 hours. Komen “remained silent for those first 24 hours-a move roundly denounced by public relations professionals-and when it finally launched a PR counteroffensive, the message fell flat.”

Oxfam was also silent. The organization was silent on social media regarding the issue before and directly after news of their scandal hit headlines. Oxfam, who was in hot water over allegations that members of their senior aid staff paid for prostitutes while working in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, ultimately tried to cover it up. They attempted to keep a low profile, and then after much silence, released a lackluster apology once cornered.

Either of these situations would be my actual nightmare. So for me, having a crisis communication plan to lean on is the failsafe I need in order to worry less. Both Susan G Komen and Oxfam International have lost hundreds of thousands in monetary support as well as the public’s trust–all bad for their respective missions.

The goal of crisis management is to prevent fires and catch any before they burn your mission to the ground. Joanne Fritz at Balance – Small Business mentions six ways to be prepare:

Don’t wait: Many organizations only get their crisis plans underway once a disaster has struck. 

Realize that crises take many shapes:Crises come in all flavors. Some are high profile. Others might be more low key. But, in a time of 24/7 news, thinking you can keep the situation out of the public eye is a fantasy.

Develop a logistical plan and communication plan:A logistical plan has to do with getting everyone out of the building in case of an earthquake or how to handle a medical emergency. A communications plan involves identifying spokespeople, assigning someone to gather the facts as they emerge, writing press releases, and locating a place to have a press conference.

Get your social media house in order:Social media can be a blessing during a crisis IF it you handle it well.

Prepare to speak:Every minute counts after a crisis. Don’t waste any of them. Silence is deadly. Get out with appropriate statements and messages immediately, even if it is only to say that you know about the situation, you’re working on it, and that few facts are known at the moment.

Provide media training:Media training will be your best friend during a crisis. Don’t risk a media meltdown.

Preparation helps me feel like an organization might not be destroyed by crisis. Bernstein Crisis Management also provides a deep dive into their nonprofit-tailored crisis communication approach-featuring not six, but TEN focused steps similar to those listed above!

Bottom line, don’t let the flames engulf the good work that your organization does and the mission that makes your nonprofit’s world go round. As nonprofit professionals, we owe it to our communities to make smart communications decisions-especially in crises.

Be prepared.

Twitter: @kaisalightfoot

4 thoughts on “Putting out Nonprofit PR Fires: Crisis Communication

  1. I’m also a worrier, but the way you laid this out made me feel much less anxious about the possibility of bad PR happening within the nonprofit world. It’s definitely possible for issues to arise, but I agree that having a great crisis communication plan is what will save face within a tricky situation.

    I had heard of the Komen/Planned Parenthood scandal, but the Oxfam one was new to me. It blows my mind that any organization would think trying to hide allegations was a good idea, especially when nonprofits are particularly focused on donor funding. I can’t imagine being one of their bigger donors and then hearing about not only the allegations, but the way in which they were handling it. It’s no wonder they lost a bunch of monetary support.

  2. Hi Kaisa,

    I enjoyed reading your blog, as I think everyone has worries in the back of their mind whether it is something big or small. I think a lot of people overlook what non-profits do and how the Komen/Planned Parenthood did benefit from staying off of social media during that crisis. It is always very beneficial to have a crisis communication plan in place for any brand or business. I also really like the point you made, “don’t let the flames engulf the good work” since this is a lot of peoples worst fears; I think being prepared for a media crisis is always a good idea!

  3. It’s a catch-22, one that we have discussed at length in our nonprofit classes – the general public expects nonprofits to operate without overhead (somehow), but then lambast these organizations when they don’t have the staffing or plans in place to be able to manage these kinds of crises. I think we’re seeing a rise in regard for social media strategy and media planning, but for so many nonprofits this is still wayyyyyy down at the bottom of priorities. Obviously, as the world gets smaller and social media becomes even more widespread, we will have to talk about this more and more in the nonprofit world.

    Quick soapbox for any non-nonprofit folks reading this: NONPROFITS NEED OVERHEAD. That’s how they pay people to manage these kinds of things and it’s ridiculous to expect us to operate without it. Don’t be fooled when you see those infographics (especially around the holidays) about how much a nonprofit’s money goes toward staffing and operational costs and blaming them for paying their people.

  4. I appreciate that you have taken such an honest approach with this topic. I think that if we assume that we can handle fires when they come up or we take a we’ll-cross-that-bridge-when-we-get-there approach then we may be setting ourselves up for failure. Personally, my brain goes blank when I’m put on the spot about something so the better prepared I can be, the better. Of the six ways to handle a crises I liked the “provide media training” suggestion the best. I get my news from social media so I’d expect to see responses to crises on social media as well as the regular new outlets. And if an organization’s media team gets training ahead of time then they will be able to respond immediately and have statements ready to be posted. It’s so cheesy, but I agree with “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.”

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