Three Principles in Crisis Communication

Three Principles in Crisis Communications

In the wake of the Oxfam scandal, many NGOs are beginning to look inward and reassess HR policies and whether or not reporting systems are adequate. After all, it only takes one crisis to fully upend an organization. Rebuilding credibility takes time and considerable effort. In this particular instance, headline after headline appears as more damaging news is uncovered, and local communities are calling for more inclusion into the international aid process.

As with any crisis communication scenario, there are a few principles that should be used. These principles are timeless, but can often be overlooked when things are going well and organizations are growing. Unfortunately, it can take a crisis to reevaluate the internal health of an NGO. Now would be a good time for all organizations to pause and reflect on the guiding principles in public relations.

1. Tell the truth

As with any organization, problems will arise and it is how you respond that changes your trajectory. First and foremost, you must tell the truth. What happened. Who was involved. What systems failed to bring the situation to light sooner.

Looking inward at what roadblocks may have occurred along the way are important. Only when you discover the system(s) in place that failed, will you be able to confidently fix the problem and communicate to your team, stakeholders, partners and the public that you have done the hard and necessary work to weed out future issues.

While difficult, being humble, admitting failure and then proactively moving toward a solution is the only way to adequately rebuild and allow the time it will take to grow from hardship. 

2. Strengthen Your Communications

Many organizations spend a lot of time and money on their external presence and marketing. But what are you spending on your internal communications? Are you regularly evaluating reporting systems and following up on frustrations with innovative solutions? As the trend goes to remote employees, increased travel and expanding international offices, it is paramount to find creative ways to communicate with all of your employees.

Perhaps you have regular meetings and reviews with staff at your headquarters, but what about international staff? Does everyone have a safe, confidential way to share concerns, and also to share success stories? As technology evolves, there is no excuse not to set up a secure reporting system for all of your employees. If you’re responding to your followers on Instagram then there is no excuse not to prioritize the value your international staff bring to the table. 

3. Be Transparent and Proactive

Building off of points one and two, your team building efforts should be transparent and proactive. What do I mean by that? When someone from the field shares a success, everyone should know. Likewise, if someone raises a concern you should be quick to follow up and listen to their story. Everyone needs to feel that they are being heard and an open communication system can change the workplace culture and foster an environment of collaboration and team building.

Corporate, top-down structures are becoming a thing of the past. It is time to think outside of the box and ensure that all of your staff are engaged and that their voices are given a platform. When your priority is investing in your team and collectively working toward your mission in the field, you will be able to expand your impact and do more good. 

While you can’t control the actions of your employees, if you invest in your team and work to give everyone an opportunity to contribute, and act swiftly if misconduct is found, you can better recover from any failure. Operating from the heart of your mission and building a team culture around that will better position you in any crisis communication situation. 

Don’t be afraid to do the humbling work now and truly evaluate the health of your employee culture and what changes need to be made in order to build a stronger team that is inspired to be an extension of your mission throughout the world.

Stefani Zimmerman Drake

Stefani is a strategy consultant + speaker with over a decade of experience working in the US government, international NGO space and with nonprofits. Currently on the UNDP's Roster of Communication Experts in Subsaharan Africa + certified in Google Analytics, Stefani is an analytical thinker and thoughtful storyteller who works with nonprofits + humanitarians to define who they are, elevate their influence and broaden their impact through strategic communications, branding + advocacy. Stefani lives in Charleston, South Carolina with her husband, twin girls and rescue dog.