Transparent Communications During Uncertain Times
The rise of COVID-19 has businesses, governments, and nonprofit organizations scrambling to survive. La Piana’s recent survey shows just how the pandemic has impacted nonprofits. 91 percent of nonprofit respondents have had to curtail their services or adapt how services are provided, while 90 percent of organizations experienced a loss of revenue. Further, nearly half of the respondents have had to make further reductions in staff and nearly a quarter of respondents expect to make further reductions in services.
These numbers exemplify the negative impact COVID-19 has had on nonprofits, but it also shines light on why so many nonprofit leaders are feeling unsecure and worried about their future. During times of uncertainty, it is imperative for organizations to employ a strategic communications plan to inform staff, community members, and other stakeholders about how the organization plans to adapt to current circumstances.
Below are some tips to keep in mind for building a solid communications strategy during uncertain times:
Root your message in your strategy
Every communication is an opportunity to reinforce your clear-sighted path to be ever more effective in your work. Wrap every communication around a core message about how you are building your future success.
Even decisions about how your organization is addressing hard times should be made to advance your long-term strategy. Your communications should reinforce that message, even if the news or the short-term action is distressing. This, of course, means organizational leaders should have clearly articulated your organization’s direction and the rationale for your choices. More on how to make quick, strategic decisions in the midst of the pandemic can be found here.
Communicate quickly and honestly
Turbulent situations like COVID-19 make individuals feel unsettled and anxious. Not only are your stakeholders worried about their own livelihoods and the wellbeing of loved ones, they are also concerned about what to expect from your organization and other nonprofits they support. Garner trust through early, candid communications. Be transparent while acknowledging you may not have all the answers. An organization that is forthright in its communications will be encouraging to its stakeholders, providing them with a sense of trust and loyalty even after the crisis has passed.
Before you communicate, however, you must identify the audiences to which you plan to reach out to. Below are some examples of groups you may want to consider:
- Membership (if applicable)
- Close collaborators/partners
- Broader community
If introducing a new initiative or recent merger, consider the above audience list when planning your communications activities. Prioritize staff above everyone else to ensure employee retention and productivity.
Develop distinct messages for each audience
Not every audience will receive the same message. Your staff is going to be interested in communications related to job security, remote work policies (as COVID-19 has necessitated), and potential salary changes; your funders are going to be concerned with the future of your operational health and program and service delivery. Your broader community will want to know how to access your services, while your partners will want to ensure you are maintaining alignment with your combined initiatives.
What’s the headline?
An exercise to consider participating in with your staff or leadership team is to develop a “headline” for your organization. By engaging staff in this exercise, every member of your organization will be prepared if they happen to answer a phone call or message from a stakeholder concerned about your work.
Ask yourselves – “if I were writing a one-sentence front page headline for how our organization is moving forward during these uncertain times, what would I write?” For example, “XYZ Arts Organization reaches thousands of students by offering virtual art classes” or “XYZ Food Bank increases community impact by supporting neighborhoods affected by COVID-19”.
The answer to this question will be your North Star in communicating with your audiences. Your headline will allow you to keep your eye on your organization’s impact while communicating how you’re adapting to the situation.
Identify methods of communication
The vehicles for communicating your messages will vary by audience. You want to engage staff as quickly as possible through a variety of methods – all-staff meetings, emails, and manager check-ins. Partners and community members may be interested in attending a virtual town hall to hear more about your organization’s plans. Funders will likely appreciate a personal phone call. The community will likely check your website and social media pages for updates.
It’s also important to communicate continuously – one e-newsletter is not enough. Keep communications frequent, consistent, and current.
Identify the spokesperson
Identify one or two people at your organization who will be equipped to handle any and all questions that may arise from your stakeholders. While any staff member should be able to recite your “headline” on the fly, any further questions should be directed to your identified spokesperson. This will likely be your executive director or CEO, although larger organizations dedicate a marketing or communications leader. Trust in leadership is integral to your success during uncertain times. Your spokesperson should be media trained, have access to all agreed-upon talking points, and be willing to answer challenging questions from your community.
Engage in scenario planning
Lastly, we cannot control the future, as nice as that would be. If your organization suddenly experiences another crisis, such as sudden loss of funding or cuts to programming, you should already be prepared with a plan. Engage in scenario planning as soon as possible to prepare for any additional issues that may arise. If you are unprepared, you’ll not only be scrambling to communicate your plan, but you’ll be scrambling to actually figure out what that plan is.
An effective communications strategy is vital to the success of any organization, and even more critical during turbulent times. Spending adequate time on strategy development using the above suggestions will help stakeholders view your organization as responsible, trustworthy, and transparent – all essential attributes to ensure ongoing sustainability.
What communications strategies have you found to be most successful?