Clare Davidson: Cinderella, the shoe fits - we need you at the ball...

Third Sector Promotion DRD Partnership

...or managing external scrutiny internally: you really have a say in ensuring your organisation survives a crisis, writes the founding partner of the DRD Partnership

(Photograph: Getty Images)
(Photograph: Getty Images)

Third Sector promotion

Picture the scene. The headlines are full of your charity’s name, and not for the right reasons. The phones are ringing off the hook and people are angry. Your team keeps asking you "what’s the plan?" Are you silent? Do you fudge it? Or can you be reassuring and knowledgeable so they can get on with handling the calls, emails and Facebook posts demanding to know what the charity will be doing about this?

Sadly, in our experience, the internal team, volunteers, shop managers, remote workers and those abroad feature way down the stakeholder hierarchy when crisis plans are made and are often neglected when a crisis breaks. The Cinderellas of all stakeholders, they are left behind keeping the home fires burning and learning the "truth" at the kitchen kettle, around a water cooler or via a hastily created WhatsApp group.

Internal audiences are a critical communications asset. At times of great stress, a failure to communicate sufficient information to your teams, staff and volunteers during a crisis risks generating distrust, rumourmongering, whistleblowing and, worryingly, data leaks. They are the charity’s front line, and not knowing what is going on can be difficult for them; not trusting them with critical information will mean they could (justifiably) feel neglected and betrayed.

That would be a waste. These wonderful, committed teams are fabulously well networked, have direct access to donors and investors, as well as research and corporate partners, and invariably have the celebrity ambassador on speed-dial. Imagine if they could be harnessed to actively support any external communications programme addressing the crisis? They can, and they absolutely should.

Here’s a checklist that might help.

Plan

The day a crisis breaks within your charity is not the time for original thought. Whatever stakeholder you are considering, you must prepare for how you will communicate with them, who will do it and how frequently. Your internal team is one of those stakeholders. To plan ahead, you need to do three very important tasks:

  1. Assess. Do some very serious horizon-scanning around issues and risks that are boiling up outside the charity, and ask yourself if they might create a reputational or operational risk for the organisation. Then turn inwards and undertake an internal "deep-dive" into the history of your charity and consider if any of these external risks might bring past culture, activities, partnerships or employee dissatisfaction to the surface.
  2. Allocate. Get out the yellow sticky notes and a huge whiteboard and start to plan roles, responsibilities and approval processes. Gather names and addresses, and build WhatsApp groups so that you can chat immediately and frequently with a given group as you deal with the process of informing and supporting employees.
  3. Organise. Your team might be located remotely, be virtual, on maternity leave, on holiday or volunteering at work elsewhere. Map out who needs to be contacted, how (WhatsApp, Slack and so on) and by who, and ensure that all contact details are correct. Importantly, never assume that people have their roaming on when abroad – a fatal flaw in a well-made plan.

With these foundations in place, you can then think ahead and do the following

Practice

Agree and test your internal communications mechanisms ahead of any potential crisis. This will prove that the charity’s communications structures are well placed to roll out time-critical information to all staff and volunteers, both at home and abroad. If not, sort them so that they are.

Brief

As soon as practically possible, and certainly before your team members see it on the news, on Facebook or on Twitter, gear up your internal communications processes. It is vital that internal communications are issued in a coordinated way with all external engagements. Trust your team and ensure your information helps them be part of the solution to the crisis and not isolated bystanders watching it unfold before their eyes.

Listen

Ensuring a two-way conversation with staff, and answering their questions and concerns to the furthest extent possible, can go a long way towards team cohesion during and after a crisis. In the planning phase, you and your crisis team should have developed Q&As to enable you to tackle whatever questions should come your way from your internal teams. Demonstrating openness and honesty is key.

Promise

Alleviate the fears of your internal teams through transparent, candid and regular updates when possible. In the midst of a crisis, your teams might be worried about their jobs, their co-workers and your charity’s beneficiaries: it is up to you to make them feel reassured and understand that, with their help and support, the organisation is doing all it can to ensure the charity comes out unscathed on the other side.

Deliver

Where promises are made to your internal teams, do not break them. And don’t "bump" their briefing for another stakeholder. By doing so, you risk losing internal cohesion and trust when it is needed most.

Be seen

There is nothing more unsettling for your internal teams than having a leadership team absent during a crisis. Whoever is the nominated internal spokesperson, be present and available to speak with staff frequently – this can be reassuring during a strenuous time.

Your team members are the cogs in a huge, well-oiled clock. They will be needed post-crisis, too, well after the chimes of midnight.

Good luck, and let’s make this Cinderella story have a "happily ever after".

Claire Davidson is founding partner of the London-based strategic advisory firm the DRD Partnership

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