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Being the Calm in the Storm: Crisis Response Tips for Associations

Dianna Steinbach writes about the role of a leader during the development of a crisis.

As industry leaders, associations often are the first place a profession turns to when a crisis unfolds, looking for signals regarding how they can navigate uncharted waters or difficult situations. It is in these moments character is built and member loyalty can be cemented. Given the perma-crisis status international organizations currently find themselves in, it is a good time for a refresher on crisis response.

Ideally, a crisis response plan is developed before it is needed, but the reality is many associations run from one focus to the next and improvise as they face new situations. If you don't have a crisis response plan, there are a series of steps you can take to quickly assess a situation, decide how to proceed and properly communicate your message to the relevant stakeholders. The same tips used to craft crisis communications also can be helpful when deciding association actions during a difficult time.

First, determine what level of situation you are facing.

Level 1: A situation that doesn’t negatively impact the organization or members, but where the organization can have a positive impact for those affected. This could be a seasonal flu outbreak; natural disaster; or industry-related issue, such as regulatory changes, where the association has specific expertise that can be useful or a position it wishes to take. Typically this requires an initial position statement or alert, as well as possible tips for action.

Level 2: A situation that has a direct and negative impact on the association, its industry, or its members. This usually warrants immediate attention. Examples could be a regional disease epidemic, negative public impact due to a member’s actions or a data breach involving member information.

These situations need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis to determine the merit of proactively joining the discussion or not and likely require preparation to respond to inquiries or media requests. Depending on if a tragedy has occurred, legal advice may be required. Most often when a member is involved, the association should take care regarding making a stand for or against that member, instead of focusing on the industry’s stance on the topic, yet appropriately acknowledging those who are negatively impacted.

Level 3: A situation that is critical and immediate. This can be an incident that results in a fatality or poses an immediate threat to safety or public health, such as a pandemic outbreak, terrorism incident at a member location or a fatality within staff or a member group. The association ideally should not insert itself into the story, but be prepared to thoughtfully respond to media requests and to provide ongoing subject matter advice on steps to mitigate the situation or prevent harm.

What to consider when determining next steps:

1. Gather information: Try to get the best information you can from multiple sources, speak to members impacted, if possible, to understand the situation. Above all, try to remove the emotion from your decision-making and stick to facts.

Questions to ask include:

  • Is anyone in immediate danger?

  • Have we taken actions to mitigate the crisis so far? If not, what actions are required first? Do we have precedent for how we have handled a similar crisis before?

  • Who within staff needs to be included to assess the situation, make any decisions or craft any messages?

  • Are there any stakeholders who need to be informed or queried?

  • What questions will likely be asked of the organization?

2. Determine your position. Make any relevant decisions with the proper leadership or subject matter experts. Once the proper actions are decided:

  • Draft a holding statement for review by the legal and/or executive team.

  • Develop talking points for internal and external use.

  • Determine a central location to place all relevant resources for staff, members or outside stakeholders. These may differ between internal and external information.

  • Gather any existing materials and determine what new material needs to be developed.

  • Know who has to respond to what. This can be your Executive Director/CEO, your board members, your head of marketing and any key subject matter experts.

  • Depending on the impact to your own organization, your HR leader also may need to deliver key messages.

  • Ideally, a main spokesperson maintains continuity. However, if multiple people are addressing various audiences, you will need to ensure they all maintain a core message.

  • If members have questions, ensure that customer service or other staff have an FAQ to speak from.

4. Determine what channels to use for member communication and external communication to the public or other key stakeholders. Also, determine what information will be publicly shared and what will be member-only. If the crisis is widespread or public, err on the side of making basic resources publicly available, which proves your organization’s good intentions and lends credibility.

If the situation is ongoing and further resources develop, you can create a funnel by which more detailed information, recordings or other levels of information become member-only or for a minimal fee. Be careful not to come across as taking financial advantage of the situation.

Main mediums to deliver your messaging:

  • Website. Whether fresh statements are placed in a prominent location, in your news feed or you create a special library of information to share as the situation develops.

  • Email. To members, outside stakeholders, partners or vendors impacted.

  • Social media. Statements, updates or sharing of resources.

  • Releases. Targeting relevant media with a controlled message or offers to make subject matter experts available for interviews.

  • Townhall meetings. Whether in person or virtual, these allow direct contact with members, allowing them to share experiences or ask questions.

  • Webinars. Offering further tips and the ability to ask questions, which can be recorded and shared.

  • Videos. More engaging than releases and easy to produce as the situation unfolds.

  • Articles. More in-depth advice for ongoing support with less time sensitivity.

Crisis Management Tips to Consider:

1. Be wise of timing. In crises with an immediate impact, quick communication is key to maintaining calm and order. However, speaking before having the facts can lead to missteps. Make sure to take the time to evaluate the situation properly before reacting. Some situations may only warrant a simple statement of your position without further updates, while others may need ongoing updates as the situation develops.

2. Be clear. Try to offer a simple and easy-to-understand message. What is the crisis and what is your organization doing to address it? What call to action are you asking for? What steps do you suggest others take to address the situation? If a topic is complex, how can you simplify it? Would visual tips help make your advice clear?

3. Support your mission, vision, and values. What does your organization strive to accomplish? What does it value and how is your message or action supporting that goal? Not all decisions are easy or unanimously accepted, but if you are making them in the spirit and support of your members/industry and can articulate that connection, it can make it easier to understand. Consider the long-term impact of positions and actions, as well as consequences of setting precedent.

4. Be honest. If you don’t have all the information, state that. If the situation is still unfolding and actions may change, state that and provide a location to find updates. Be prepared to not please everyone. Listening to members’ differing views can maintain their respect even if you have to take a different stance than they would prefer. Try not to convince members to change their opinions, rather explain why you have taken the position you have and why.

5. Be fair. Weigh the impact of what you state in terms of alienating any relevant stakeholder. Consider the impact on the broader membership if the issue is focused in one member category, geographic region or only related to a single member or group of members. Especially in contentious situations, avoid generalizations and emotional statements. Stick to the facts.

6. Correct mistakes or misinformation quickly. If new information requires new direction, state that and clearly differentiate the newest information with dates.

7. Show compassion. Your organization won’t be the only one impacted and you will need to acknowledge that others are dealing with the crisis as well. You may want to share links to other relevant organizations addressing the crisis or encourage support of others that are addressing the crisis in a way that also aligns with your position.

8. Make sure your message is consistent across all mediums. Members and other stakeholders may not look in the same locations, so proper coverage with the same message is important for creating continuity and clarity. Create tracking to ensure updates are posted across all mediums, to avoid outdated information lingering in some locations, which can cause confusion.

9. Gather your mass. When advocating on behalf of your industry or profession on a specific topic, especially in advocacy situation, determine how you can gather like-minded members behind a single position. What grass-roots efforts can you encourage that multiply your voice through members reaching out to legislators or regulators? What other organizations can you ally with to put more weight behind a common message?

10. Don't feel you have to face the challenge alone. Check in with peers, whether in the association world or in other fields, who may be addressing the crisis from various valuable perspectives.

11. Celebrate success. Often, teams are so preoccupied during a crisis and so exhausted at the end that they forget to communicate the positive results achieved. Members have short memories, especially if they are busy addressing an issue within their own companies. Regular communications or summaries of wins can help reinforce how the association has supported members, advocated for a topic and, ultimately, provided more value at a critical moment.

A crisis is never easy to navigate, especially those that are tragic or prolonged. However, if you have a history of doing the right thing for your members and you maintain a servant-leader approach, attempting to leverage the association’s expertise or position to be a positive influence, then you will gain respect for your best efforts and steady leadership in difficult times.


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