There is a temptation when crises hit to turn inward: marshal the troops, focus on the immediate needs of your organization or sector and weather the storm. This applies whether the crisis is localized (e.g. accusations of malfeasance) or more global in context — major natural disasters, massive outbreaks of food borne-illness or disease, and dramatic economic downturns are good examples. With the global financial meltdown we are firmly in the throes of such a crisis.
Despite the gloomy predictions crises are not intrinsically negative forces in society. In fact, the research on crisis provides evidence that crises can sometimes lead to positive outcomes. In a recent book about crisis communication, Robert Ulmer, Timothy Sellnow and Matthew Seeger (all recognized leaders in public relations and organizational communication) argue that crises are opportunities for learning and development. While a crisis is a “dangerous moment” it can also be a moment of decisive intervention, providing opportunities for organizations to be stronger than they were when the crisis hit.
In this context, a recent NCVO survey of UK-based charities found that although the vast majority of leaders in the charity sector expect the economic situation to worsen over the next year, slightly more than one-third of them “are staying positive and have identified new opportunities and areas for growth … choosing to see the current economic decline as an opportunity, either to focus their organisation on their mission or to play a vital role in supporting their local areas.”
Rather than focusing on the constraints before them, leaders in the charity sector plan to increase their activism and service provision. While there is no question that we are all experiencing heightened levels of risk and uncertainty, the contingent nature of the present situation can also create opportunities for those who are in a position to seize them.
It is not surprising therefore that many voluntary sector public relations officers (PRO’s) are advising their executives to increase their public and media visibility throughout 2009. As reported in Brand Republic, it is expected that spending by voluntary organizations on advertising and marketing will decline; yet the need to communicate strategically by delivering high levels of on-message, targeted editorial content will only become more important.
This is especially sage advice at a time when funders and donors are expecting greater levels of adherence to norms of accountability and transparency. According to Sarah Miller at the Charity Commission, the economic situation will lead to greater scrutiny of the voluntary sector: “It is vital that charities are absolutely clear in their communications about what they do, how they do it and how they use their money. That’s the basis for increasing public trust and confidence in the sector at a time when funders and individuals may reassess their giving.”