October 30, 2014 vsbly

Red Cross Responds to Accusations of PR Focus with PR Fail

If the Red Cross wants to prove the nonprofit is not prioritizing PR over its operations, its own damage control message might be the best evidence yet.

Yesterday, NPR and ProPublica published a damning report alleging that the Red Cross not only botched its responses to hurricanes Sandy and Isaac, but that the organization’s leadership diverted resources from disaster relief for PR purposes.

It looks bad. Really bad. And it’s not the first time the nonprofit organization has come under fire for mismanagement.

So, what should a nonprofit organization do when it finds itself in a communications crisis like this?

In short, NOT WHAT THE RED CROSS DID TODAY.

Defensive? Check!

First off, the “Myth vs. Fact” format is about the worst you can choose.

The format sets up the content of your message to have a shrill tone. Kind of like shouting, “did not!”

It’s defensive. And what kind of people (or organizations) are defensive? Guilty ones.

So it almost doesn’t matter what arguments you make if you’ve already chosen a template that says, “Oh, and by the way, we screwed up.”

To put it in terms the Red Cross itself might understand:

How does one respond to a natural disaster? Suit up and rush in to the point of greatest need and take on the challenge head-on. You don’t try to claim there was never a hurricane in the first place.

And especially today, when audiences have become attuned to the smartphone Panopticon, deleted tweets that haunt their writers from the grave, tan suits, and FAILs of all manner and proportion, people expect that anyone will screw up eventually, and they expect you to own up to it with class. If you don’t, you invite another kind of storm.

Amplify the accusation? Check!

They list the “myths” they wish to dispel in short, bite-sized, messages in bold red text, and their “facts” in long, dense and wordy paragraphs, so that the “myths” grab the reader’s attention.

If you want to diminish a message, don’t make eye candy out of it.

Inadequate? Check!

The Red Cross might be lacking wheelchairs for survivors with physical needs, but one type of tool they have in abundance is shovels with which to dig themselves deeper.

The first “Fact” they list is not, in fact, a fact: “Our mission is to alleviate human suffering in the face of emergencies, and that alone is what guided our service delivery decisions during Sandy and during every emergency.” Readers know, more or less, what the organization’s stated aims are. Starting off a response to a detailed report with a vague mission statement sounds like you’re trying to change the subject.

This vagueness and evasion kills the response elsewhere, too. “They chose not to include our response,” the Red Cross writes. Well, what was your response to NPR and ProPublica’s accusations? Where is a link? The Red Cross chose not to include it.

We’re not trying to bash the Red Cross. We’re not here to defend them, either. We’re not confident that any broad conclusion can be gleaned about one very large organization with hundreds of chapters based on one investigative report and one apparently hastily-written rebuttal.

But they could have done better.

How should a nonprofit organization like Red Cross respond?

  1. Create a response strategy

    To avoid compounding your nonprofit’s problems, don’t respond reactively. Respond purposefully according to a carefully-thought-out communications plan that includes language that is clear, concise, and – this is key for nonprofit communications (or, for that matter, everybody always) – authentic.

  2. Create an honest message

    No corporate-speak. No deflecting. No “Our mission is to…” Acknowledge the problem and take responsibility. You can admit you’re not perfect, and still be proud. (There might even be a useful soundbite in there.)

    Faced with the leak of internal documents in which Red Cross staff detail “multiple system failures,” there can be no denial.

    But there can be a re-framing of the message. For example:

    “Of course, there were failures among the many successes. You’re seeing these reports because we took it upon ourselves to evaluate our efforts, and ask, ‘how can we do better next time? How can we bring more aid, comfort more people, and possible save more lives?’”

    “If we weren’t self-critical and self-improving, there wouldn’t be this report in the first place. When you see these internal documents that we ourselves prepared, you’re seeing us asking ourselves, ‘what can we learn so that we serve the public better and use our resources more effectively next time.”

    The key is to respond in real language like real people use. And speaking of real people…

  3. Put a face on it

    A nonprofit organization can’t look a person in the eye, connect, and convince. Only a person can do that. Get a spokesperson out there, and the higher up the better. A personal response can show leadership. An organizational response looks like the responsible individuals are avoiding public scrutiny.

    Suzy DeFrancis, the chief public affairs officer for the American Red Cross, was interviewed on NPR today.

    Wrong Face.

    CEO Gail McGovern should be out in front of a story of this size.

  4. Own the conversation

    This story is so hot right now, that if McGovern were made available, her message would be everywhere immediately.

    A talking head video on YouTube would likely crowd out the negative messages on social media, or at the very least give them stiff competition for attention.

  5. Leverage your community

    This is our answer to literally everything (figuratively, but also, probably, literally). And it applies here.

    Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the Red Cross is not rotten to the core and that they have touched people’s lives in powerful, positive ways. Right there is their army of spokespeople: volunteers, disaster survivors, and partners.

    If they see the organization acting shady they might be reluctant to carry its message. But if they see the organization being classy, showing leadership and taking responsibility, community members can be encouraged to share their own positive experiences with the nonprofit’s work.

What do you think?

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