Proactive Communications Rely on Expecting the Unexpected

As news is created and distributed at a previously unimaginable pace, not-for-profit institutions must be prepared to respond rapidly to potential legal and reputational challenges. Some of these challenges are predictable; others are unforeseen. Yet each may lend itself to negative interpretation without helpful, responsive communication from the institution.

Such situations quicken the pulse of development communications leaders. An institution’s response may leave donors disappointed – or even angry – yet may rise to a crisis level if left unaddressed. Worse, the crisis may result in becoming the institutional narrative, masking the full, positive story that institutions strive to tell in order to answer an essential question for donors, prospects and stakeholders: Why does this institution need and deserve philanthropic support?

Whether to take a reactive or proactive stance is the challenge of every development communications professional. A reactive stance is a choice to address both predictable and unpredictable issues on an “as needed” basis. While this approach may be common among time-constrained development communications professionals, it may leave unaddressed issues that can ultimately undermine the institution’s story.

Rather, we recommend a proactive stance: engaging with institutional leadership and with legal colleagues or outside professionals to develop standard communications methods to address predictable issues, and monitoring the need for responses to unpredictable issues. One outcome is the establishment of effective working relationships. These will be essential when unpredictable issues arise – some of which could become communications crises to manage.

When confronting challenging issues that involve legal or regulatory considerations, development communications professionals seek two desired outcomes: First, sustain confidence among donors in the institution and its leadership; and second, maintain public trust on issues that may have a high degree of visibility.

A proactive approach provides a stronger foundation for achieving these outcomes. Certainly, development communications leaders are constrained by the amount of time and budget available to apply to legal and regulatory issues. The reactive stance is not uncommon. But by actively considering predictable issues for which a proactive approach is possible, you can position yourselves for success if and when your institutions navigate the tricky waters of unexpected communications challenges.

Read the full article in the Winter 2015 GG+A Quarterly Review, now available online.

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