11 Tips for Crisis Communications from America’s Favorite Fixer, Olivia Pope

As a female public relations specialist, few things excite me more than watching Olivia Pope work her PR magic in ABC’s hit series, “Scandal.” She’s calm, deliberate, thoughtful, and manages crises like a pro.

In the event of a crisis, is your nonprofit or foundation prepared? One look at crisis communications gone wrong, such as the Costa Concordia disaster or the Netflix debacle, illustrates how important it is to plan accordingly.

Don’t have your own Olivia Pope on staff? Don’t worry! Here are 11 takeaways you can learn from watching America’s favorite fixer in action!

Stay Calm
You don’t see Olivia Pope running around in a panic in the middle of a crisis so neither should you! Take a deep breath and work from a place of mindfulness.

Have a Crisis Response Plan in Place
Craft a strategic plan for a crisis. Identify your brand manager (even nonprofits need a brand manager), your spokesperson, your writer, and your leader ahead of time. Don’t waste your time deciding these details during a crisis; plan in advance to mitigate negative outcomes.

Go With Your Gut
Pope always checks her gut when she’s making a decision. In a crisis situation, listen to your gut feelings about the problem. Often, you’ll be right.

Identify the End Game
Don’t act until you know the end game. What is the result you want to get on the other side of this crisis? Whether it’s to maintain your nonprofit’s integrity or to manage its reputation, you have to know the destination you’re driving towards.  Identify it and plan for it.

Craft Your Talking Points 
The phone could ring and the press might start knocking any minute, so craft your talking points immediately. Continually reassess to assure that you’re on message as the crisis unfolds.

Seal Up Loose Lips 
Unlike Pope and Associates, you likely won’t have to buy off witnesses to protect your foundation, but you do need to identify and contain potential loose lips that could sink your nonprofit ship. Empower your staff, board, and CEO to represent you effectively by giving them the tools they need to succeed like talking points, canned social media prompts and messages that are in line with your crisis response plan.

Respond Quickly
Case studies in crisis communications-gone-wrong always prove that time is of the essence. As time goes on, most crises get worse without response. Respond quickly and succinctly acknowledging the problem, laying out the plan to solve it, and your commitment to an end goal. Get in front of the crisis so you can set the tone. 

When in Doubt, Pivot 
If you don’t know the answer to a question, it’s okay to pivot or simply say, “I don’t know.” Stick to your talking points!

Find Your Allies
In every crisis, find out who’s on your side and find it out ahead of time if possible. Make some calls, send some emails, and recruit your partners to help support you  by releasing messages of their own or speaking on your behalf to the media.

Wear the White Hat
Do what’s right. Say you’re sorry if you made a mistake. In the end, shady business dealings always come to the surface. Be thoughtful and honest.

Know Your Strengths
And finally, don’t agree to an outcome you can’t deliver. Know what you can accomplish to fix the problem and what you can’t. Integrity goes a long way in crisis communications with key publics. So maintain it!

What tips do you have for communicating in a crisis situation?

Jessica Williams

Jessica is a former account director for Mac's List and Prichard. In her spare time, Jessica can be caught hiking with her dog Zoey, traveling to foreign lands or practicing yoga.
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