photo courtesy of United Nation via Unsplash
3 min Read
September 10, 2020

Messaging during times of crisis: Tips from the experts

Nonprofits play a vital role in the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the centuries-long crisis of anti-Black racism that has recently been placed in the spotlight again. To get a better understanding of effective crisis messaging and specific insights into reacting to COVID-19 and the crisis of anti-Black racism, I interviewed two communications experts: Chandra M. Hayslett, Communications Director at the Center for Constitutional Rights, and Pablo Toledo, Executive Vice President at Camino PR, a strategic communications agency. 

Q: What do you think audiences and communities are looking for from nonprofits in a time of crisis? 

Pablo: When a community is in crisis, they immediately begin to weigh who to trust and turn to. Nonprofits ideally fill an important role as a trusted community partner in solving a problem—that means they must be authentic, reliable and transparent.  Organizations that are nimble and can respond and evolve quickly in crisis tend to be the most relevant.

Chandra: Audiences will look to nonprofits to be trusting, empathetic, and open during a crisis, especially if the communities themselves are connected to the crisis. The information shared should be backed up by facts and delivered with care.

Q: How do those expectations change based on what people are expecting from nonprofits related to COVID-19? What about the crisis of anti-Black racism? 

Chandra: When dealing with COVID-19 and anti-Black racism, audiences will be looking for the same as a regular crisis, but with a deeper acknowledgment of the pain and suffering of the affected communities during the crises that are life and death. Audiences dealing with the anti-Black racism crisis will be looking for how they can help and what they can do personally do. This could be an opportunity to move your audiences from transactional to transformative solidarity: from just posting a picture and hashtag from a march they participated into inviting members of the community to that same march, having difficult conversations with those community members, and attending Black Lives Matter meetings.

Pablo: The crisis of anti-black racism specifically is a situation where you cannot separate the external communications from the internal. There needs to be a through-line between your media and your internal culture-building efforts – otherwise, you’re not being true to the movement you are supporting, and that misalignment will show up publicly.

Q: What are the most important messages or ideas for a nonprofit to communicate during a crisis? 

Chandra: If their work is directly related to the crisis, the nonprofit should be sharing facts about the crisis, especially if their audiences and communities are getting misleading information from other sources. Other important messages and ideas nonprofits should communicate with their audiences include solidary statements; audiences will want to know they are not alone in dealing with the crisis; nonprofits should not be afraid to acknowledge their or their audiences’ fears in these statements; how the staff at the nonprofit staff are faring; and how the work programmatic is shifting. If the nonprofit is making commitments to how they will approach/work to end the crisis, their audience will want to hear those. 

Q: How should nonprofits whose missions aren’t directly connected to these various crises respond?

Chandra: Nonprofits with platforms should share them with individuals from impacted organizations. Nonprofits can also amplify and share the responses of other nonprofits that are connected to the crises.

Pablo: Avoid co-opting important social issues for your own gain and be cautious about being performative—if you communicate about your work surrounding these issues, it has to be substantive. 

Q: How important is having a “crisis spokesperson”? How should an organization choose that person? 

Chandra: The spokesperson is one of the most important people during a crisis. The spokesperson is not always the executive director. When choosing a spokesperson, organizations should look for someone who is authoritative and credible; has the ability to remain calm under pressure; previous media experience, particularly dealing with hostile media; reflects the organization’s brand and values; and charisma and empathy.

Pablo: Beyond one key spokesperson, it’s important to embrace the fact that in a crisis, journalists are as likely to seek commentary directly from staff members.  Keep your staff informed during a crisis, and provide support they may need to manage media inquiries.

Thank you to Chandra and Pablo for contributing their time and expertise. Elements of this interview have been edited for length.