It would be nice if everyone agreed with us all the time. But, in the world of nonprofits and foundations, sometimes the social issue you’re advocating for is controversial and has vocal, well organized opponents.
As your organization’s communications professional, you need to get to know them. You need to follow and understand their arguments in order to try to neutralize them. As uncomfortable as they are—situations where your work may be called into question or criticized can be opportunities for you to defuse detractors before they have the chance to voice objections. But you have to anticipate and be prepared. Your preparation may not stop them, but it can substantially weaken their position.
It’s pointless to fear opponents, dangerous to ignore them, but productive to be curious about them. Get inside their heads and hearts, understand where they’re coming from. Use Web 2.0 to listen to them. Read their blogs, social media sites, and speeches. Subscribe to their publications. It’s the only way you can anticipate their actions, reactions, and the nature of any potential attacks.
Next time your organization is about to take an action or a stand that could be controversial, spend time preparing for the worst scenario. Write out the most damaging objections and criticisms your opponents could possibly make. Then force yourself to answer all of them.
First, be brutally honest with yourself about any that are TRUE. If there are weak spots in your organization or its plans, you can’t just hope those flaws don’t get noticed. You need to correct them before you act. The worst thing you can do is try to hide something in today’s world of transparency and connection.
For criticisms that are unfounded, develop positive talking points that make their point moot. (Don’t use your opponent’s negative language or issue frame.) Your goal is to answer convincingly all the difficult questions before they ever get asked, robbing your opponents of fuel. (Listen to his recent speeches; Obama is really good at this.) You’ll be amazed at how this process builds your confidence, and well as improves your powers of persuasion. If it’s useful and appropriate, share your talking points with your supporters.
This technique works for media interviews as well. Certainly, reporters aren’t opponents and shouldn’t be viewed that way. But they occasionally can ask hard questions as part of their job. You or your executives will feel much more at ease talking to them if you’ve addressed all the potentially difficult questions beforehand—and have come up with talking points that are positive, stay on message, and above all, tell the truth.
This is one way to prepare for possible criticism, but it’s no substitute for a crisis communications plan—which I will describe in a future post. Even small nonprofits should be alert to potential crises, and should have outlined an efficient process that goes into play the minute signs of a crisis appear.
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CC photo credit: humanoide