Crisis Communications and Associations

Last week, I did a Q&A with Smart Blog insights about crisis communications in general and associations in particular.  I want to expand on that this morning a bit.

I used to teach crisis communications at the University of Maryland and have done a frequent bit in the private sector (let’s not even get into government – ugh).  It never ceases to amaze me how many organizations just plain mess up crisis work.

I have listed five tips below, but want to put this is perspective for associations.  What I think is unique to associations is that they are caught in a vise.  They are expected to be the leading voice for many controversial companies and industries (read: they take the hit), but need consensus in an organization made up of members who compete with each other on a regular basis.  Bad, bad recipe for success.

And tomorrow, I’ll talk about this on a panel at Buzz 2010 in Washington, DC.

A few of the crisis communications basics I mentioned in the Smart Blog Insights  piece (and a few more) include:

  • Rule #1:  Avoid the crisis to begin with. Many companies (see Nestle), without even realizing it, take a communications mole hill and make it a crisis mountain.  Some crises cannot be avoided, but this is the step that most people just plain forget.  You need to help define an issue with your stakeholder groups or you risk having others define it for you.
  • Rule #2.  HAVE a crisis communications plan. This is the “duh” rule.  Think about this.  If you are in the midst of a crisis, responding to media, operating under enormous pressure, are you going to be able to craft and deliver compelling messages?  Create stuff that will convince people not to blame you (best), or at least to accept an apology (second best).  This is why having a plan (updated at least quarterly) is critical.
  • Rule #3:  Make the crisis plan easy to access.  When I did crisis work, I consistently advocated for putting a crisis communications plan online. Again, like the Nestle example, opponent driven crises are often propagated during weekends or other times that companies are not in the office.  You get attacked when nobody is manning a desk. And if your CEO or VP of Communications is at the beach, it makes things a whole lot easier when the plan is not a huge, written document sitting on your shelf at work, but is online and you can access it 24/7. And  you can better coordinate with others as well.
  • Rule #4.  Tell the truth.  Period.  Full stop.  If you lie, people will find out, bust you and you will lose all credibility.  And it’s ok to tell people that you don’t know the answer – just tell them when you will tell them.
  • Rule #5.  Segment your audiences. A lot of crisis plans are based upon talking to the media – and this is important.  But also think about employees, stockholders, retirees, elected officials, federal officials and even law enforcement people.  Bottom line is you need to have custom-tailored messages for ALL of your stakeholder groups that matter.

Again, for associations, this means something even tougher. You have to develop all of the above in conjunction with the member companies – the ones who pay your salary.  And deal with lawyers. And gain consensus under stress.

Oy, vey.




  1. We’ve both done our fair share of crisis communications. I drone on and on about this yet most organizations don’t get it. They are not prepared to be prepared. There are professionals out there who can assist them in preparing a plan and training their staff.

  2. Melissa Scott Says: June 29, 2011 at 11:45 am

    How valuable is a journalism background when transitioning into the crisis communications field.

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