August 2010 by Mike Smith

Audience: Executive Leadership, Shelter/Rescue Staff & Volunteers, Veterinary Team

Which of the following public relations developments constitutes a crisis?

A. The local paper trashes your new program and questions your commitment to saving animals;
B. Local residents are posting brutal comments online about your leadership team; or
C. A city official questions how much money taxpayers should continue to provide for the services you deliver.

The answer, typically, is none. But, in my experience working with animal welfare organizations, too often shelters and nonprofits panic at the first sign of criticism.

Certainly the above developments are not good, but before batting down the hatches and saying goodbye forever to public relations, you should determine if it is indeed a crisis. It very well may be if:

  • Staff or animals are in danger (e.g., a protest planned at an adoption fair might threaten the animals);
  • Your finances are in danger (e.g., donors are upset about something - rightfully or not - and stop donating);
  • There are signs that this problem will "go viral" (spread online) or be a continuing story if you don't intervene (i.e., it won't die down on its own); and/or
  • The public's awareness of the issue - through media coverage or other means - is permanently damaging your brand (as opposed to internal controversy that can be settled internally).

In the rare cases were you do have a crisis that requires action, it's important to remember these seven rules:

  1. Act quickly. Not impulsively, but fast action in the face of a crisis is critical.
  2. Get your facts together - and right.
  3. Develop your response plan and messages. Decide whether you need to publicly respond or deal more directly with the audiences affected. Both the plan and messages should start with your key audiences in mind. What do they value, care about and need to hear from you? Messages should be proactive and focused on solutions - not defensive.
  4. Show that you're in charge by exuding confidence, calm and attentiveness.
  5. Recognize that reporters have a job to do and will do it. Ignoring or working against them will backfire. If you can understand what they need for their bosses and audiences, you can better craft your messages to work for them - and you.
  6. Monitor effectiveness of your message delivery and distribution, and adapt based on immediate results.
  7. Never, ever lie. While you should frame information through your particular perspective and messages, anything inaccurate will come back to haunt you.

Or, as Bill Hutchison, Communications Director for the Santa Fe Humane Society in New Mexico, puts it: "If you don't tell lies, you can't get caught in lies."

Lies of omission also can be dangerous, so it's important to give reporters the full story that they're looking for - and will find on their own, if need be.

Hutchison and Santa Fe Humane's handling of layoffs in fall 2009 are an example of how to do it right. Because of the recession and a precipitous drop in donations, the shelter was forced to cut 10 percent of its staff. That's more than just a number; it's five full-time, dedicated employees who played important roles - and who live in a small city where news travels fast.

So Santa Fe Humane proactively planned a media strategy that anticipated media coverage, tried to limit it to the best channels to their key audiences, and (most importantly) would convey their messages.

Hutchison wanted to make sure that the community, especially donors and volunteers, knew that the shelter was "not a sinking ship that we want help bailing water out of," but rather an important institution that was still committed to the county's residents and animals. Yes, the shelter was struggling, but its mission and services were more important than ever, and it was positioning itself to have a greater impact in tough times and the future ahead.

Hutchison's first step was to set up an appointment on the day of the layoffs with The Santa Fe New Mexican, the daily paper that was a critical link to their supporters. Hutchison asked a reporter (with whom he'd built a strong relationship) to come out to the shelter at 2 pm to hear about some important news related to the future of the organization.

This was an hour after the layoffs, so Hutchison was able to quickly make himself and his executive director (Mary Martin), available to the reporter, as well as their Board president later on. They candidly relayed the number and types of layoffs, all in the context of how this was incredibly difficult but necessary for the long-term health and effectiveness of the shelter.

Examples of how this comes through in the actual article include:"Roddey Burdine, board president, said the shelter, like all nonprofits, has to make do with less money. But he said it's important to realize that there will be no change in the care and time given to each animal or the service the shelter provides."

  • "The hard decision to trim staff has ‘sickened' everyone, Martin said, but is necessary for a more stable future."
  • "‘Doing a thing that's hard comes out of being fiercely committed to the care of animals,' Hutchison said. ‘We have to guarantee that there's never going to be an empty space where animals need to be. This is what we do.'"

The resulting article was as good as it could possibly be about such bad news, successfully positioning the organization as in need of support but still committed to its mission and animals. It also strengthened their relationship with a key reporter who was able to get the "scoop" before anyone else.

This, too, was an intentional strategy. The other major paper in the area was the Northern New Mexico edition of the Albuquerque Journal, but the reporters who covered Santa Fe for the Journal frequently changed and were therefore less knowledgeable about or connected to the animal shelter.

Being "scooped" could mean that they would decide not to "follow" the Santa Fe paper's coverage - which would have been fine with Hutchison - but the Journal ultimately ran a shorter version of the original Santa Fe New Mexican story that was picked up by the Associated Press.

Another important part of Santa Fe Humane's post-layoff media strategy was to ensure that media outlets soon heard about more positive, feel-good stories about their programs and work. This is not just a critical part of post-crisis communications but also sound media strategy in general.

Organizations - especially animal shelters, which have numerous heartwarming stories of animals and their caregivers - should always plot out a calendar of positive stories to feed the media, either over time or strategically placed before/after bad news, fundraising efforts, etc.

"You can get one-time donations from a heartbreaking story, but feel-good stories and sustained communications are what lead to long-term donors," says Hutchison.

Such planning is important for ongoing communications, but it becomes particularly useful when a crisis rears its head. Previous planning and relationship-building will help you know which reporters/outlets to trust, and your audiences will have a more sympathetic view of your organization because of previous, more positive stories.

But, again, before launching into crisis mode, it's critical to diagnose your problem correctly. Why? First, you don't want an overreaction to make matters worse. And sometimes any reaction at all gives critics the chance to keep the argument going.

Second, you don't want to divert resources from other important public relations strategies that require your attention - and that provide more payoff than squabbling with the disgruntled.

Finally, you want to maintain the right perspective on communications - for your personal sanity and so that colleagues understand that the bad comes with the good, and that public relations are still a critical strategy for your organization.

I can't underscore this point enough - and not just because I make my living from it! Public relations, especially media relations, is an important and necessary strategy for building support for your organization, work and animal welfare in general.

Media stories carry a level of credibility and validity that a brochure or website cannot match. (Even though word-of-mouth is a very powerful marketing "channel" for you, it does not have the same caché and often can have its basis from media coverage itself.)

You likely have experienced the power of a good media story: friends and colleagues mention seeing it, donations come in out of the blue, calls or visits to your organization increase, etc.

But you've also likely experienced the challenges of media relations: a reporter looking for a controversial angle or sound bite, an inaccurate fact or quote casts your work in a negative light, a media outlet doesn't respond to what you see as a homerun of a story.

Both the positive and negative examples above are all the more reason to think strategically and work proactively to develop good media relations skills.

Here are just a few quick tips on how to do that. First, you must understand:

  • The reporter's audiences. That's who they're writing for, so knowing what those audiences care about will help you develop story ideas and messages that work for them and the reporters that cater to them.
  • What they've covered and are likely to cover. Act like you're the editor. Would you honestly consider your own news, based on what this outlet typically covers? Adjust accordingly; if local TV stations won't cover an adoption fair, perhaps they will air a story on a particular animal up for adoption that has a heartwarming or heartbreaking back story.
  • How they develop stories. TV stations, for example, operate on very tight timelines, are typically easier to reach by phone in the mornings than on email (at any time), need visuals, and really appreciate any footage you have. Knowing their needs, limitation and preferences will help you sell your stories.
  • They're not your friends. Even if you have a good history with them, no reporter is indebted to you or required to give you positive coverage. Always remember that.
  • They're not your enemies. They're real people, so don't put them on a pedestal that intimidates you. You could and should ask key reporters to lunch or coffee, which helps humanize them to you - and vice versa. But don't just chat; come prepared with updates on upcoming plans and story ideas that would work for their audiences.

Media relations is a high-risk, high-reward endeavor. But the rewards far outweigh the risks, especially for animal welfare organizations. (I work with various nonprofits and issue campaigns, and animal-related stories are far better fodder for strong media stories than any other.)

Reporters likely view you as committed people and organizations doing admirable, important work. You can be an incredible, trusted source of stories for them that benefit their work and your own. And, if your news is not good, you will want to be the ones working with them to shape the story - otherwise someone else will.

Mike Smith

Mike Smith is a vice president and leader of the Animal Welfare practice at Fenton, a public relations firm that works exclusively with nonprofits and foundations.