Learning from Others: Tips to Help You Prepare for a Crisis
Updated: Jun 1
Note: I worked with NEDA briefly during the summer of 2022 but was not involved in this project or related crisis planning.
Just yesterday I was thinking about searching the news for good and bad crisis responses. Today, one fell in my lap.
The National Eating Disorders Association recently notified its helpline staff and its 200 volunteers it would be shutting down the helpline, which according to a story on NPR, assisted 70,000 people last year. The helpline, the organization says, will be replaced with the chatbot, Tessa, whose creation NEDA funded through one of its research grants. According to NPR, the announcement to staff that the NEDA Helpline will be shuttered came two weeks after the helpline staff unionized.
While the organization has not made a formal announcement of the change, the story is gaining traction. Three weeks ago, a website, LaborNotes, which is by and for union activists, ran a story titled, "A Union Busting Chatbot? Eating Disorders Nonprofit Puts the 'AI' in Retaliation." Catchy.
NPR ran its six-minute story today on Morning Edition. In it, the reporter references NEDA's assertion that the plan has been in the works for months. Hmmm.
Read my blog on the 10 steps to follow if you don't have a crisis plan but need one now.
If I were advising an organization that announced some staff members were losing their jobs soon after they unionized, I would say, "We need a plan now." It appears no one advised NEDA to do this. Based on a Google news search and a visit to the NEDA website, the organization has not issued a statement or posted information about the change.
For the NPR story, NEDA's VP of Mission and Education is not quoted addressing the helpline closure. She does, however, speak to the liability issues surrounding the helpline. She points out that the helpline is receiving a growing number of calls related to self-harm, which NEDA Helpline staffers and volunteers are not trained for.
The only other information directly from the organization is a recording of the board president announcing the change during what the reporter calls a staff meeting. There is no official statement from NEDA quoted during the news story. There is always the chance the VP addressed the end of the helpline service when she was interviewed, but one is not included in the NPR story that aired.
Since NEDA has not communicated publicly its reasons for discontinuing the helpline service, the following narrative is emerging: Overworked NEDA Helpline staff asked for help from the agency and were not heard. Staff unionized. Soon after, they were told they were losing their jobs.
Okay. I know. I can hear people within the organization saying their side of the story is not being told. And they are right. It’s not. But whose fault is that?
It is an organization’s responsibility to prepare for and respond to crisis events. In NEDA’s case, it knew it was ending the helpline service and had three weeks between the LaborNotes and NPR stories to tell its side. But it apparently didn't, even though all it needed to do was engage staff in meaningful ways and communicate the change to users, partners, and advocates before they heard it on a national news show.
How could NEDA have either changed the narrative or at least had a voice in it? As soon as NEDA knew it was going to close the helpline, it should have begun planning and putting in place a crisis communications response. What would this look like? Read on about crisis preparation steps NEDA could have taken to blunt the negative response to the end of the helpline service.
1. Identify audiences who will be affected by the change. NEDA’s audiences may include:
Developers of the Tessa chatbot
Board members, advocates, and friends of NEDA
2. Identify key messages for each audience. In this case, messages and talking points should address each audience's concerns, questions, and, if any, the role they may play as a NEDA advocate or supporter.
For audiences directly affected by the change or crisis: Lead with empathy and understanding. For example, for staff and users, the organization could release and post a statement such as: NEDA recognizes the helpline’s role in helping thousands of individuals along their recovery journey. While we have decided to discontinue this service due to X,Y,Z, we will be providing ...."
3. Reach out to partners, advocates, board members, and influencers to inform them of the change and provide them with NEDA’s messages, talking points, and supporting facts.
Major partners and advocates should be notified as soon as possible about a major change. If NEDA had taken this step, the following unfortunate interview would not have been in the story. The NPR reporter reached out to the team that created the Tessa chatbot. The spokesperson sounded surprised that NEDA would be ending the helpline and relying on Tessa. She went on to say that Tessa was not a tool to help those in immediate need. If the Tessa creator had been notified about the change earlier in the process, such as when the LabNotes article appeared, the interview may have turned out better. NEDA and the creator could have discussed NEDA’s plans and ensured the two organizations communicated complementary messages. Influencers are also important partners who can provide context to their followers on issues that affect them.
4. Write and post content to the website and social media, along with a statement that can be sent to the news media and secondary partners who reach out to the organization. While I understand and sometimes recommend a wait-and-see approach to see if a story gains traction, as soon as LaborNotes posted its story, I would have begun using owned media to announce the end of the helpline service. This approach would have allowed NEDA to be proactive and control the narrative, at least at the beginning.
5. Choose a spokesperson. Who should speak on behalf of the organization? It depends on the crisis. In this case, I recommend the CEO speak on behalf of the organization to major media outlets. By having the CEO as the spokesperson, the organization illustrates that this was a decision that was not made lightly.
One last tip: stay on message. This one is simple.
Policy decisions have the potential to become a crisis, as NEDA's decision to end the helpline service has. Prepare for these events. If they don’t become crises, you have done some great research and created messages and strategies that can be applied in the future. If it does, you can tell your story instead of letting others do it for you.
Want to learn more. Read my blog on the five critical parts of a crisis communications response.