9 December 2019

Avoid making a drama out of a crisis

The EFC’s Communications Professionals in Philanthropy Network held its Autumn Meeting in Athens, hosted by the Bodossaki Foundation from 21-22 November 2019. The meeting focused on members’ experiences in preparing for and weathering communications crises.

During his masterclass, George Flassas, Senior Consultant at Ogilvy Greece, explained that although NGOs are less prone to crises than companies, in this day and age crisis management is still worth spending time and effort on. The English word crisis comes from the Greek word κρίση (krísi), which refers to the notion of ‘decision’ in close connection to the notions of ‘evaluation’ and ‘judgment’. These three elements were the key threads throughout the meeting, and to them participants agreed on a fourth: preparation.

Mr Flessas gave the following advice to prepare for and deal with crises as they emerge:

BEFORE a crisis:

  • Create a crisis management plan
  • Appoint a crisis management team (make sure the CEO is included as well as Comms staff)
  • Allocate a crisis management centre
  • Create a crisis communications plan
  • Create a social media communications plan
  • Practice. Practice.

DURING a crisis:

  • Assess the crisis situation
  • Be first, be right, be credible
  • Speak with one voice
  • Manage the crisis in social media
  • Establish strong leadership (remember: management is doing things right, leadership is doing the right things)

AFTER the crisis:

  • Evaluate the crisis response
  • Communicate lessons learned
  • Exploit the positive aspects

It’s also important not to confuse day to day negativity, which is part and parcel of two-way communication with the outside world, with a genuine crisis. Trolling and unconstructive criticism are a pain but are not a crisis per se, however, social media can augment a crisis and hence the need to include your social media managers in any crisis management.

Prepare for the worst, hope for the best … but remember hope isn’t a strategy

 “Get it right, get it fast, get it out, get it over.” – Warren Buffet

While foundations may be considered less “at-risk” than for-profit entities or government bodies, the key message from Athens was “better safe than sorry”. Crises can come at any time to anyone, they don’t respect working hours and Friday at 5 seems to be a prime time for a crisis to raise its ugly head. While theory and planning are of course important, it is hard to anticipate the sheer panic that can set in when a crisis occurs for real so training and simulation are crucial. When it comes to reacting to the crisis, the key is to be short, clear, and at all costs avoid “no comment” as a response, whatever the legal department might tell you!

Practice. Practice. Practice. Then practice some more.

 “Crises move quickly, so you will have to too. It’s not a time for optimism, it’s a time for pragmatism.” – Chris Newstead, Wellcome Trust

Some crises are more predictable than others, and some are so out of the blue that they could never be predicted. But the process for dealing with them can be prepared and rehearsed in advance, with a crisis management plan and crisis management team. The former is a pre-arranged blueprint for the steps necessary once a crisis has been identified, the latter is an eclectic group of staff (not only communications staff!) which will guide the organisation until the crisis is dealt with.

A fair sea never made a skilful sailor

Crises come in many shapes and sizes. They can be the result of a slow build-up of pressure or a totally unpredictable occurrence. Some are more avoidable than others. As mentioned earlier, George Flessas claimed that NGOs are less prone to crises than companies, but there is a flip side of that. The philanthropy ecosystem, by doing public good, is even more vulnerable and open to attack than other sectors, because society has unrealistic expectations for us to be saints, which of course we aren’t, as Eva Barneveld from the European Cultural Foundation pointed out. Philanthropy needs to have a keen eye on the heavier clouds that are gathering apace: these are the critical storms surrounding transparency, tax avoidance, and legitimacy. Among others.

 Time for a new narrative

 “The next level is to have an opinion: this is what we do and why we do it.” – Charlotte Korsager Winther, the VELUX Foundations

Which is why institutional philanthropy is in desperate need of a new narrative, one that shows the true value of the work foundations do to improve communities, and part of this is being on the front foot in terms of criticisms levelled at the sector. A common criticism is that foundations are opaque, so they need to counter this by doing all they can to be transparent. By making financial information, funding mechanisms and areas of work as easy to find and accessible as possible you show that you have nothing to hide. The more transparent the better!

And it isn’t just about being transparent, it’s also about making information easy to understand. Faiza Khan from Paul Hamlyn Foundation, said that they share their yearly information in three ways, each with varying degrees of detail. The Annual report is the most detailed, accompanied by a video providing top level highlights, and an HTML infographic which is a balance between the two in terms of content. It is the infographic which gains the most traction with audiences, perhaps because it offers the most palatable balance of detail.

These are not calm seas for philanthropy and scrutiny and criticism, both justified and unjustified, will surely continue. The sector can no longer work on the basis that if it waits it out that the storms will blow over. As Chair of the Network Virginia Ruan pointed out, “individually we are vulnerable, but together much stronger.” While we are working collectively on this new narrative, the best way to be prepared for a storm is to first make sure that your own ship is in order.


The Communications Professionals in Philanthropy Network has its roots in the informal EFComEx network and builds on a recommendation from the 2015 European Learning Lab on Communications to create a more permanent platform for sharing, learning and networking for communications professionals in the EFC membership. The network now brings together communications professionals from more than 20 EFC members.

Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash