Last month, our much beloved no-kill animal shelter had an outbreak of canine distemper and needed communications help.
They are not a client, but the executive director contacted me, and, feeling like Wonder Woman, I immediately cleared my calendar and accepted the mission. It’s not often I get to help save the puppies!
The situation had many moving parts (as do most crisis situations) and I wanted to share with you our strategy to address the many audiences and questions we anticipated would arise.
First, some background: Canine distemper is viral and deadly. What’s worse, symptoms might not surface for months making it difficult to detect and contain. Imagine having a breakout in the shelter, and adopting out dogs with the disease.
Map out the messages.
There were many items that needed to be addressed:
- Everyone’s first question will be how did this happen?
- Secondly, there will be fear the disease will spread in the community.
- Others aren’t familiar with canine distemper so there has to be an educational component.
- Adoptions at the shelter were put on hold.
- Sadly, a few puppies died from the disease.
- What is the shelter doing now to fix the situation? Lots of testing, in fact, they are using a new protocol to address the issue humanely, instead of euthanizing their entire population, which some shelters have done.
- They are working closely with local veterinarians to offer free vaccines to keep the outbreak contained.
- All of this costs money and they started a crowdfunding account to make up for the unplanned expense.
As you can see, lots to communicate.
Then, we looked at the channels of communication:
- Local paper – being very cooperative and publishing articles, doing interviews.
- Local vets – varied degrees of cooperation – some ambassadors and perhaps a dissenter or two.
- Social media – a highly active Facebook community.
- Their owned content – the blog.
We didn’t have much time because the paper was waiting for a call back on deadline for the next day’s printing.
The question is, do we put everything in a release and give it all to the paper? God, no. That will overwhelm everyone with too much complex messaging.
We have to break out the messages into chunks and trickle it out over the next several days. We don’t have to give everything up at once. Create singular, simple messages to roll out one at a time.
First priority: Containment and awareness.
- What: Clarify the problem by stating the facts (and only the facts! No speculation!) and the risks.
- How: Outline what you are doing to contain the problem: We described the testing and protocols, and explained that for this reason, adoptions were temporarily suspended. We even included a quote from a local and respected vet who backed up the shelter’s methods for dealing with this.
- How: Explain what the community can do to help: Please, get your dog vaccinated if it is not already, and here is where the free clinics are.
- Why: This is the part that can wait. Yes, everyone wants to know why this happened, so go ahead and acknowledge that the cause is under investigation and you’ll share more information when it becomes available. (It’s OK not to have all the answers.) There is no need to speculate or provide information before it’s been fully explored. Why this happened is important to everyone. But we need to focus on immediate priorities without muddling the message.
Roll that out to the paper.
Next, you can dissect the individual messages and determine the channel to share it. For example, get the schedule of free vaccine clinics on your FB page – maybe even make a share-able graphic to engage the community in the solution and help spread the word.
Post information on your blog as it comes available and all calls to action drive to the blog where you have control over the message and the ability to continually update. In our case, we had updated to share to Facebook and on the blog every day. Soon, testing was completed and adoptions were reinstated. We were able to share that fundraising link.
Communicate the resolution.
Announce to the world the exciting news. Share with everyone what you did, and how you know it’s now safe. You avoided the worse case scenario (in this case, it was to euthanize their canine population, which thankfully, they did not resort to) But you took the more expensive route. Again, calls to action to get your own dog vaccinated and here is a link to our crowdfunding campaign.
Then, you can answer: What the hell happened to cause this?
Once you are somewhat past crisis mode, you address the cause. The adoptions were back on, the community had helped spread the word about getting vaccinated, now we all want to know what the heck happened and how it won’t (hopefully) happen again. Nothing is guaranteed, of course, it could happen again, but here is where you talk about all you’ll do (everything in your power) to make sure it won’t happen again.
Tracking results: How’d you do?
If your community is active socially, track everything in Topsy so you can see what are people saying about you and measure the general sentiment. Are they for you or against you? Track and measure the comments and feedback into sentiment: positive, negative, neutral. Track that fundraising amount. You’ll have other benchmarks for your own crisis communications. Be sure and have that in mind from the beginning so your tactics drive that action, and give you something to measure.
Let me wrap up with some takeaways:
- Prioritize and simplify your messaging. Don’t try to distribute all the information at once. Trickle it out. At the same time, do not put your head in the sand.
- Get third party social proof to show you’re doing what needs to be done. Having back up from a respected veterinarian reassured the community the shelter was doing the right thing, even if it was more expensive.
- Don’t be afraid to address controversial issues and be up front about it. It will build trust.
- Not everyone will agree with your tactics. That’s fine. Don’t let dissenters take you down. Focus on your ambassadors (that’s why having some respected influencers come to your defense by way of a quote you can use is helpful)
- BE AWESOME before you even get into crisis. When you have already built community and trust, people give you the benefit of the doubt. They want to be on your side.
If anything, I hope that is the biggest thing you take away. Our shelter is much loved and respected within our community. They were already active on Facebook. In times of trouble, you can’t put a value on that kind of sentiment.