Nonprofit Technology

The Nonprofit Guide to Dealing with Negative Press

Published by in Nonprofit Technology

Nonprofits rely on the goodwill of donors to supply their organization with the funds necessary to carry out a mission. That relationship is built on the trust that nonprofit organizations will do right by their donors and maintain the moral high ground.

Unfortunately, some organizations get caught up in stories (either true or not) that hurt their reputation and undercut their funding. In fact, nonprofit organizations are far more likely to suffer a loss of reputation because of negative reporting than their for-profit counterparts, according to Stuart Mandel in Crain’s Cleveland Business:

These nonprofits, they’re really fragile. Their whole ability to succeed is based on people’s desire to trust them, and they have to appear that they know what they’re doing. There is a direct connection of the leadership and the perceived competency of the organization and its ability to raise money. If they didn’t handle it right, their fundraising campaigns would be in jeopardy.

That’s why it is so important for nonprofits to have a plan in place to mitigate the aftermath of negative publicity.

I’ve put together a four-step guide for nonprofits to use to build a response plan to dealing with negative press. Take control of your nonprofit’s image using social media marketing software and some PR smarts—don’t let others do it for you.

1. Consider the source of the story

Negative press - Consider the source

The first course of action when dealing with a negative story is to evaluate the source of the story.

What authority does the source command? What is their history of reporting and does anyone take them seriously? Sometimes when a source isn’t respectable, silence is the best strategy.

Your nonprofit obviously commands a semblance of authority and respect, otherwise donors wouldn’t support your work. If you respond to every claim or story thrown at you without consideration for the source, you will lend credibility where it isn’t due.

The point is to let the story die off with the credibility of the publisher, instead of giving the story a platform to thrive. However, it doesn’t hurt to investigate the claims on your own end in case the story is picked up by a more respectable news source.

2. Contact the reporter

Negative press - Contact the reporter

What if the source is respected and credible, but the story is factually incorrect? Chances are the error was a mistake and if you contact them, most publications are willing to issue corrections.

In the case that the story is correct in some areas and mistaken in others, use this contact as an opportunity to explain your side of the story. Whatever you do, don’t come off as combative as this will most likely result in a defensive reaction. Once you’ve turned a reporter against you, it’s hard to bring them back to your side.

If your concerns are not addressed by the reporter, consider contacting the editor of the publication. Perhaps you aren’t the only person that has concerns about this reporter and your call will move the needle in your direction. But be careful with how you approach this strategy. When presenting your concerns to the editor, try to word it as a misunderstanding with the reporter rather than a complaint.

The ultimate goal of getting in contact with the publication is to make your side of the story heard, not to make more enemies.

3. Issue a public response

Negative press - Issue a public response

Thanks to the internet, it’s easier than ever to issue a widespread response. Write a response on your blog, post on social media, or reach out to a favorable publication with a letter to the editor or an op-ed.

When writing your response, don’t dwell on the negative press. Mention it for the sake of context, then move on to explain your point of view. If your nonprofit is at fault for the negative press—say your nonprofit experienced a data breach due to an employee’s error—then it’s important to own the mistake, and focus your response on what your organization is doing to address the situation.

For a great example of handling a PR crisis in an op-ed, be sure to read Coca-Cola’s Wall Street Journal op-ed “We’ll Do Better.”

Don’t engage in mudslinging against the source of the story either. Attacking the source is a fruitless approach. Due to the amount of reach and influence reporters have, attacking a source only opens your nonprofit up to further negative attention.

Once you’ve established your point of view and made promises of reparations (if necessary), move onto positive aspects about your nonprofit:

  • The number of people you’ve helped
  • The successful projects you’ve facilitated
  • The importance of your mission

It’s important to end your response on a positive note so readers have a chance to reflect on all the good your nonprofit does.

4. Don’t engage in a social media battle

Negative press - Social media comments

If there’s one fight more fruitless than battling a reporter, it’s battling the internet and its plethora of opinions, trolls, and PR pitfalls.

However, if your negative press results in attacks on social media, there are ways to handle this type of feedback. Much of it is similar to responding to a negative news story. A comment here or there on your social media shouldn’t concern you too much, especially if the comments are coming from the source of the story and the source is not respectable.

However, if comments are flooding in from dozens of people in response to a story, don’t react defensively. Instead, politely respond with a link to your official response and a call to read the response.

Keep in mind that everything you post online is visible for all to see. All it takes is a poorly worded response, a few hyperlinks, and a screenshot or two to turn this response campaign into a whole other controversy. If the attacks are vitriolic and unreasonable, don’t respond to or delete these comments. Leave them as evidence of your nonprofit taking the high road.

Other nonprofit guides

My girlfriend calls me “The Professor” because I love explaining all sorts of things to everyone (even if they don’t want to hear it). Good thing that talent comes in handy when producing these guides for nonprofits and nonprofit technology.

If you enjoyed this piece, be sure to also check these other blog posts:

Looking for Nonprofit software? Check out Capterra's list of the best Nonprofit software solutions.

About the Author

Nick Morpus

Nick Morpus

Nick Morpus is a former Capterra analyst.


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