How to Steer Your Association Through a CRISIS

Edward Segal, RCE, CAE, provides crisis management services to REALTOR® and other organizations. For more, visit GetCrisisReady.com or contact Segal at GetCrisisReady@gmail.com.

Your next association crisis could come from anywhere—human resources, IT, legal, advocacy—and involve anyone—leaders, members, the media, the public. In the blink of an eye your association’s image, reputation, and credibility, and even your career, can be damaged. Do you know now what you would do first in the event of a crisis?

I faced a number of crises over 12 years as CEO of two REALTOR® associations—the Marin Association of REALTORS® in Northern California and Greater Los Angeles REALTORS®. Some situations were quickly resolved, while others festered for months before they were even discovered. It was not unusual for a crisis to make headlines in local newspapers and be the subject of committee and board meetings, blogs, tweets, and emails among agents and brokers. Sometimes a crisis would play out completely behind closed doors and involve personnel and board-related issues.

I got through my first association crisis unscathed and felt it was a one-off situation. But after going through my second, third, and fourth crises, I realized that crisis management was an integral part of my job description. Fortunately, thanks to my prior work as a public relations consultant, I knew, instinctively, how to respond to and manage crisis situations. As the leader of an organization, however, I knew I had to establish a detailed plan. Everyone in my association needed to be on the same page and know their role. Leaders needed to know that we had a plan and members needed to know we could be counted on to be a responsive and transparent organization. 

My Crisis Template

The general template of my all-purpose crisis management plan included four categories: information, action, resources, and best practices.

First, information. You can’t respond to a crisis without the facts—as many and as up-to-date as possible. You need to find out what happened, when, where, why, to whom, how, and who knows about it. 

Book cover of Crisis Ready by Edward Segal

Next, resources. Know where you can go for help and advice. Depending on the nature of the crisis, consider reaching out to the experienced staff at your state association of REALTORS® and the National Associations of REALTORS®. Have local attorneys, IT experts, or consultants in mind—if not on retainer—who specialize in, say, defamation or financial audits. Crises are not the time to be Googling for experts. You may need specific skills and resources—such as management, public relations, marketing, advertising, legal, HR, and IT—to help get through a crisis. Depending on the situation, you may have to call on assistance from first responders, law enforcement, health care providers, financial experts or government agencies.

Apart from consultants and advisors, be careful not to involve too many people in addressing a crisis. Bringing too many staff or members into the process tends to slow down decision making and can prolong or worsen the situation. 

Third, best practices. These are the basic guiding principles of any crisis that are good to have on hand to help you chart the actions you’ll take. I have a long list that includes these:

  • Always tell the truth.
  • Assume nothing. 
  • Don’t assign blame.
  • Define success in resolving the crisis.
  • Set goals and deadlines.
  • Resolve and move on from the crisis as soon as possible.

Lastly, action. Establish who will take charge of crisis response (most likely, it’s you). What you do may shift with the circumstances, but detail and prioritize your action steps in order and know when you’ll act, how you’ll act, and who will act. For example, a member has come out on social media accusing your incoming association president of sexual harassment. After you’ve collected all the facts and details, consulted with your association attorney, and reviewed your organization’s sexual harassment policy, map out your action plan of who will respond, where (social media, online, via video), and when. 

Here’s one example of a crisis I faced at the Greater Los Angeles REALTORS® that, with quick, decisive action, was snuffed out before it could explode. 

One of our most popular event venues happened to be the Beverly Hills Hotel, which was owned by the Sultan of Brunei (it still is). We had a signed contract and a sizable deposit for an event there when stories erupted in the news about the Sultan’s plans to impose harsh treatments on his own people. The headlines led to a boycott of the hotel by Hollywood celebrities and others, including members of our leadership team, who did not want the association to have any further dealings with this hotel. It didn’t take long to assess all the information, since it was detailed in the media. Our course of action was clear, and we were prepared to forfeit the deposit and pay other penalties for canceling the agreement.

We took quick action to cancel the contract and find another venue. Because we acted so quickly and were no longer a client of the hotel, the association was not mentioned in any news coverage about the situation.

Could a crisis happen to you? Of course, it could. There’s no limit to the types of emergencies, scandals, and disasters your association might face, and there’s practically nothing you can do to stop them from coming. What you can do, however, is get ready.

Other than a solid plan of action, another way to prepare is by doing some role-playing and thinking through some possible crisis scenarios. The more you are ready today, the more likely you can come through with flying colors if that scenario becomes a reality tomorrow.

Now, the shameless plug for my new book Crisis Ready, 101 Ways to Prepare for and Bounce Back from Disasters, ­Scandals, and Other Emergencies. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about crisis response and researching effective strategies. In 285 pages, I list questions to ask yourself to gauge your crisis preparedness; dozens of different scenarios based on worst-case situations and actual incidents that have befallen corporations, organizations, and individuals; the essentials of a crisis management plan; how to work with the media during a crisis; a roadmap to recovery after a crisis; and more. 

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