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'People Will Remember It' - What is Your Crisis Communication Plan?

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By Theresa Witham

Associations have had a crash course in crisis management during the past few months as we quickly learned how to respond to COVID-19.

“Even if you didn’t have a plan for this exact scenario, if you already had a [crisis communication] plan in place it helped you respond,” said Ami Neiberger-Miller, APR, MA, founder of SteppingStone, LLC, during an Association Media & Publishing webinar last week.

Neiberger-Miller was reprising her popular 2019 AM&P Annual Meeting breakout session about responding to a public relations crisis, updated for the current situation.

A crisis is anything that can damage the reputation of your association—anything that can cause a loss of trust, and any risk to the health, lives and safety of your staff, members, clients and other stakeholders. COVID-19 has potential to damage on all three fronts.

“For a lot of people, thinking on your feet was really important after March. It still is,” she said. “The people who did well, who moved quickly, had done well around fast decision making. They had clear decision streams and were able to put out information quickly.”

As the crisis continues, “being honest and authentic still counts a lot,” she said.

Also, empathy wins in your communication, especially when having to deliver bad news to people. Do you have to cancel a popular meeting or event? “People notice when you acknowledge those losses” and disappointments in your communications, Neiberger-Miller said.

What if you made a quick decision but it was the wrong decision? Perhaps your first response didn’t resonate with members or the situation has already changed. “I think you just explain what happened,” she said. “Most people are reasonable.”

Also, you can walk it back and say something along the lines of: “We made the best decision we had with the information we had at that time. Now the situation has changed, and we’ve decided we need to take a different approach.”

What should associations be doing now? Build up your social media and email lists, she suggested. Your members are looking for information from you and at the same time many are overwhelmed by the news and will welcome the distraction.

“People will remember it,” if you are doing things to help them get through, she said. 

Finally, be gentle and patient with yourself. “I’ve worked in a lot of different crises and I’ve never worked in one quite like this,” she acknowledged.

“That is something we don’t always talk about with crisis. Many are working long hours, juggling a lot to stress …. Plan check-ins with your key people. See what you can do to help give them breaks and relief.”

Anticipate PR Problems

COVID-19 has shown us that we need a plan for potential problems before they become reality. Neiberger-Miller offers the following tips for prepping for disaster:

·         Look for vulnerabilities.
·         Make a list of anything that could go wrong.
·         If your association has property, have a plan for different kinds of crises involving the building, such as a fire, natural disaster, gas leak or active shooter.
·         If your association has events, have a plan for a crisis. Use the same list as above and add others such as an attendee health emergency, speaker cancellation, speaker controversy and, of course, pandemic. Also consider protestors or rogue members who are unhappy with an association decision.  
·         Remember to include people behaving badly in your planning. What would your association do if your event has a Me Too crisis involving a speaker, member or employee?

Build Your Toolkit

Now is a good time to put together your crisis communication toolkit. Having a folder—both physical and virtual—with the following information will help you get through the next crisis. 

·         Access codes and passwords for your website press area, homepage and members-only section (plus the training or a cheat sheet on how to do the updates yourself).
·         Access to your association’s social media accounts. “This is no time for single manager accounts,” Neiberger-Miller explained.
·         Templates for press releases and statements built out for various scenarios
·         Contact list for staff. Do you have everybody’s home and cell phone numbers? “When people were scrambling to shut down their offices, I think a lot of people got a big wakeup call about how ... siloed information really is,” she said.
·         Access to staff vacation schedule so you’ll know who is in and out of town
·         Access to your media lists and media distribution system

Don’t start from scratch! Neiberger-Miller shared three examples of association crisis communication toolkits:

·         American Camp Association  
·         National Mining Association
·         Produce Marketing Association 

“You never know what your next crisis will be but if you have some of those pieces in place, it will be easier for you,” Neiberger-Miller said.

Theresa Witham is the managing editor/publisher at CUES and oversees the association’s monthly CU Management magazine and its online content hub at Contact her at