Nonprofit Crisis Communications: What The American Red Cross Should Do Now

Nonprofit Crisis Communications: What The American Red Cross Should Do Now

Julia Claire Campbell Nonprofits, Social Media, Strategy 5 Comments

Nonprofit Crisis Communications: What The American Red Cross Should Do Now

photo credit: 96dpi via photopin cc

Update 10-31-2014: Gwen Ifill on PBS interviews Suzy DeFrancis, Chief Public Affairs Officer of the American Red Cross. 

Update 10-29-2014: The American Red Cross published a blog post titled American Red Cross Responds to Inaccuracies in ProPublica and NPR Stories. Still no proactive action from them that I can see on social media sites; not even a tweeted link to their blog post. They also issued a press release, available on their website. 

By now you may have heard NPR’s story “Red Cross ‘Diverted Assets’ During Storms’ Aftermath To Focus On Image” or read ProPublica’s article “The Red Cross’ Secret Disaster.” There is even a post on Gawker with the straightforward title: “Don’t Donate to the Red Cross.”

In summary: After Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Isaac in 2012, Americans pulled out their wallets and donated generously to the American Red Cross – over $300 million poured in to help the victims of the storms. President Obama himself, along with other celebrities and elected officials, encouraged Americans to give generously to the Red Cross’ relief efforts.

According to the investigative journalism of ProPublica and NPR, the Red Cross allegedly completely botched this relief effort because they were entirely focused on their public image and not on the victims.

The accusations are pretty harsh. Most of them are based on claims from one employee, Richard Rieckenberg, who worked in the field for several years. The claims in the article include:

  • Aid vehicles were kept empty and used as backdrops for press conferences and not for delivering aid;
  • Handicapped storm victims “slept in their wheelchairs for days” because the Red Cross didn’t get them cots;
  • Sex offenders prowled the children’s areas of Red Cross shelters because of staff incompetence;
  • Thousands of meals  had to be thrown out because the organization could not find people in need;
  • Red Cross volunteers were sent to Tampa, despite predictions that the hurricane would pass by there, to impress Republicans at their National Convention;


I usually hate these kinds of stories because they feed into this pervasive believe that large nonprofit organizations are corrupt and ineffective. It hurts the entire sector, and creates a kind-of anti-nonprofit hysteria that is especially destructive right before the holiday year-end giving season.

That being said, there is no doubt that this story is resonating with the general public, and creating quite a buzz. So how should the Red Cross respond?

1)     Admit that this is happening.

To the public, it appears that the Red Cross is in denial about this story and its extreme allegations. If you read the ProPublica story closely, they link to a document called “Red Cross Response on Lessons Learned.” This is where the Red Cross appears to spell out their answers and rebuttals to the accusations. It’s a 5 page word document, text-heavy, that no one is going to take the time to read.

The Red Cross also issued a brief, bland “media statement” that says nothing and does not elicit much inspiration. It is worth nothing that the only places I could find these documents were as links in the ProPublica article.

2)     Do not make excuses.

Apologies look weak when paired with flimsy excuses. Yes, the Red Cross has more than 26,000 employees and hundreds of chapters across the country. Yes, there were over 17,000 disaster workers deployed and only a miniscule fraction of those were interviewed for the ProPublic and NPR’s reports. Emergency crisis responses are complicated and often messy (just look at FEMA).

But the fact remains – the Red Cross brand is tarnished and the allegations are juicy and make headlines. Simply throwing numbers and statistics around will not change hearts and minds.

3)     Conduct immediate triage.

There are a small number of real Red Cross staff members and volunteers who are corroborating this story and saying the response was “demoralizing” and only about “the appearance of aid, not actually delivering it.” These people signed up to help and clearly became disillusioned. Work with these people first.

Talk with them directly and discreetly (not as a PR stunt), address their concerns, do NOT dismiss their comments or minimize their opinions, simply get into the conversation and address their claims head on.

4)     Mobilize Brand Ambassadors on social media.

The worst thing the Red Cross could do right now is start a traditional PR campaign. A social media effort coordinated and spearheaded by passionate volunteers, donors and Brand Ambassadors would be incredibly more powerful.

It just takes one volunteer to create a hashtag – say, #IAmRedCross – and share their positive experiences online to encourage others to also post their stories.

Facebook: The American Red Cross has 651,051 fans on their Facebook Page. They have not yet responded to the ProPublica article on their Page (published on Wednesday).

The last post on the Page is related to Superstorm Sandy (it was posted on Tuesday), mentioning the two year anniversary (see below).

There are a few negative comments on this post related to the recent news story, but most are positive. However, it doesn’t appear that the Red Cross monitors the discussion at all, because it has not contributed or monitored spam comments. A HUGE missed opportunity.

Twitter: There are absolutely NO mentions on the @RedCross Twitter account of the story or any response to it. And their account has 1.61 MILLION followers!  All the tweets are focused on blood donations. While the organization does not have to directly respond to the allegations, they can retweet supportive tweets from followers and volunteers, share success stories and answer questions from supporters. Right now it seems like a marketing robot is managing Twitter, not a real person.

YouTube: I would create a short video, featuring interviews with actual Sandy survivors who benefited from help provided by the Red Cross. Their YouTube channel has almost 15,000 subscribers.

5)     Feature Sandy/Isaac success stories on the website.

The website has a small story called “Rebuilding Two Years after Sandy, One Home at a Time.” It was posted on Tuesday, the day before the NPR and ProPublica stories were published. It claims that the organization has “spent or committed more than 99 percent of the $311.5 million received in donations for Sandy emergency relief and recovery efforts.”

Now may be the time to promote this number and this accomplishment – not hide it in a story that can barely be found on the website home page.

6)     Call on partners.

I am sure that the Red Cross works with hundreds if not thousands of other organizations every year. Call on these partners to vouch their support for the organization.

7)     Hold a Google Hangout on Air.

I think that holding a very public Q&A with Red Cross officials, the CEO and the Board President is a good idea.

The Q&A must be authentic and the responses must be candid and not canned or scripted. It can be recorded and published on YouTube so more people can see it.

8)     Use email.

I have no idea how large the Red Cross mailing list is, but this is a great time to use it. I suggest crafting an email thanking volunteers and donors, rather than directly responding to the allegations.

 What else could the American Red Cross do to bounce back from this latest scandal? 

Comments 5

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