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Dealing with crisis the United Way.

All organizations, regardless of the size or focus, occasionally face problems and events that can trigger bad press. But it is not often that the nature and magnitude of the bad news can equal what rocked United Way of America earlier this year.

In the face of a Washington Post investigative article, coupled with an in-house investigation into his high expense-account lifestyle and questionable management practices, United Way of America President William Aramony resigned on February 27, 1992. His story, characterized by the internal investigative team as one "of excess and of values lost," had major repercussions not only for the organization's national headquarters, but also for the hundreds of local offices that conduct business under the United Way umbrella.

The downfall of Aramony started more than a year ago when Alicia Mundy, a reporter from Regardie, a Washington-based business periodical, began what was to become a nine-month-long investigation. When no article seemed to be forthcoming from her research, one of her sources contacted Charles Shepard of the Washington Post, whose reporting had helped bring down TV evangelist Jim Bakker. Shepard broke the United Way story on February 16, 1992.

When the president of the U.$.' largest nonprofit agency is accused of inappropriate spending and management practices, the public relations impact is serious enough. But the manner in which the United Way is structured added a new and complicated dimension.

The United Way is made up of 2,100 local affiliates, of which 1,400 pay dues to the national organization. The local offices run their own campaigns, manage their own staffs, and distribute the funds they collect to agencies and charities in their communities. The dues they pay (about one cent of each dollar, amounting to about U.S. $29 million annually) give them access to certain services, such as advertising, training or computer programs.

When the investigation and resignation of William Aramony hit the newsstands, the local offices struggled to separate their operations from what was happening on the national scene. Public relations professionals on both the national and local levels were quickly called on to deal with the media, the public, donors, agencies and various other constituencies.

National headquarters reacts

"We first heard that an investigative piece was brewing when a former employee was interviewed for a possible story," said Sunshine Overkamp, senior vice president for corporate communication, United Way of America. "The agency's first decision, made by its legal counsel and its board, was to conduct its own investigation using an outside firm. The PR staff was involved froth day one, helping to provide information. I guess you could say our first response to the crisis was research: to find out for ourselves if what the reporter was about to say was true."

While the in-house investigation was being conducted, Overkamp and her staff worked with the Post reporter, uncertain whether he would have enough information for a story. They scheduled two lengthy interviews for him with Aramony and spent countless hours tracking down answers to his questions, consulting with legal counsel and preparing their corporate response.

"Throughout this period, we saw our job as twofold," said Overkamp. "We tried to handle the media and we also tried to make sure that the local United Ways were prepared. We faxed information to our local office regularly. In fact, the first fax we sent was to tell them that Aramony was being interviewed by the Washington Post; the second fax told them what was said in the interview."

When the story broke m the Washington Post, pick-up was light "because it came out two days before the New Hampshire primary," according to Tony DeCristofaro, vice president for corporate communications. A second, more-detailed article followed about 10 days later, and the heat was on.

The national headquarters set up a "situation room," with a television set and a few telephones. "We had circulated a hotline number for the general public, the local United Ways, and the media to use," said Overkamp. "They all rang into that room. We trained staff throughout the organization to answer questions."

The early weeks of the crisis were characterized by a round-the-clock schedule. "At 10:30 p.m., for example, we'd run down to the Washington Post offices to pick up the first edition," said DeCristofaro. "We'd work through the night outlining our responses. We'd call a 2 a.m. meeting with our lawyers. Then we'd fax the article and our comments to local offices first thing in the morning."

Overkamp kept a sleeping bag in her office, which she admitted to using more than once.

The first press conference, held February 27 (about one-and-one-half weeks after the story broke), was used to announce Aramony's resignation. Again, the national staff tried to involve the local chapters in the proceedings.

"We wanted to make sure the local United Ways would know something before they read it in he press, so at 3 p.m., we held a teleconference with 90 cities hooked in," recalls DeCristofaro. "It was a one-way video, two-way audio setup for our members only. Immediately following the teleconference, we raced upstairs to another room where we held the press conference."

A second teleconference and press conference were held March 5 to announce Kenneth Dam's appointment as interim president.

On April 2, the report prepared by the agency's outside investigators was presented to the United Way's board of governors. It contained 45 recommendations, which were accepted unanimously. Once again, the communication staff aimed to keep the local offices informed.

"After the board met, we air-expressed the report, at enormous cost, to the local United Ways," said DeCristofaro. "The report was delivered by 10 a.m. the next business day and we scheduled an 11 a.m. press briefing at a Washington, D.C., hotel to release it to the media."

Local affiliates respond

On a local level, the United Way offices were putting their own crisis plans into action. "The national office gave us up-to-date information as soon as it was available," said Diane Turner, director of public relations, United Way of King County, Seattle, Wash. "Once the issues became clear, our senior staff strategized with our volunteer public relations firm. Together we reviewed the information we had available. We defined our position, our options and some likely outcomes.

"One problem," she continued, "was that we were responding locally to a national issue. It's hard to control a controversy you did not create. But even though you may not be able to control crisis, you can control your reaction to it."

Many of the local United Way Offices had similar responses: They saw their first job as reinforcing their positions as community-based organizations, governed by a local volunteer board and providing support to local organizations.

"We emphasized local autonomy and that the money raised here stays here," said John David Sidley, manager of news and information at the United Way Services of Greater Cleveland. "Our volunteer chairman sent letters to thousands in the area, providing information about United Way of America and how it differs from United Way of Cleveland."

Mark Hofer, writer and publications coordinator of Pittsburgh's United Way of Allegheny County, described a similar strategy. "Our message was: We age separate from United Way of America," he said. "Luckily, we had some advance notice of the situation. We already had a crisis communication plan; now we took the time to fill in the details. We got our crisis team members together to frame the issues. We weren't going to assume that this one would blow over. We wanted to be ready to communicate immediately with our employees, volunteers and community agencies."

Many local United Way offices withheld partial or total dues pending the outcome of the national investigation. Although most local offices wanted to maintain a national presence, they also began to demand improved accountability and representation.

Before the Seattle office announced its decision to withhold dues, staff members sat down with editors from the city's major daily newspapers and local television stations. "We told them what we knew about the national situation; we reinforced that we are a separate office, and we informed them that we were withholding dues," said Turner. "Although that announcement generated national press, it quickly became clear that we did not want to operate in the national arena. We were here to respond locally, so we got busy establishing relationships with the local media."

A silver lining?

Surprisingly, many of the local offices saw a silver lining in the gloomy headlines. "Before the controversy, our biggest obstacle was apathy," said Cleveland's Sidley. "People were bored with the United Way and with our message. But the scandal presented us with an opportunity to grab people's attention."

Local communicators highlighted two other spin-offs: The local press, by and large, provided fair coverage of the controversy and many members of the community turned out to reaffirm their support of local United Way efforts.

Nevertheless, United Way affiliates are nervous about the effect this year's controversy may have on their fall fundraising campaign. The Allegheny County office is returning to a basic educational message: "United Way: The best investment in your home town." The office also contracted with an outside firm to perform some market research. "We felt we especially needed market research this year," said Hofer. "We needed to know if the public is still angry; if the scandal will affect their giving; or if they even remember the controversy."

Words of advice

Now that some of the dust has settled, Seattle's Diane Turner offers follow practitioners a few words of advice: "Don't panic. There is a way to manage these situations.

"A crisis plan is a good starting Point," she continued. "fact gathering is important. Ask forward questions. Decide how you want to position yourself. With a crisis, you need to talk about how to react to it, not how to control it."

On the national level, Overkamp felt it was too early to cite lessons learned, but she did offer the following tips: "You can never communicate too, much. In a crisis, you may have to form a team with those who represent different disciplines: accountants, attorneys, investigators.

"Strategy is important. That's where you start. But the details will bite you if you don't take care of them. Although our public relations team was trained for a crisis, most of our other employees were not. In a crisis, everyone needs to be ready?"

Tony DeCristofaro agreed: "There is no way to predict the dynamics of a crisis situation. You cannot predict what You need to do and how quickly. But you do need to sweat the details: You need to identify clear lines of authority, decide who will be your spokesperson, and when, or even if, you will schedule a press conference."

The long-term implications of the United Way scandal will not be known for some time. Right now, staffs are looking to get beyond their fall campaign. "We have a positive story to tell," says John David Sidley. "We'll see how successful we are in November when our campaign winds to a close. People in Cleveland have given through depression and wars. I think they will back us throughout this too."


Phase I: Crisis Team Building

* Put together a cross-divisional crisis communication team and appoint a team leader. Include representatives from all potentially affected divisions, and legal counsel, and identify any paid or volunteer consultants who could provide perspective on the issue. MEDIA CRISES HAVE AN IMPACT ON THE ENTIRE ORGANIZATION.

Phase II: Information Gathering

* Identify potential story angles. Make certain legal and PR perceptions (How would the angle plays on page one?) are considered; identify and gather any historical documents or information that relate to a similar previous crisis; identify and gather any current information related to the media issue.

* Develop complete "what of" scenarios for each story angle: Anticipate and role-play questions and answers; identify who is affected; identify support materials required; write position statement; outlined key points to make in every interview.

* Identify and develop lists of other media outlets; develop a speedy approval process for all decision making related to the media crisis. Anticipate and role-play questions and answers; identify who is affected; identify support materials required; write position statement; outline key points to make in every interview.

Phase III: Strategy Development

* Once story angles of press reports are known, identify all audiences that need to be notified; develop overall and specific strategies to respond to the media crisis; determine how information sharing with audiences will occur and get information to audiences (fax, letters, phone, meetings, etc.).

* Identify one person to serve as United Way spokesperson; get spokesperson media training.

* Determine if organizational allies would be appropriate to use and brief them fully on the situation and media strategies.

* Designate a room to serve as media headquarters; supply with needed equipment and materials.

* Brief staff on how to get media to the media headquarters as quickly and courteously as possible without commenting on the situation; brief switchboard operators on how to direct and expedite media calls.

* Include a plan in the overall strategy for follow-up media relations after the crisis is over.

Phase IV: Response Plan


* Brief spokesperson on all facet of the issue; communicate position to all key audiences. CLEARLY COMMUNICATE THAT ALL MEDIA INQUIRIES SHOULD BE DIRECTED BACK TO YOUR MEDIA RELATIONS REPRESENTATIVE.

* Determine how and when to respond to the media (news releases, press conferences, interviews, written Q&A fact sheets).

* Keep a detailed log of all information released to the media to avoid duplication of information; keep a detailed log of all media calls; present the spokesperson to the media as the source of information as early as possible.

* Keep media well informed: Do not keep the media waiting for information for undue periods. SPEED IS CRITICAL; update information as often as possible. If you don't know an answer, say so; BE FACTUAL; do not give media conjecture opinion, theoretical answers; make the media's job as easy as possible.

* Maintain an even disposition when dealing with the media. Remember, media are reacting to facts, not to you personally.

* Members of the media wan to develop a balanced story. They won't have your organization's perspective until you provide it; continually evaluate response plan and make adjustments as needed; conduct follow-up media relation as warranted.
COPYRIGHT 1992 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:includes related article; how United Way of America dealt with bad press
Author:Cipalla, Rita
Publication:Communication World
Date:Aug 1, 1992
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