Ice Bucket Lessons: Two Fundamentals To Navigate PR Peaks And Valleys

Social media channels were filled with videos of the Ice Bucket Challenge in August 2014. The viral video wasn’t orchestrated by the ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) Association, but it resulted in tremendous awareness of the disease and raised millions of dollars in donations.

Everyone from the kids down the street to Bill Gates doused themselves with a bucket of ice water to raise awareness and dollars for a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord.

What could go wrong?

Today’s high-performing communications and public relations teams know many challenges can appear without any warning. A fine line is walked between being prepared for unknown threats and constantly troubleshooting worst-case scenarios. It’s not healthy or productive to spend too much time worrying about what could happen. Instead, a diligent focus on fundamentals is the most valuable investment of time and resources.

Sandra Sullivan, Communications and Marketing Manager, and Katie McGovern, Development Director, of the ALS St. Louis Regional Chapter, speak during the Community Service Public Relations Council's meeting in January.

Sandra Sullivan, Communications and Marketing Manager, and Katie McGovern, Development Director, of the ALS St. Louis Regional Chapter, speak during the Community Service Public Relations Council’s meeting in January.

Two members of the ALS St. Louis Regional Chapter emphasized the importance of the fundamentals during the Community Service Public Relations Council meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 13. Sandra Sullivan, the Communications and Marketing Manager, and Katie McGovern, the Development Director, reviewed lessons learned in crisis communications and many other areas. (Click here for a PDF of their slide deck, “After The Ice Melts.“)

On Aug. 17, the national headquarters of ALS announced the Ice Bucket Challenge resulted in $13.3 million in donations, compared to $1.7 million during the same period (July 29 to Aug. 17) in 2013. The donations came from existing donors and 259,505 new donors.

“But then came the whispers of backlash,” said Sullivan.

Here’s a sampling of the criticisms:

  • It was irresponsible for people in California to do the Ice Bucket Challenge because of the severe drought.
  • It was immoral and unethical if embryonic stem cells to be used in research to cure the disease.
  • It was wrong if animals were used in medical research to cure the disease.
  • The organization’s size and capacity was insufficient to properly manage the increase in donations.

The national organization and local chapters found themselves in a crisis they never expected. The national organization didn’t have a formal crisis plan in place for an event of this nature and magnitude.

Fundamental No. 1: When Someone’s Throwing Stones, Don’t Hide Under Your Desk

The national organization immediately developed messages to respond to criticisms and distributed the messages to its chapters. Daily updates reported on donations and addressed various topics. This created messaging that was consistent and focused as more than 40 chapters engaged with hundreds of thousands of stakeholders.

“We needed to be completely transparent and respond to criticism swiftly and gracefully,” Sullivan said.

Fundamental No. 2: Rely On The Fundamentals

Sullivan and McGovern emphasized how the St. Louis Regional Chapter’s board consistently practices good stewardship and governance. Their communications plan included sharing information on how the St. Louis Regional Chapter followed best practices for financial accountability.  The organization filed and posted on its website the 2013 IRS Form 990, which shows revenue and expenses along with other financial and operational information, and its annual report. It earned an A-Plus accreditation with the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance and was a Silver Participant in the GuideStar transparency ratings.

“When this hit, we had all of our ducks in a row,” said Sullivan. “Looking back, had we not had any of those in place, we would have been in big trouble and our credibility could have been questioned and compromised.”

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