How should trustees handle a comms crisis?

We’re always told that preparation is the best form of defence. But let’s face it, no matter how prepared you are the reality is nothing can shield you from a comms crisis emerging from around the corner at any time – especially when you are part of the charity sector.

Trustees, as advocates of their organisations, play a key role in helping navigate a path through the complex situations that arise – where solutions are often far from black and white. But they should also remember they are also supporting those on the frontline. With that in mind, here are some key things for trustees handling a comms crisis to think about.

Before the crisis:

• Ensure there’s a crisis plan and everyone is familiar with it
Risk and reputation management are inextricably linked to comms practice so you should have a clear crisis plan in place that has been set up directly with your team. As the charity Scope says: “The best crisis communications happen before there is a crisis”.

• Working with your team, you should establish practical protocols and up to date contact lists Create appropriate cascade lists for disseminating information to stakeholders, and clearly delegate lines of responsibility with good spokespeople identified and ready to call upon. Also put in place an agreed crisis alert system with speedy sign off.

• Be familiar with your risk register
In order to be as prepared as possible, it is important trustees periodically sit down with their charity’s CEO and senior staff to update the organisation’s risk register. Essentially this is all about being aware of potential risks that could impact your organisation and how they can be managed and monitored.

During the crisis:

• Be contactable
Have clear channels of contact in place that your charity’s team can reach you on and use to alert all trustees on any crisis situations as quickly as possible. It also means keeping the lines of communication open and using them. There should be a clear response team in place where everyone knows their responsibilities and how to maintain lines of communication so make sure you know what your role on this is. Stay in contact, stay present and be prepared to help.

• Be transparent
Follow the advice of the British Heart Foundation and make sure all your messaging revolves around the principle “tell it all, tell it fast and tell the truth”. Being transparent about what is going on is key to maintaining trust and this is something both you and your team should be clear about whilst ensuring you are all staying on message and have agreed language for communicating what is going on.

• Stay calm and trust in your team
Try not to panic. Yes when crises hit they can be bad but how you and your team deal with them can actually have a positive effect in terms of your reputation. Your team on the ground are likely to know the minutiae of the situation so when they come to you for advice you need to make sure you listen to them too. Trustees need to know what is going on and be able to intervene to ensure appropriate systems are working but they also need to be prepared to be advised on reputation issues by the comms team who are the expert paid professionals in this area. Be the sounding board, help teams in the midst of the crisis see the bigger picture and be ready provide your own unique skills if the situation requires but ultimately have trust in your team.

After the crisis:

• Learn and reflect
Monitor your systems and make sure to review and capture lessons for future. Crises are tough, we all do the best we can but ultimately we also need to learn from them and this is something trustees can really help their teams with in the long run. This is also a good opportunity to take the time to thank staff and trusted internal stakeholders for their support and a job well done.

Christine Fleming, is senior digital officer at Charity Comms

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