Crisis management: What to do when things go south

Posted on 10 Apr 2024

By Brett de Hoedt, not-for-profit communications specialist and Mayor of Hootville Communications

Disaster Response shutterstock 151314566
Being prepared will go a long way to your organisation surviving a crisis.

If crises were predictable we’d never have to experience them, but life is complicated and – in time – your crisis is inevitable.

Crises come in many forms – sometimes you are to blame, at other times you are but an innocent victim, some arise out of the blue but many are slow-burning. I’ve dealt with crises for clients that were literally a decade in the making. Regardless, a crisis will test your mettle and your communications.

You’re more likely to have a crisis if you are a large employer, utilise volunteers, fall into the culture wars (transgender issues), have a unionised workforce (Qantas), work with vulnerable groups (homeless, aged, people with disabilities), seek big cultural or economic changes (ending negative gearing, cutting migration), or are a faith- or ethnically based organisation (as seen during the Gaza–Israel war).

Plus individuals are more willing and able to create a crisis – sometimes just for the LOLs.


Everybody’s crisis will be different.

You may be seen as liable for the situation – or not.

You may start with a high degree of goodwill – or not.

Danger Zone Brett
Watch for the Danger Zone! Source: Hootville

High liability and low goodwill is the Kenny Loggins quadrant (aka the Danger Zone). Suddenly heads must roll and the future is uncertain. Eg: You are cutting back on aged care services (high liability) and experience low goodwill (you are a local council). This is when the threat is existential.

Media stock
You're not obliged to call the media outlet back, suggests Hootville's Brett de Hoedt.


Most crises don’t involve media, though they loom large in our imagination. One tip: you don’t have to respond to media enquiries and you need not do an interview. Frankly, if you are culpable for the crisis, think thrice about doing media.

Keywords here are: deny, delay, distribute (blame), discredit (those who deserve some of the blame), delegate (to a committee or peak to investigate), do not call back, and if all else fails threaten defamation.

I’ve snuffed out media interest for clients by playing a dead bat – delaying our response, clarifying their perceptions of the situation and keeping communications strictly off the record. If you do chose to front the media be sure to be professionally and thoroughly prepared.

And if you are an innocent party you need to rush to the media to set the record straight.

Crises can bubble away on the backburner for years. As a leader, you need a culture that encourages everyone to raise their concerns with senior staff, secure that they as messengers won’t be shot.


Instead of talking to media, you need to prioritise your stakeholders, starting with those who can decide whether you live or die: government, regulators, funders and partners. Stakeholders need to be kept in touch and kept abreast of your remediations, ideally face-to-face from your most senior folk.

Target Groups Brett
Understand and prioritise your stakeholders, starting in the centre. Picture: Hootville

Don’t be the last to know

Crises can bubble away on the backburner for years. As a leader, you need a culture that encourages everyone to raise their concerns with senior staff, secure that they as messengers won’t be shot. Disgruntled clients, staff or volunteers, related party transactions, poor governance and dubious practices are often well known in an organisation but only in certain circles.


You need a plan far ahead of the crisis. A simple plan will:

  • map out your team, which will include your decision-makers, spokespeople and communications people. The fewer and the smarter the better.
  • map out your decison-making and approval process. Do you need the whole board to assemble? A simple majority? The simpler and more responsive the better.
  • identify probable and potential crises.
  • map out key messages and draft communications around these. This will save you much time when the crisis comes. Create separate communications for media, donors, staff, partners etc.
  • identify and train spokespeople.
  • identify potential third-party advocates who may speak on your behalf.
  • identify sympathetic media outlets and journalists for times when you will seek media. Build a connection with them.
Crisis Mgt Issues
A few considerations for well-prepared not-for-profit leaders.

Reducing your risk

There are many elements to reducing your risk, ranging from hiring well, to firing quickly, strong social media policies, building strong bonds with media and stakeholders and – need I say – having a high quality organisation to begin with.


Most crises go undiscovered and even those that do manifest are survived with just a few bruises – typically fewer than are deserved.

Brett de Hoedt has spent the last quarter of a century as the undisputed Mayor of Hootville Communications.

Access the webinar

Access the full presentation upon which this article is based, in which Brett explains that organisations should, at miniumum:

  • calculate your likelihood of a crisis, suggesting most crises are predictable
  • prepare their teams and crisis resources now
  • learn how to deal with hostile media attention
  • learn how to apologise
  • how to rebuild a reputation post-crisis.

Tap here to access the 75-minute session. ($88 for ICDA members)

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