Photo by Lauren Mancke on Unsplash
June 1, 2020

Navigating external communications during this time of crisis

Elizabeth Toledo

To watch or listen to this webinar, please complete the form at the bottom of this page.

During these challenging times, nonprofits are struggling to decide what to communicate externally. What should remain business-as-usual? What should adapt or get canceled? Should you reach out to the media or lay low? 

Big Duck is here to help– and we’ve enlisted some friends, too.

Sarah Durham hosted a conversation with Elizabeth Toledo, President of Camino PR, about crisis communications management. Sarah and Elizabeth shared guidance on what your organization can do to manage this tricky time with grace.

We offered fast, useful tactics and tools you can put into action ASAP.


Sarah Durham: Hey everybody, welcome to our webinar today. I am Sarah Durham. We are going to get started in just one minute. A lot of people are logging in currently. While we are waiting to get started, please know that there is a questions section or a chat section in your control panel and you can chat us questions throughout today’s conversation. I’ll be following along a bit in the, in the Q/A as we’re going and I’ll try to interject questions that feel really timely but we might save your questions for the end. There’s obviously a lot to talk about today and so I promise we’ll do our best to get to the questions. I’ll also be filtering them for the questions that have the broadest applicability to the group. We have several hundred people logged in today, so I want to make sure we get to the questions that are as relevant as possible for everybody. Yes the broadcast is being recorded and we will send out a link to you afterwards with a copy of the video. We will probably also transcribe it and post it online so that you can share it and you can reference the copy through the transcription. Okay, let’s get going. Everybody, I am Sarah Durham. I am the CEO of Big Duck and also the CEO of Advomatic. And I am joined today by Elizabeth Toledo. Welcome Elizabeth.

Elizabeth Toledo: Thank you.

Sarah Durham: Elizabeth is the president of…Sorry, a little, a little delay. I have a little glitchy internet here. Elizabeth is the president of Camino and award-winning communications firm with a specialty in helping mission-driven organizations. Elizabeth and the Camino team are on the front lines of helping leaders navigate external relations including media outreach, particularly during times of crisis and conflict. And for those of you who know Big Duck, you know that we are also a communications firm that works with nonprofits. We work exclusively with nonprofits and our focus is on branding and campaigns and communications capacity building. And as we have navigated what has been going on over the past few weeks with COVID, we’re getting asked a lot of questions about how to communicate. Both, how to communicate externally during this time of crisis, and also how to communicate internally when you might have a team that’s not used to working remotely or you have a big meeting to facilitate. So I asked Elizabeth to join me and basically have a kind of an informal conversation in public today about this. I’m going to be learning from her and I hope you will be learning from both of us and we’re going to be taking your questions and the goal today is really to share as many resources as we can with you. Just a couple of housekeeping pieces, in addition to recording and sending that out. We are also we are all…Farra Trompeter is tweeting right now and online and there is a hashtag which is in the chat box. It is #NPCovid19 If you want to follow along on Twitter or add to the conversation there, please do. We also have tech support. If you are having trouble hearing, I see a couple of people are saying there’s, they’re having some tech challenges. Please email [email protected] and Farra, maybe if you could chat that out too. I’m getting a couple of people saying they’re having audio challenges. Okay. So the format for today, I’m going to ask Elizabeth some questions. She might ask me some questions. We are going to both try to share a lot of examples and resources with you where we can, I will be trying to chat some of those resources as we go, but don’t worry about following along with the chat. If that’s challenging, we’ll send them out afterwards in a recap in the next couple of days. And please bear with us if we’re a bit messy. This is a new format for us, so we’re, we’re kind of winging it. But Elizabeth, to kick us off, this is clearly a very different time and new terrain for a lot of organizations. Is there any messaging or any advice that you would, you’d want to lead with that’s important for all organizations, no matter how big or small or what their mission is right now?

Elizabeth Toledo: Absolutely. I think that’s a great place to start. Even if you’re not in the public health field, if you haven’t already, I urge everybody to consider communicating the public health recommendations from trusted health authorities with your audiences. Everybody on this call knows that acting in solidarity with public health guidelines can literally save lives. And so, sometimes people need to hear these messages multiple times from multiple people that they trust or organizations that they trust. So, if you haven’t already done so, I encourage you to do that. But I want to talk about four danger areas. When you think about writing that content. Very quickly, first, don’t give health advice. You can promote health messages or share health messages from public health authorities, but if you’re not in the business of giving health advice, then don’t give your own health advice. Second, be really cautious about messages that could be perceived as fear-mongering. Third, don’t use shaming language about anything or about anyone. We just don’t know the difficult challenges that different people are experiencing as they hear these public health messages. And so keep your messages positive, not shaming, and then finally, uh, be very, very careful and cautious about using humor. That’s a very difficult communication strategy. At this time, if you choose to use humor, I suggest you work with professionals to try to do it in the most compassionate way possible.

Sarah Durham: Okay. Thank you. And you know, there are a lot of questions. I know I’ve been getting, I’m sure you’ve been getting a lot of questions. The biggest questions I’ve been getting are around frequency. How much should I be communicating and how important is it to speak directly to COVID? How important is it to acknowledge what’s going on right now? I’m curious what kind of questions you’re getting asked and what your answers to those questions are.

Elizabeth Toledo: Right. Well, you know, we have some clients that are directly working on issues directly related to COVID. So those people are in kind of a special category. They’re communicating often, but for most people, they’re not directly related in the COVID public health response. And so I think what’s really important is to have somewhat timely messages, right? About COVID and then to rethink your strategic communications, your external communications plan so that you are able to talk about the things that you have credibility and knowledge and trust among audiences to be communicating about, you know, some people don’t work with their communications plan, some people do, whether you do or you don’t, now is one of the most critical times for you to sit down with your internal team or with your consultants—or whoever you can round up—to either amend that or really rethink every part of that comms plan for 2020 and beyond, Or to sit down and go through this practice of actually writing it down because I think you get much sharper tactics and strategies, and you also are able to think more holistically about what people want and need from you at this time.

Sarah Durham: Yeah. I want to share a couple of interesting examples that I’ve seen. One of the pieces that impressed me was an email I got on Friday from Vince Warren, the Executive Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights. And Vince sent out an email that reads, “Dear Center for Constitutional Rights family, at this time of crisis and deep concern, we want to reach out to our beloved community to affirm our fellowship and the value of our collective vision…” And then he basically talks about some of the issues that are surfacing in the communities that their work serves. And at one point he talks about, “We must be vigilant about the manipulation of this crisis for authoritarian repressive ends, including upending the elections, imposing additional harmful delays, etc.” So essentially in this email, what he’s doing is talking about what’s happening, but he’s very much grounding his remarks in the context of their work and in the context of the values and the issues that are relevant for his audience, for his community.

Sarah Durham: Another interesting thing that he did that I’ve seen a couple of organizations doing is he sent an HTML email, but up at the top it looks like a forward. He says in the forward, “It’s hard. It’s harder now than ever to connect or check in and things are complicated. So I wanted to make sure you saw this communication I just sent out.” I thought there were a couple of nice things in that. I really liked the way the his organization, and many organizations, are trying very hard to talk about the crisis in a way that is personally relevant to their work and grounded very much in their values. Are you seeing a lot of that too, Elizabeth?

Elizabeth Toledo: Yeah, absolutely. One of the organizations I think is getting it exactly right is the Union of Concerned Scientists, right? Because they’re talking about what their field is—science—which is incredibly important to everybody. They are doing exactly what you just described. They are talking about what’s working, what’s not working and kind of the basic principles of science, and how that’s impacting kind of everybody. I’ve seen a lot of groups do that. It’s not that so much has changed about society that there’s no client we have and really very few nonprofits that don’t have an important role in some way that society’s changing. And I really like a lot of groups that are looking backwards at some other moments of crisis, whether they’re just kind of very local, say, you know, weather-type crises that have been very difficult or larger crises like 9/11. And looking at some of the lessons that we learned and some of the things we really need to keep our eye on, like civil liberties and you know, all kinds of things as we make our way collectively through this that we’re really relying on a lot of these leaders to keep their eye on. While there might be some initiatives or some special considerations that people might have in terms of pulling back on some things, certainly changing events, now is not the time for people who are communicating and organizing on these really core fundamental societal issues to be hitting pause in my view.

Sarah Durham: I want to come back to that issue of should you hit pause or should you amplify the volume? But before we do, I just want to share a couple of things that we’ve been gathering here at Big Duck. We’ve been talking to a lot of our clients and we’ve also been posting in social and we’ve essentially been asking organizations to share with us how they’re responding and how they’re communicating. And I’ve got a couple of things I want to read to you from some of the people who’ve chimed in. This first one comes from Will Nolan, who’s the Senior Vice President of Communications at Parent Project Muscular Dystrophy (it’s a disease organization). He says, “Let your constituents know that you’re here. Our first communication was that we are open, I’ll be at virtually.”

Sarah Durham: So, letting people know you’re still around, you’re still available if you are. And then he goes on to say, “We’re establishing daily touch points around the same time each day so that people have not only regular communication from us but also a regular time for that communication. The idea being that with so much uncertainty, hopefully we can be a constant hope that helps.” And you know, I love that idea. One of the things that we’ve been doing at Big Duck with our own staff a bit, and I think you can do this with your staff, but also with the communities you serve, is having open zoom room times, like sharing a zoom room number and encouraging people who want to connect with your team to log in if they have questions about it. That’s a little different than crisis communications, but it’s really about just being available. Right?

Elizabeth Toledo: Yeah. And I think for some of the communications challenges that people are having, what we’re finding is that the focus, and the energy on the crisis, can overwhelm some of the strategic thinking about other initiatives. Even if they are kind of crisis adjacent, it’s really tough to focus on them. And there’s so much uncertainty. At our firm, we’re all telecommuting like everybody else, but we’re now separating out, we’re finding specific times in our all staff meetings or in our conversations to talk about the health related concerns we all have. And then we are having a structured time to talk about things that are not directly related to the ins and outs that we’re dealing with around contagion. So, you know, you really have to find a way to force yourself to be able to think more holistically and to not be overwhelmed. I’m getting a lot of questions from people about how they could possibly communicate when everything in the media is just so entirely focused on the coronavirus. You know, it’s really overwhelming and we can talk more about that if people have questions about it. But one thing to note is: it’s not always going to be entirely focused on the coronavirus. In fact, it’s already started to shift a little bit. So there’s a lot of opportunity for people to continue to communicate using all of their normal channels.

Sarah Durham: Yeah, yeah, I agree. And I think one of the things you have to be careful of is if you have communication that that isn’t directly related to the virus or you don’t know how to speak about the virus in a way that feels authentic and relevant to the work that you’re doing, those might be instances where it’s better to communicate a little less. I think this week in particular where there is a lot of noise about coronavirus and also people are very much emotionally anxious and focused on it, your communication can feel out of sync with the current environment and not play well if it doesn’t at least acknowledge the context we’re working in. Do you agree with that Elizabeth?

Elizabeth Toledo: Absolutely. And you’ve got a pace, right? So right now it might be a good week, for example, to be doing a lot of planning, to be doing a lot of kind of message review and more internal or direct communication versus some of the more aggressive media outreach kind of things that you might be thinking about. You have to meet people where they are emotionally before you talk about anything else. And if that’s always at the front of your mind, where are your audiences emotionally are, and what information do they have or are they uncertain about? Because if you’re not meeting them where they are or if they are uncertain about whether they should trust what you’re telling them, your messages just aren’t going to hit and you’re going to start to lose some of the trust. You know, one thing that really degrades trust is when you say something on a Monday and you say something different on a Wednesday and something different on a Friday. So even if the situation is rapidly changing for everybody, people have to think a lot about what their touchstones are around information that they’re sharing so that you try as hard as you can to not keep shifting your position.

Sarah Durham: Absolutely. Absolutely. And I think your comment actually relates nicely to another suggestion. We got another input point from Ambar Mentor-Truppa who is the Vice President of Cmmunications at the Shriver Center on Poverty Law. Ambar is a really smart person. We’ve had the good fortune to work with her at Big Duck and she has a rich background, also I think some media relations experience, and she says, “If your mission is relevant during these times, please double down and pivot to support action around COVID-19 with your advocacy programs and campaigns. If there’s not an immediate connection, don’t force one. Understand that it’s okay to step back right now and support other efforts, and that can still be helpful to your brand and to your cause. In all cases, stay nimble and flexible. This is not a time for long processes, decisive and Swift, but strategic thinking is key.”

Sarah Durham: I think Ambar’s points underscore a number things you’ve talked about. You’ve talked about updating that communications plan and refining it. You’ve talked about being emotionally authentic and speaking, speaking in a way that reflects where people are. So I think that’s a great, reinforcing piece of advice. One other piece of advice we’ve gotten, and I think this will tease out some things to think about here. This is from Dana Pungello, who I don’t know personally, so I apologize if I’m mispronouncing your name, who’s the Senior Director of Communications at NAF. Dana writes, “I worked with my team on a training in crisis comms this past fall. We worked through a dozen scenarios and this was not one of them! But it still helped us prepare for this. With this one, we have to really make swift and thoughtful business decisions, we have to streamline communications and present a united front to ensure our customers know that they are our top priority. Transparency about decisions to be made is essential as well. We won’t have all the answers right away, but constant updates for staff and customers are essential. Ensure internal and external communications are aligned.” What do you think Elizabeth? You agree?

Elizabeth Toledo: Yeah, I agree with that. And I think part of what she’s getting to you is having this values first style of communicating. So you want to tell people what you’re doing and why at the same time, you can’t spend enough time conveying what your values are again and again and again. So if you’re doing anything, from changing your hours to changing your events, whatever it is that you’re shifting right now, to keep telling people what the values are that surround what you’re doing is going to help you. First of all, be really reflective about why you’re doing something. And secondly to maintain that trust with your audiences or even build more trust. And then the other thing I want to lift out from what she said, which was so good is that transparency piece. People want to know what you’re doing, why, and what they can expect next.

Sarah Durham: Yeah. You said something, Elizabeth, on a call that we had on Monday that I think takes what we’re talking about with values even one step further. And I want to bring that into this conversation. You talked about leading with the values of community rather than the value or the orientation around individualism and fear. Can you speak a little bit about that? Oh, and before you do, I just want to flag a few housekeeping things cause I’m getting a lot of pings. There are no slides. So if you’re wondering where the slides are, there are no slides. You’re stuck with just us. And a couple of people are saying that some of their colleagues are having trouble logging in. That’s because we’ve maxed out the number of attendees. We might’ve hit the ceiling on GoToWebinar, and we will send out a link afterwards. Back to you, Elizabeth.

Elizabeth Toledo: I think for the good of the world, but also for the good of most organizations, you want to have, messages that make people think about what they’re doing in the context of what’s good for their community, for their coworkers, for their family, for their community, for the world. Even if you’re doing something simple like talking now, nobody’s in their office anymore. But if you were in your office and you were talking about the importance of everybody washing their hands, you know, when they come into the office, you want to have posters and messages that say, for the good of our office, for the good of community, we’re helping each other by washing our hands, not just that you’re keeping your own self.

Elizabeth Toledo: Okay. Right. And at times like this, I think people can either move to self interest or they can move to community interest, and almost every nonprofit is kind of promoting this idea of a community interest no matter what the subject area is that they’re actually really focused on. So now is the time to keep people focused on community. One of the things that I really like about the WHO recommendations is that they’re talking about solidarity a lot in their messaging. And I think that’s really, really powerful. In fact, on our channel, we’ll post the message around solidarity and community from the WHO. There’s a video that I think is really, um, inspiring.

Sarah Durham: Great, great. Yeah, you can. Maybe we can send that out in our air resources too. That would be great. So let’s come back to this issue of volume. We’ve been talking a little bit in this conversation about, you know, if, if you really, if you really can’t find a way to say something that’s relevant, maybe you should communicate a little less, but if the community you need to support or your work is particularly timely and relevant now maybe you communicate a little bit more. How would you encourage organizations to think about how to set that tempo? How should an organization kind of self determine what the right volume is?

Elizabeth Toledo: Yeah. You know, it’s so tough. So everybody’s going to have to do their own evaluation. You don’t want to slip out of the public conversation, but you also want to be really respectful of it. So you know, if, if you have something that is going to help people during this time or that’s an important initiative that makes sense to continue, you want to go ahead and communicate with people about that while being really sensitive to times when it’s gonna feel like a thought, like you were saying earlier, you know, in the last couple of days would not be a great time to roll out an initiative that wasn’t about the very specific public health messaging that was overwhelming the media. Your timing has to be right. But if you do have something that’s very legitimate and that’s relevant for people in their lives, I think you just have to find the right pace.

Elizabeth Toledo: It’s going to be harder to get things in the media than it was before, and it’s going to be harder for some time. Um, it’s going to be easier to turn to your paid strategies rather than your earn strategies right now. And if you’re still focused on some earned media strategies, you’re gonna probably have to invest a little bit more and how you roll those out. So, for example, journalists are going through the same thing that everybody on this call is going through. They’re working from home. In all likelihood, they’re dealing with kids that are not going to school. They’re worried about how to not infect others and not become infected. All of those things are also happening to journalists and they might be working a different beat, or their whole beat might’ve just been turned upside down like sports, for example.

Elizabeth Toledo: Or people that are covering events. So it’s really important right now. Probably more important than the pace is the rollout, right? Like how you’re rolling it out and who you’re rolling it out too. So if you’re still using earned media, you have to remember two things about journalists: research and respect. You’ve got to do a lot of research about who’s available to write about your issue or who’s going to be really interrupted from important work by hearing your pitches and getting your information. So, you know, there’s a lot of ways to research who’s doing what and who’s open to getting pitches. Just one resource is (HARO). So you can go there and a lot of journalists are putting what they’re interested in writing about on that site. You can Google, you can follow people’s Twitter. There’s a lot of research that people do to make sure that they understand what’s respectful around outreach to journalists and what kind of penetration that people can expect now.

Sarah Durham: I think your comments in some ways reinforces one of the crowdsource things we got earlier from Will Nolan. It’s the idea that it depends who your audience is, right? So in Will’s example, he was talking about making, communicating a lot to the most important community that their organizations serve. So if you think of your audiences as concentric circles, you might have a community that you serve that’s right in the middle of that bullseye. And then there are layers out of it. And the media is one of those layers. It might be that your donors are another layer, right? So, so you might need to have different volumes or different formats that you use to communicate with those different layers. It might not be that everybody gets the same, the same constant access to your thinking or your leadership.

Sarah Durham: I think there’s an opportunity to segment your communications a little bit by priority, prioritization of audiences. I also just want to tease out another point Elizabeth just touched on along the way because I think if you don’t have a communications plan, or you’re dusting yours off, she’s used a few terms that are worth underscoring. She talked about paid media and earned media. So you have owned media, paid media, and earned media. In my new book, the Nonprofit Communications Engine, I’ve got a whole section about what those terms mean and what they are, if you want more. But in short: owned media is the stuff you own and you control. That’s your website, that’s your email. That’s your social media. Those are the places where you’re probably doing the most communicating right now because they are the easiest for you to control and regulate.

Sarah Durham: But then the earned media is the media that you get through the media or through other people who might cover you, who might write about your projects or programs. And your paid media is advertising. So that includes your free Google ad words, but it’s any place where you’re trying to spend money to target a specific audience. So you’ve got earned, owned and paid. And I think my suggestion here is to probably invest most of your energy right now in communicating out through your own channels as opposed to earned or paid unless you’ve got a very, very timely topic that warrants earned media. Do you agree Elizabeth?

Elizabeth Toledo: Yeah. And I was going to ask you what you thought about doing social media promotion during this time. Because it is possible to get earned media and many of our clients are continuing to get earned media.

Sarah Durham: That’s gonna only continue. I think people who were invested in earned media shouldn’t just go on hiatus. I think there’s a lot of planning you can do. You’re just going to have to work harder to get the earned media now. Then you have to work in 2019. Right. And you might have to be a little bit more patient. The timing has to be right. There’s a whole, just a lot more investment in getting that. But I’m curious what you think Sarah, about even doing kind of some social media boosting type of paid media during these times?

Sarah Durham: I think it depends what it is. My expectation is that a lot of communicators are going to be at the behest of their colleagues shifting communications over the next probably month or so, depending on, on how things unfold towards more fundraising oriented communications. I think that a lot of people are already in anticipating that they’re going to take some financial hits from this, particularly organizations that have in person programs and things. In fact, we’ve got some questions about that. I want to make sure we get to about how to communicate about those. I think that there is going to be a conversation to be had in social media and a conversation to be had in person with donors and with other people about how do we come out of this and how do we recover and how can you support us as an organization as we begin to make that recovery. But right now I think that there is so much energy and emotional tension around just the kind of breaking news related to the virus, that I don’t think I’d be inclined to spend a lot of time or money boosting social posts right now unless they have some direct relationship to that issue. Certainly not this week, maybe in the coming weeks. Do you agree?

Elizabeth Toledo: Yeah, absolutely. I think so. I mean the timing is everything. So timing and readiness. So you know, now is the time to be ready for all the different scenarios, you know, there’s so much uncertainty and we’re often asked to, as a firm that specializes in crisis, we’re often asked to do scenario planning. And a lot of times it feels like when there’s so much uncertainty that it’s impossible to plan. And I would really challenge that concept. It is possible to lay out certain trajectories that various scenarios fit into and to try to roll out what you think your communications plans would be based on a couple of likely scenarios. And you’re going to have so much of a higher quality communication strategy today. If you’re thinking about the longterm, what if a trajectory happens, where would our communications go? And then how would we fold back to where we are today? Same thing for B, same thing for C. It’s a lot of work and it’s a little bit tough, but the building blocks of doing good crisis communications planning is to take the time to do those scenarios and fold back your messages and find the right time to begin to engage things like social boosting or things like earned media, etc. I like what you said about testing because what you assume your audiences want to hear around frequency, around tone, all that kind of stuff, might be different now than it was in the past. So if you’re using your own controlled media such as e-blast, if you can even do any testing at all, any kind of AB testing, it would be really informative at this time.

Sarah Durham: Definitely. I agree. We got a question in that I think relates to this topic from James. He said, “I’ve seen some organizations being opportunistic by saying things like COVID-19 may be bad. But imagine if you dealt with issue X every day, which affects X million people.” His point was this doesn’t quite feel right, feels like it’s important for taste. Do we agree? I definitely agree. I think that’s a good example of trying to take an unrelated topic and make it feel relevant right now that I think is going to not land well with many people. Do you agree Elizabeth?

Elizabeth Toledo: Yeah, I think that’s exactly what I was talking about earlier when I talked about the four things you don’t want to do around COVID-19 messaging and one of them is fear-mongering, you know, fear-mongering. Sometimes it’s really obvious what is a fearmonger and sometimes it’s subtle. So it is really good to, I think to have as much messaging, professional help as you can and then some kind ongoing focus grouping or a kitchen cabinet or something so that you can write messages and have other people that are maybe one step away, take a look at them and have those filters. Are you basically marketing to fear or are you doing something else? And I think right now it’s not a good idea to really ramp up fear in that way. People are genuinely worried about their future and the future of everything that they knew in their lives. I would just be really careful about all kinds of negative messaging or negative motivation. The kind of highly partisan or highly critical things that you might’ve been saying a month ago that were true and relevant, you know, you really just need to stop, reevaluate and decide if that tone still works at this moment of the COVID-19 crisis.

Sarah Durham: I think we’re moving into a terrain that a lot of people are asking questions about, which I would broadly call a question of capacity. We’re getting questions about capacity from a self-care point of view. How do I get through this and maintain my stamina as a communicator? And we’re also getting some questions about bandwidth—our bandwidth is extremely limited. There’s so much to communicate about now, but we also have a lot of other things to communicate about. You know, as I listened to you talk about having a plan and planning out different scenarios and being agile. And I think about these questions. One of the things that I would suggest people consider doing is having, at least right now, a weekly, maybe twice weekly, depending on your mission kind of communications, forum or meeting where you talk about this week, what is appropriate this week, what are the messages that are appropriate this week, what’s going on that’s relevant this week? Because I think we are currently in a situation where we’re, we’re really is week by week, if not day by day. I think as time goes on that will distance out. But if you can remain agile about how often you’re communicating and what you’re communicating, I think time is going to be essential to that. And similarly I think it is probably important for your team to agree on which are the channels and tactics you are going to predominantly communicate through. That’s another question. A couple of people have asked, should I, should I be emailing? Should I be using social? I think for most organizations it is probably email and it might also be posting on your website depending on how you communicate. I have an example I’ll share in a minute of an organization I think did a great job posting regular updates on a community, on their website when they were deciding whether or not to cancel an event. Elizabeth, how do you view this issue of capacity in terms of staying agile? You know, gaming it out, but also making sure you’re picking the right channels and tools to use.

Elizabeth Toledo: Yeah, I would agree with what you laid out. A couple of additional things to think about. It’s a little counterintuitive to think about partnering with others. You know, I know in the nonprofit space people don’t really have competitors, but sometimes people would go into the same place for donations or for media attention. There’s all kinds of ways that we tend to, at least at a moment like this, want to promote ourselves and we’re thinking that we’re kind of now fighting with each other for resources. But I think at times like this, it’s really important to consider in what ways you can partner. One, because it helps you share the work a little bit and two, because it is literally more powerful. You know, I was thinking a lot about this, I was so grateful when Sarah called and said, you know, can we do this together? And I thought, that’s just brilliant. Like, you know, I was really caught up in how am I going to write what I need to write and post all the advice and send things around and you know, partnering with people to kind of just do this together and do it in the simplest way possible. Just checked a lot of a lot of anxiety boxes for me. We also find that as you begin to do more media work, people tend to get more support for their own organization when they are working in partnership with others around media strategies as well. So you might want to co-author an op ed with someone or do a sign on letter and send it to a bunch of people. It’s going to really make your voice more powerful. The other thing to think about is having people on a team maybe try to play different roles. So if you have someone thinking about today and this week, maybe there’s one person that’s tasked with trying to keep in his or her head, the long haul. How does this play if you know, if these different situations play out so that when you’re feeling exhausted about trying to do too much yourself, you don’t have to take on the entire thing. Different people can take on different parts of doing this work. And then finally, you know, self care is so important because communicating right now is incredibly important and we all have to kind of keep each other. Keep each other going and supporting each other. Sharing those self care best practices I think might really help us as a whole communicator community.

Sarah Durham: I agree. And, and I think Farra will be able to chat out the book title (I don’t remember it off hand) but Beth Kanter has written a terrific book—The Happy, Healthy Nonprofit—about self care for activists, but I think a lot of what’s in her book is very relevant all the time and particularly now. So Beth Kanter’s book would be a great resource. We, we have about 20 minutes left and we need to dig more into some of the questions we’re getting. And one of the questions I’ve gotten a lot, and I also was thinking about in advance is a lot of nonprofits have events coming up. They’ve got a gala, they’ve got a big, you know, a big happening, a conference. And you are getting asked, are you going to cancel it? You’re debating how to communicate about it. Let’s talk about that. That’s an area of communications that I think is particularly challenging. And for many organizations, there’s so much revenue associated with some of these events that it’s not just a question of what to do, but it’s also a question of the financial implications. I want to share two quick things about this. And Elizabeth, I’m curious what your advice is and what you’ve seen done. The first is that I think it’s really, really important as an organization that you are on top of what public health officials are recommending and that you are, that you are in line with what public health officials are recommending. If public health officials are recommending gatherings of no more than five people or 50 people in your area, it really isn’t appropriate for you to be moving ahead with an event that exceeds that. So keep on top of that, because that’s changing pretty rapidly. And I think that might make the decision for you. One example that I was very impressed with was Amy Sample-Ward, who’s the Executive Director of NTEN, the Nonprofit Technology Conference (NTC) is a really important conference to a lot of people, not only because it’s a very valuable conference, but it’s a place that probably a lot of people on this, on this call today look forward to connecting and finding community. Leading up to the NTC, which was supposed to be next week, I think, Amy was regularly posting on the website, her thinking about the conference. In some cases small videos, but if you follow the thread, you’ll see that as the public health recommendations changed, Amy would post a video or she’d comment for a long time. The plan was to move ahead. But she was very proactive I think at least on a weekly basis sharing what her thinking was. And she really grounded her comments and the values of the community in reference to those values. And in the end when opted to cancel the conference, which by the way, she did earlier than many of many other organizations who were having conferences, one of the things she did that I thought was very smart was she invited people who were registered for the NTC to donate their registration fees. And she referenced the financial hit that the organization is taking because of canceling the conference. Not in a kind of bummer, guilty way, but just acknowledging the financial implications of canceling a major event. There may be some ideas and in her communications, which you can find online that might be an inspiration for how to manage this. Elizabeth, what do you recommend to organizations that have an event they’re trying to navigate and communicate about?

Elizabeth Toledo: Yeah, it’s such a good question and I would agree with all your recommendations. Like everybody else, I’ve gotten some notifications about things that impacted me that I have found very discouraging or just kind of not emotionally resonant. I won’t call out which university, but my son was going to graduate from college. He is going to graduate from college this year, and I just got this message from his college canceling everything that seemed really not emotionally resonant. So I think, and I understand people are pressed and you know there’s a thousand different ways that people are pressured to write these things, so just as much as you can kind of checking in with others around you that you trust around your messaging. I think now more than ever, you just want a little bit more input when you’re writing something to ask people to look at it from the perspective of all your different audiences, to see if there’s just anything that you can improve to try to be emotionally resonant with all of those audiences, you know. I absolutely agree with the point about the public health messaging and kind of sticking to what the recommendations are as a part of that. It’s really important I think to have your touchstone. So kind of which agencies and which pieces of information are influencing you. In my office it’s been the New York City Department of Health. If we have a question about, you know, something relatively small, like should we have a work at home snow day or is it still appropriate for people to come in? That kind of thing. You know, we’d say we’re going to see what the city recommends that we do. Whatever those couple of touchstones are that you have around how you’re reacting to this crisis, it’s important to keep conveying those to people so that when you have to change your mind, if you’ve not postponed yet, and then later you say, Oh yeah, now we’re going to postpone that. You’ve already told people we’re following these guidelines. And so when those guidelines change, we’re going to change. And that way it doesn’t look like you’re kind of flip flopping, but rather it looks like you have a plan of action.

Sarah Durham: Great. Okay. We have a lot of questions here. So what I’m going to suggest we do is try to take a bunch of them rapid fire. If people haven’t had a chance yet to chat in questions, please do. We’ll, we’ll both take a shot at answering them. The first one is “Our nonprofit, as many are, is going through financial issues directly related to COVID and social distancing. How open should you be about the financial situation and how should we approach fundraising during this time?” I just wanna I want to jump in by saying I think there are a lot of organizations that are in that situation. I think a lot of donors are going to be aware of that. We had Big Duck are going to be doing more communications around talking about financial issues and fundraising coming up. So stay tuned about that. My gut is that it is appropriate to be transparent about the financial hardships this is putting you through. I think everybody understands that and expects that and it’s a way you can be authentic. Elizabeth, anything you’d add?

Elizabeth Toledo: Absolutely. Repeat what you said. People know that everybody’s in trouble. So you want to stay as authentic as possible. You want to keep a trusted relationship. And I think in the long run, if people think that you’re not being honest with them and authentic and transparent, now later a year from now when we’re in a really different place around this epidemic, you’re going to have to invest again in rebuilding that trust. So I would absolutely echo what Sarah said, that trust and transparency is paramount right now.

Sarah Durham: Next question. “Do the communications we’re discussing include a call to action?” That’s an interesting question. What do you think Elizabeth?

Elizabeth Toledo: Yeah, I think the call to action aligns with all of the others strategic considerations. If it’s appropriate to where your audiences are, if it’s hitting at the right time. Yes. If people cared about your issues, if they were passionate about your issues, if they liked your organization three months ago, they still like it now. They might have other things that they’re worried about, but most people haven’t radically changed what their values are or their allegiances are. And so I definitely think it’s still okay to do a call to action. Of course it goes without saying—if your call to action is going to distract in any way from the moment that we’re in, then then it’s not appropriate. Or if it’s hitting people at a really tough time, like all of a sudden someone is getting an order to shelter in place, which really has a lot of implications, you don’t want to also ask them to do something that might interfere with their focus. So it’s a matter of kind of timing and appropriateness.

Sarah Durham: I agree. And one of the other questions we got was from somebody who wrote in about an event that they are organizing for early 2021 and they had planned to do some communications to people who might speak at that event should they hold off. I think that’s a good example of something like that can probably wait a week or two or three, maybe a month. Many organizations are extending deadlines around things, and I think extended deadlines gives you some flexibility, but I think that’s the kind of communication that isn’t urgent now. I would probably, I’d probably hold off.

Elizabeth Toledo: I agree in telling people when you might revisit that decision or even telling people when you have uncertainty, if it’s honest and it’s the best you can do, I think it’s a good thing. I know some organizations that have been in the middle of different initiatives or processes and they’ve said we’re going to hit pause. I’m working on this until the end of March or the end of April when we have more information that we can use to figure out what is the best timeline and what is the best process for us. That’s the best they can do. And I really appreciate when people are just honestly saying, here’s what we know, here’s when we’re going to communicate with you again, or when we’re going to pick up this subject again.

Sarah Durham: Yeah. Let’s, let’s pivot to another kind of communications piece. There’s a couple of questions here about it that somebody wrote in. “We’re planning to celebrate some positive work that our civic leaders are doing while still acknowledging the crisis through news resources, any suggestions on celebrating good work to communities?” I love that somebody is looking for a modicum of positivity here, and I actually have seen a couple of great organizations send a couple of great emails out that talk about things like how I’m using my time at home, but they’re going out to small communities. They are not going out to the broad network. They’re, they’re more like a personal. How do you feel about those kinds of communications, Elizabeth?

Elizabeth Toledo: Yeah, I think that’s a great idea. Anytime you can give people some congratulatory messaging or just acknowledge even very, very small gestures that people are making. I think it’s good. What you really want to do is, when I say a communications plan to step back for a second, I don’t mean that you have to do, you know, a book, right? It can be brief, it can be high level. But in that plan, if you have a message strategy, all of these things fit within that message strategy. So even if you, if you are congratulating something or thanking someone for doing something big or small, it should fit within whatever your message framework is for this time. Right. And I would really applaud that group for using personal stories to personalize what’s going on in our lives, using graphics and images to help people make an emotional connection. Those are going to be the most powerful and most memorable communications right now.

Sarah Durham: Yeah, I agree. There are a lot of questions here as I’m sifting through this that are communications around fundraising. A couple of people who are sharing that they’re putting our fundraising on hold. It feels inappropriate right now. A couple of people who are sharing where we’re doing more, we’re doing a special appeal. Um, one person who asked about how do I wrap up my capital campaign, which is in the final phase. We do a lot of of major donor in particular and fundraising related communications at Big Duck and we’ve been talking to a number of our clients about this and that is a particular challenge, and again it does come down to the mission. But I would not stop fundraising now. I think I would closely examine what you are going to send out and perhaps change what you’re going to send out so that it is appropriate to send right now. I would not send out business as usual fundraising appeals. But I don’t think this is a smart time to stop fundraising. I think you have to find a way to use all the things we’ve been talking about here. Something that feels emotionally resonant and appropriate both for your organization and for the moment that your audiences find themselves in, and I’m sure it will take some rejigging. I think this is probably a topic we could do a whole other hour about. Elizabeth, do you have any thoughts about fundraising in this environment?

Elizabeth Toledo: One, of course you want to reevaluate everything, just as Sarah said. Is it still appropriate? Is the timing still right? Is the topic still, right? But if the answer to all of that is that you should pull back on some of your fundraising initiatives right now. I think you still need to communicate with people that are normally expecting to hear from you. So find a way to let them know that you’re pulling back in appropriate language. Let them know when they’re going to hear from you, etc. You just want to stay in relationship with your audiences.

Sarah Durham: Yeah. To build on that, there’s another, another rule of thumb that I would encourage you to use right now, which is: the bigger the relationship with the donor, the more personalized the communication. So if you have a major donor, a foundation supporter, somebody with whom you have some sort of personal relationship and you can pick up a phone, I would encourage you to do that. I think this is a really important time for your major donors, your board members, and foundation supporters to be hearing what’s happening for you so that they’re a part of the conversation and they know that there is an opportunity for them to help you shape the solution, not just support the solution. As you rethink your fundraising, I would encourage you to really make sure you’re looking at those big, deep, important relationships, and how are you bringing them into the conversation? Not just focused on, you know, on let’s say direct mail or things like that. A couple of questions about how explicit you should be about the financial hit. I think it’s too early to do that. I don’t think you know what the financial hit is yet. So I would discourage you from being too explicit. And I would take that on a case by case basis. I do think that might be the kind of thing that’s good for conversation with a major donor. We’ve got five minutes left and we still have a bunch of questions. I’m gonna see if I can um, dig through… “Can you talk about getting control over communications in a large organization with different departments—a pool, after school program, adult day program, etc.?” I’d say, when you’re in an organization that does a lot of different things, should you be speaking with one voice or should different departments be sending out different kinds of messages right now? What do you think?

Elizabeth Toledo: Yeah, that’s a big subject. I think we could do a whole session on internal communications and how those best practices have just changed dramatically. But however you’re able to do it, it is important to get a centralized handle on all of your internal communications and all of the different channels. When we typically talk about communication channels, we talk about your social media channels and your press releases and your e-blasts, but all your communication channels now include every single place where you’re communicating with the public, right? So it could be the sign on the door that says you’ve got different hours and you’re shut down for a while, or you know, whatever it is. It could be the security officers that are still standing in front of your building and what they’re telling people. So you have to have best practices right now—to have centralized resources and messages for all of those folks. I would do much more internal training for everybody, some Q & A because it’s not only really good for everybody to be empowered and have that information, but it’s a really big part of communications risk mitigation right now.

Sarah Durham: Great. I want to share one other tip and recommendation that came in from Farra and then share a couple of resources before we wrap up today. Farra noted that in social media there are a number of organizations who are doing a great job sharing their mission even if they’re not directly involved with COVID-19. A couple of examples are the 92nd Street Y which tweets @92Y. They launched something called 92Y At Home, which is sharing performances and talks from their archives and lessons from staff. Or World Wildlife, which is @World_Wildlife. They’re sharing educational materials for homeschooling. One of Big Duck’s clients is a summer camp and arts summer camp called Camp Havaya and they’re also doing camp a home kinds of programs. So there are ways that you can do that which I think are pretty compelling. I hope those are helpful. So just to wrap up, there are a number of great resources I want to share. First of all, on Friday I’ll be doing another one of these conversations with Big Duck’s Director of Strategy, Ally Dommu. Ally is an expert in facilitating meetings online and we’re going to talk about that. We will talk a little bit about tools like Zoom or Slack, but mostly we’re going to talk about how to do something online that you used to do in person in a way where all voices can be heard and the meeting can actually have a chance at succeeding. So that might be relevant not only for you with your staff, but with maybe some external peers or partners you might be working with. That’s on the Big Duck website. If you go to and then click on events, you’ll see it right up at the top. Beth Kanter has been compiling a very helpful shared document of COVID-19 information and there’s a whole section on it about communications, and she’s linking to a lot of great articles in there. There are some terrific ones about dealing with anti-bias in there. A couple of you are chatting in questions and concerns about that, so take a look at Beth’s document. You might send her ideas if you have any. Elizabeth, any other resources from you or Camino we should make sure to get in before we wrap up.

Elizabeth Toledo: We’re going to be posting resources on our Twitter feed and our LinkedIn feed. We’ve got some handouts, for example, on how to look your best when you’re doing video chat, all from technical to PR strategies.

Sarah Durham: Great. You can follow Camino PR on Twitter @caminopr. Elizabeth Toledo, thank you so much for joining me today and everybody who, who logged in today. Thank you for taking an hour out of this extremely challenging week to join us. I hope this was useful. Be well everybody. Bye!



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