All youth sports organizations, no matter how big or small, can eventually be hit with some form of Public Relations (PR) crisis. You’ve worked hard to build and maintain a quality image and something is out there, lurking around the corner or going unseen, just waiting to ruin it. The headlines are filled daily with major PR crises that have hit youth sports organizations across the nation. These include:
- Allegations of sexual misconduct by coaches and others.
- Theft or fraud by sports association board members.
- Player deaths and severe injuries.
- Cheating or rigging games and tournaments.
- Battles between parents and coaches.
- Battles with municipalities over space and funding
There are also a myriad of minor “crises,” that if not handled quickly and properly can turn into big PR headaches. Many of these smaller events are a crisis of policy or operations, such as onerous refund policies for rain outs, running out of hot dog buns during a big tournament, or not dealing with a coach following numerous complaints. Running out of buns sounds funny until your inbox is blowing up and your community news paper runs the story!
Big or small, there are definitive steps that can be followed when dealing with a youth sports PR crisis.
As a Board-level exercise, take the more serious headlines from above and discuss how such a situation would be addressed. You will probably find that you lack a solid crisis communication plan, which should include basics such as:
· What would you say?
· Who would say it?
· What actions are being taken today to prevent it?
· What follow up actions would be taken?
Take time to plan now, so that if and when the PR ball lands in your court, you know how to handle it. Unfortunately most plans don’t last past the first battle, but having a plan is better than none at all. Depending on the size of your Board, it may be helpful to form a committee or working group focused on crisis response.
Document Your Planned Response
From the above exercise, document your planned response to each type of event. Create categories for each type of event thus creating a crisis communication plan or outline based on various scenarios. Create statements that can be quickly updated and shared with stake holders and the media should the need arise. Crisis situations typically have a beginning, middle and end. In the beginning, when facts are few and allegations may be deep, it would be good to have a brief position statement that acknowledges the situation and spells out your early actions.
Beginning Position Statement Example: “The situation involving Name is of great concern the ABC Athletic Association. We are cooperating fully with law enforcement officials and will have additional information to share as allowed and it becomes available."
As shared in our earlier blog (Time-Saving Tips for Youth Sports Administrators), make heavy use of Google Drive and Google Docs to create shareable folders and documents.
A crisis never happens when everyone is together. Like Murphy’s Law, they happen at the worst possible moment...when key Board members are out of town or during a time of transition. Make sure key staff and Board members have everyone’s emails, home and cell numbers stored in their Contacts or on their person at all times. and make sure they have their login credentials to critical software at all times. There are many free conferencing services available that enable 20 or more people to instantly join a conference call. Sign up for one and share the login credentials with all.
Learn other PR and youth sport management concepts with our free e-book:
"Effective Management Strategies for Youth Sports Leaders"
Speak with One Voice
During a crisis it is vitally important that your organization speak with one voice. All releases, statements, interviews, postings, should all stem from one person. The central person should take input from others, but when it comes time to make a public statement, the “voice” for your organization should all emanate from the person with the highest level of authority – the organization president or director. If the president is immediately unavailable, or is at the center of the crisis (ex, the one being charged), then the second highest level of authority should speak. Most youth sports organizations don’t have the luxury to have a dedicated Communications/PR Director, so the Director/President serves that role. This should all be planned out in advance so that your message is not fumbled. You may be under a great deal of stress and following a well-scripted plan will help manage your response.
Get Media Training
Unless you are a PR professional, you would be wise to get some level of PR training. There are numerous free and fee-based online PR training resources including articles, videos, blogs, and presentations, such as these tips on how to speak with a reporter. Any exposure you can have with PR response concepts before you face a crisis is time well spent.
Monitor Your Image
Planning ahead includes monitoring what others are saying about your organization. If you have an online Forum or Discussion board, monitor what parents, coaches and others are saying. Review social media comments for negative comments; not all warrant a reply, but you should be aware of what is being said and how others are responding. Most importantly, set up a Google Alert to capture any mention of your organization on the internet. Google Alerts is free and super easy to set up and it will find any mention of your organization that is publicly posted online.
Don’t Dodge the Crisis
Unlike Dodge Ball, your goal should be to respond professionally to a PR crisis, not dodge it. Dodging questions and issues only makes things worse in the long run. Be responsive by following the plan you have created from the above steps. Keep calm and controlled and stick to your message. Remember that a PR crisis has a beginning, middle and end. Issue statements and responses that are pertinent to each stage and don’t let lower level staff or board members go on the record for your organization. Keep the message coming from the top!
After Action Recap
In military operations there is always an after- action assessment of what went right, what went wrong, and what steps could be taken for a better result in the future. Follow each PR crisis with an after action recap to dissect and document your response. Update your plan with specific lessons learned. Use any crisis or major event you face as a learning experience to expose ways in which your organization can improve its operations and response to similar events in the future.
Summary: Should your organization be hit by a crisis, by following the above 8 steps to PR crisis management, your overall response will be more prepared and professional. Step #1, Plan Ahead, is the most important. As the saying goes, the best defense is a good offense. If you are running background checks, have solid financial controls in place, and are looking for problems before they happen, you may still have some damage to your organization's reputation but it will be minimized by your planning and professional response. The result: you will be perceived by the public as being in control versus out of control.
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