Nonprofit Branding: How To Survive a Media Feeding Frenzy

Your nonprofit made a mistake. Print and broadcast media want a statement.

On the record. For the public.

From you!

Your brand is threatened, and you are in the hot seat. What to do? What not to do?

Calm down. We’ll show you how to handle the situation. You’re not the first to face this problem. In fact, our friend Ira Glass and the crew at This American Life recently had a potential public relations disaster of their own, thanks to a now infamous monologue by Mike Daisy. We’ll discuss how they expertly weathered that storm. But first, let’s go over three stages of handling a nonprofit public relations crisis.

STAGE ONE – Prepare and Analyze

Postpone any conversation with the press. The media contacted you on its own schedule, right? So respond to them on yours. Do not be stampeded. But don’t indefinitely delay your response: coverage will likely be worse if the story runs without your contribution.

Take a deep breath. Give yourself time to think.

Gather the facts. Evaluate possible consequences to public disclosure.

Inform the chairperson of your board. This is critical. Don’t mention suicide. That’s also critical. Urge your chair to accept these two principles:

Principle: As the Hired Hand, you will speak to the press and take the heat over the problem….but only after you and your chair agree on strategy and message content.

Principle: The board must provide continuity and strength.

Your professional responsibility is to serve as spokesperson. Remember this – board support may erode as the issue plays out in public. So, make sure your chair is solid from the beginning. During this difficult period of public scrutiny, effective board leadership guarantees a process of constructive self-examination and possible reform. That will reassure the public. Your organization will emerge stronger, more productive and better focused on mission…but only if your board remains committed.

STAGE TWO – Get Your Head on Straight

When managing crisis communications attitude is everything. Your best shot at having an effective attitude is to establish a context of understanding. Reflect on two realities – one a general, universal social reality and the other a composite of specific examples. Here they are…..

THE UNIVERSAL REALITY: Consider how the public forms an opinion.

Remember how forgiving the public can be. And how cynical. Think about how the American people respond favorably to sincere acknowledgement and contrition. Remember also that they just as easily reject self-serving baloney. There is no room for false piety when managing crisis communications.

THE SPECIFIC REALITY: Then take those general principles and think about how otherwise solid people behaved like fifth graders when they make a public mistake.

Think about Rush Limbaugh, Mel Gibson, Enron, Herman Cain, Rupert Murdock, Halliburton, Bill Clinton. Add your own examples. When they screwed up, which one offered the dumbest response to the public?

Think about the Exxon Valdez. Didn’t Exxon management first claim the captain was sober and only one harmless teacup of oil spilled into the ocean?

How about Wall Street Buccaneers? They told us their new riches came from the markets, and fraud had nothing to do with it.

Can’t forget those religious and political leaders. The ones who were High on Piety? What did each of them say when caught with their pants down – literally?

And Komen! How much we can learn from that example of brand implosion through mismanagement of messaging?

Get the point? Remember the General Principle: the public forgives admitted error and rejects self-serving baloney.

Focus your understanding of the General Principle by remembering the Specific Examples. They tell you that offering excuses, distractions and evasions is the defensive response of Bozos who do not trust the public and who cannot admit error.

That approach ALWAYS blows up on those who attempt it.

STAGE THREE – Respond to the Media

So now it is time for you to step up to bat. Present the facts clearly. Leave out the unicorns, flowers and poetry. If the concern is valid, admit error. Say “the mistake is ours. We will do our best to prevent future occurrences. We will try to correct the damage that was created.”

Acknowledge error. And say no more.

If the claim is valid – do not deny. (I am not a crook. That is not my child. I did not have plastic surgery.)

If the claim is valid – do not play with words. (If anyone was somehow inconvenienced in any way, we are sorry. I did NOT have sex with that woman. I met my legal obligation by telling the campus police.)

If the claim is valid – do not place blame. (If only the state regulators had told me in time. We were misinformed. Understaffed as we are, it’s a miracle things didn’t get worse.)

If the claim is partially valid or somewhat overblown, you can separate the false claims from the accurate ones. (Careful here – you must not appear to be quibbling when making that distinction.) Validate your assertion with independent confirmation. Remember: a denial is weak, but a denial that stands on evidence is strong.

DISCLOSURE: The Bottom Line summarizes the key points. It then gives an example of good brand stewardship involving Ira Glass, a friend and business associate. We make merchandise for his public radio program, This American Life. One item, in production now, is a Flash Drive which was destined to include the now infamous episode: “Mr. Daisy And The Apple Factory.” Fortunately, we had time to halt production and replace the story before shipping it to stations and their contributors. Now for the Bottom Line and the Ira Glass example.

Take time to get your act together…. remember the public has a powerful aversion to overt or implicit deception but warmly applauds honest disclosure…. make good choices about what should and should not be said…anticipate temporary disruption within the organization…. make the incident become a source of organizational reform and empowerment. (Follow the same approach if a problem occurs and you choose to break the story yourself instead of waiting for mass media to pick up the scent and come to you.)

Here’s an example of how to do it right: in mid-March Ira Glass, producer and host of the acclaimed public radio program This American Life, made a startling announcement to the press. He had just learned that a monologue he broadcast a couple months earlier had contained bogus information. In short: performer Mike Daisy claimed to experience things he simply had not. To an audience of several million listeners the program presented Daisey’s lies as fact.

Ira’s announcement, which you can read here, contained plenty of detail. But it did not stray from the fundamental point: Ira and his team accepted lies as fact, broadcast those lies as fact and were now identifying them as dishonest. They retracted the episode, apologized to the audience and vowed their future fact-checking would be more thorough. Period. No evasion. No blame placing. No fancy words. No quibbling. Just an honest statement that respected the integrity and common sense of the audience.

They even dedicated an entire episode to their retraction, which you can listen to here.

For a week thereafter I traced public reaction by reading comments attached to blogs and news coverage. I kept a tally. Three categories: 100% positive; mixed reaction; moderately to 100% negative. (Note that I built in a bias towards the negative.) Nevertheless, after 143 comments I quit counting. The numerical tally revealed a landslide of support. The score: 7 negative/hostile; 22 mixed (neither fully negative nor fully positive) and 114 enthusiastically positive. LANDSLIDE!

RESULTS: The public accepted Ira’s apology and explanation. In nearly every venue or survey it reported admiration for the way he handled the situation. By acting with integrity, and with respect for the public, the Ira Glass and This American Life brands were protected…. and even enhanced.

Mike Daisy, on the other hand, made plenty of public statements. He committed nearly every one of the stupid mistakes this post is warning you about. While the bulk of the press applauded Ira and This American Life, the Mike Daisey brand took an awful beating.


One thought on “Nonprofit Branding: How To Survive a Media Feeding Frenzy

  1. Pingback: Sandusky. Child Abuse. Penn State: Nonprofit Branding Lessons From a Toxic Soup | Nonprofit Branding Blog

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