Crisis Management, Social Media Among Top Concerns for Nonprofits

New and proven PR strategies, tactics and tools shined as guiding lights for nonprofits seeking boosts in donor relations during tough times at the March 9 PRSA Public Relations Day for Charitable Nonprofits event in Washington, D.C. Seasoned veterans and young nonprofit workers alike gathered to hear some of the greater Washington area’s top public relations pros share strategies and fresh ideas in crisis PR, social media and fundraising public relations methods and tools.

Surviving Downturns  
When the economy plummeted, nonprofits were hit especially hard and were forced to adapt to the new financial landscape. “Gone were the days of doing things just because we’ve always done them,” said Pam Haberstroh, president and CEO of the Community Health Charities of the National Capital Area. “We’ve had to hit the reset button and look at how to do things smarter and more efficiently as resources have declined.” While hoping that the recession’s stranglehold on how nonprofits do business has loosened, Haberstroh said that nonprofits have collectively become smarter despite being leaner. With nonprofits now confronting the challenge of adding social media and trying to prove its investment, Haberstroh said, “We have to meet our constituents on their playing field in a way that’s both thoughtful and aggressive at the same time.”

Nonprofits and Crises
Noting how news outlets are constantly fishing for stories indicting nonprofits for fraudulent practices, Western Conservation Foundation’s strategic communications director Andrea Keller Helsel noted that if an organization has a crisis PR plan in place, they can not only survive a crisis, but thrive afterward. Helsel strongly recommended every nonprofit plan its five worst-case scenarios and prepare  staffs for handling a major influx of media or public questioning. “Practicing this exercise alone will  give you the confidence, tools and infrastructure to get you ready,” she said.

Developing a list of trusted media contacts and having working knowledge of the available communications tools are the two of the most critical aspects in surviving a crisis. “Make sure there’s not just one 20-year-old in your office using the nonprofits’ Twitter account, as well as just one person who knows how to update your Web site on the day of the crisis,” Helsel urged.

Anthony De Cristofaro, SVP and chief marketing communications officer for America’s Charities, said every nonprofit has a stake in leveraging good PR when it counts the most. “When a crisis happens to any one of our organizations, it affects every one of our organizations,” he said. “We can’t wait for a crisis to be practicing public relations.”

Social Media Tactics for Nonprofits
As the day’s program shifted toward using social media to increase donations and engagement with constituents, the attendees expressed both interest in and skepticism of its ROI. Shakira Hill-Holley, a senior digital media specialist for Equal Justice Works, recommended that nonprofits take a calculated and cautious approach for turning traditional media plans into integrated social media campaigns for them to be sustainable. "The online landscape is so full that we have to craft and tailor our messages in ways that are compelling and direct them to people who want to hear what we have to say,” she said. “Organizations often jump in too fast and spread themselves too thin in social media before understanding the landscape and their own goals.”

Noting the differences among users on platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, Hill-Holley suggested that nonprofits evaluate the digital landscape and define their goals before submerging themselves in every social media pool.

The day's program was highlighted by the upbeat keynote address by Robert Egger founder and president of DC Central Kitchen. "What we do is anything but nonprofit," said Egger. "We have tremendous value. We teach the young and heal the sick. We are viewed as 'nice' but not essential, and that is a collective issue we all face."

Egger, a popular veteran in both the nonprofit world and the Washington area, cited a recent change in how nonprofits practice PR. "The historic framework of getting out ideas through the traditional media has undergone a fundamental shift with the advent of the super-consumer and the super-donor."

Another theme of the day was embracing media and understanding that journalists and nonprofits need one another. Securing media coverage helps add credibility to nonprofit organizations while increasing visibility among different audiences, which is the ultimate goal for any PR pro.