When clients come to us asking for help with crisis communications, our response is often to talk them out of working with us. While this might not be great for business, it is smart strategy. In this highly-engaged, easily-enraged communications environment it’s all too easy to see—and react—to crises that might be better left alone.

Crisis Decision Tree2

Is This A Crisis?

The first question we ask organizations to consider is “Is this really a crisis?” The Wikipedia definition of crisis is “is any event that is, or is expected to lead to, an unstable and dangerous situation affecting an individual, group, community, or whole society.” The key words here are unstable and dangerous. So a crisis isn’t an uncomfortable situation…. or a bummer bit of news…. or a tough loss on your organization’s policy agenda. A real crisis is an event that has the real potential to hurt people or interfere with your organization’s ability to serve its mission.

Sustain Your Cause, and Yourselves

At the end of the day, crises are our causes. In social change work, we are surrounded by and touched by crisis all the time. In fact, you can think of all non-profit work as a response to some kind of crisis—whether it’s poverty, racism, inequity or injustice, all social change work is a response to a clear and present danger.

But if we are going to do sustainable work we can’t respond to these persistent and pervasive causes in crisis mode. We must have sustained and sustainable strategies. Crisis mode exhausts and depletes, and needs to be reserved for truly urgent crisis situations.

Is It Your Crisis?

So that raises the second question: Is it YOUR crisis? Even though our work addresses a crisis, we don’t have to respond in a crisis mode.

  • Donald Trump’s rise to Republican presidential candidate on a platform of hate and anti-immigrant diatribes is a crisis. But responding to Trump’s daily rantings is less important than contributing to a broader narrative about how our country is strengthened by immigrants.
  • The murder of Black men and women by police, and the daily violence of systemic racism are a crisis. But unless your organization has the capacity to respond to every incident, it is more important to organize and collaborate with anti-racist organizations and movements long term.
  • It is a crisis when 49, mostly LGBTQ and Latinx people are gunned down while celebrating hard-won freedoms during Pride. But it’s really a crisis situation for those organizations working to pick up the pieces in on the ground in Orlando. The rest of us need to continue to fight for the changes our communities need to discourage this kind of attack.

Response Strategies

When your organization finds itself in the midst of one of these all-too-real scenarios, there are four immediate communications strategy questions to ask as you determine the best way to respond:

  1. Can you help? Is your organization poised to bring meaningful and authentic assistance to those directly affected? Then hurry up and do it! This might mean mobilizing volunteers to help people who are physically hurt, or it might mean mobilizing your leadership voice to speak up on behalf of communities being vilified or demonized.
  2. Can you fix it? Is your organization poised to engage directly in the situation in a way that might improve it? Maybe that means bringing divergent stakeholders together in a positive way. Maybe that means deploying program resources – staff time, dollars, expertise – to play an active role in solutions.
  3. Can you reframe it? Your organization might have a unique point of view on the issue at hand. If so, share your perspective and help shed light and bring meaning to a difficult situation. Crises need voices of wisdom and reason.
  4. Can you change it? Sometimes the best way to respond to society’s crises is to redouble attention to your mission. If your organization is focused on long term, systemic fixes to the problems at hand, then get back to work. And make sure people know what that work it really about.

Get Back to Work

We do our best work when we have the time and energy to think through smart strategies and communicate thoughtfully. Don’t let your organization float from crisis to crisis or we will always be in crisis. Recognize that fulfilling your mission and working for peace, justice, and freedom are the best crisis response plan you have.

amandaLightBox Collaborative Senior Partner Amanda Cooper has supported numerous organization in responding to crisis great and small, real and imagined.