Home > communications, Resources > How to Communicate In The Midst Of Tragedy: 9-Step Checklist

How to Communicate In The Midst Of Tragedy: 9-Step Checklist

by Nancy Schwartz from Getting Attention!

Like you, my heart and head are heavy in the wake of yesterday’s bombings in Boston. Especially since I feel so helpless.

I had a completely different post planned today, but wanted to respond a.s.a.p. to the questions, worries and just totally-wrong communications I’ve seen going out since the bombings yesterday afternoon.

Most of this outreach was harmless, but simply a mismatch with what’s on our minds right now. Because most of us are feeling horror, sadness, fear, uncertainly and a sense of helplessness and vulnerability.

Here are my right-now recommendations for your organization’s response.

Please share your strategies, and add your questions and feedback here.
We are much smarter together.

 1. Get Off Auto-Pilot

Given our collective state of mind, some of the nonprofit outreach I saw yesterday was absolutely inappropriate—like the e-invite I received at 7:19 PM yesterday fromSave the Children via Harris Interactive, asking me to respond to its survey.

This email came in as the details of deaths and serious injuries continued to flow, including the death of an 8-year-old boy and the critical status of his mom and sister.

Let’s put aside the fact that Harris told me the survey would take 25 minutes of my time (won’t ever happen) and focus on the horrendous oversight here—this campaign was clearly auto-scheduled and on auto-pilot.

As a result, this ask missed the mark by 1,000 miles, coming across as a huge “who cares” by Save the Children. If I was in charge of this survey, I’d put it on ice for now.

Our state of mind doesn’t get more ungrounded than it is right now. So be ultra-sensitive.

 2. But Don’t Just Go Dark Either

Your cause and work is vital to making this a better world.

And although it may seem easiest to go dark right now, please don’t. Your network counts on your work to carry our world to a better place.

Proceed slowly and strategically, but do proceed. The last thing we need is staying stuck right here.

 3. Use Your Relevancy Lens—Relevance Rules More Than Ever Post-Tragedy

What’s top of mind for your network is the only lens that matters, now more than ever. Put yourself in the shoes of your prospects and supporters. What are they focused on now?

It’s likely to be fear, horror, sadness, empathy, helplessness and/or anger. That’s your cue.

Your own agenda must fall behind for the balance of the week, at the very least, unless there’s a real, organic link to bombing-related issues.

It’s never productive to communicate into that environment at the moment of. You’re not missing an opportunity if you push on, and you risk alienating your network if you blindly push on with plans.

4. Right Now—Show You Care

Show your support for the Boston/Marathon community and empathize with the shock and sadness your supporters are likely to feel via Twitter or a brief Facebook post.

Social media is an ideal way to let your supporters know you’re with them right now, and to share words of comfort. That’s the kind of response that puts a human face on your organization.

Here’s a good this-morning model from the Community Foundation of Sarasota County.

Post-Boston1

5. Right Now—Hold Scheduled Outreach Till You Review

Immediately unschedule what you have lined up to release today and for the balance of the week. You’ll reschedule what’s in line with your base’s state of mind after a brief review.

Automating outreach is a lifesaver, but also a potential snafu at times of crisis. It’s auto-schedule, not auto-pilot.

I saw so many pre-scheduled tweets, Facebook posts and emails go out yesterday afternoon, in the hours following the bombings when we were in the spell of first shock. As a result, I received these “business as usual” communications, at a time when nothing was usual, which caused a huge disconnect.

Stay real, and stay respectful. That will ensure your relevance in good times and bad.

6. A.S.A.P Today—Review Your Marketing & Fundraising Plans For Next 10 Days

Link your message to the bombing only if there is an organic link (e.g. children’s health and well-being, violence prevention, gun safety, public safety, anti-terrorism.)
Otherwise, avoid trying to capitalize on a tragedy. You’ll fail, miserably.

If your organization isn’t working to help the Boston/Marathon community or related issues, consider taking a couple of days off from your asks.
Those in support of your issue are already making contributions and circulating petitions. But it’s too raw  today to start persuading others, or even showing them how they can help avert future disasters like this one.

Depending on our mood and focus over the course of the week, pick the right time to dive back in with a moving forward focus. That may be Thursday, but may be next week.

Instead, craft your outreach for later in the week so you’ll organize most powerfully,  galvanizing disheartened supporters to join you in action for a better future. The exception, of course, is if you’re helping the affected community directly.

Change any metaphors or analogies you use that feature bombs, explosion and the like in not-yet-published content for the next two weeks.
These are some of the most-used references, usually used in a positive way (but there is no positive now). Think exploding with daffodils (from a Facebook post this morning from one of my favorite botanical gardens) or the fact that the star’s first Broadway show absolutely bombed (in the e-newsletter scheduled to drop tomorrow from one of my performing arts clients).

Such references can’t be used gratuitously for the immediate future. Comb your coming content carefully.

Get speed input on your revised approach today with colleagues on the ground and members of your marketing advisory group

These are the folks who are in touch with your base (and are your network members), and you need their insights.

If you don’t have a marketing advisory group already in place, reach out to a few current supporters in each of your segments, asking for five minutes of their time for a quick call.

7. Share Your Revised Approach With Your Colleagues & Ask Them To Share What They Hear

Even though your colleagues’ may not have been aware of your plan for your marketing and fundraising outreach in the next ten days, update them on what’s changed and why.

Here’s why:

  • It’s just basic respect, and you should do this on an ongoing basis.
  • Many of these folks are in close contact with your target audiences in their daily work, and have the opportunity to focus those conversations appropriately—but only if you share your approach!
  • They’re also most likely to get the feedback that shows you you’re taking the right path, or have to recalculate. Ask, train and support them in doing so. It helps all of you!

8. Next 10 Days—Move Forward With Your Ear Close to the Ground

It’s still early in this tragedy, and events are yet to unfold. So stay close to what’s top of mind for your network (and the rest of us) through this week and next.

Go ahead and schedule coming campaigns across channels, but review what’s scheduled on a daily basis.

9. By End of April—Craft a Crisis Communications Plan That Includes Shared Tragedies Like This One

I recommend placing review of queued-up communications at the top of your crisis communications checklist, whether it’s a crisis within your org or outside of it. In many cases, crises outside of your organization impact your network of supporters and partners equally, if not more than, crises that effect your nonprofit.

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