Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s brutal murder dominated global headlines in late 2018. On the evening of Oct. 16, news broke of the murder suspects having close ties to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The New York Times, Associated Press, MSNBC and CNN used the same photo in their coverage, sending a trustworthy nonprofit into a state of panic.
The image shows Houston Habitat for Humanity (HHFH) Executive Director Allison Hay speaking with with Prince bin Salman. He on a charity visit after Saudi-owned oil company, Aramco, donated millions to Hurricane Harvey recovery. One of the murder suspects, Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb, is also pictured standing closely behind with an adverse stare.
Hundreds of global news outlets circulated the photo. Monitoring systems indicate it had at least 187,106,740 views.
Internal systems immediately notified Etched when the photo first circulated. It was after-hours, but Etched called an emergency meeting to brief HHFH and discuss a response plan.
The team worked through the night to develop a response plan to mitigate a global crisis. It included:
- Media Relations: Manage incoming media requests and remove HHFH from news coverage
- Digital: Diffuse negative social chatter with accurate messages
- Stakeholder Relations: Conducting personal outreach to existing donors and supporters to protect relationships
- Experiential: Ensure the nonprofit’s imminent, annual luncheon, which is HHFH’s largest fundraising event, was not damaged
- Internal Communication: Ease tension and uncertainty with internal staff and Habitat chapters worldwide
The plan was completed and approved by next morning. Immediate timing was critical. HHFH and the international headquarters were flooded with calls from the media and community by morning. News outlets and established supporters inquired about the connection to the Saudi prince. It was apparent the photo gained damaging traction.
The Etched Affect
Tight management and a customized approach allowed HHFH to get ahead of the story and control its messages.
HHFH was successfully excluded from future coverage about the murder. Of more than 100 replications of the photo and dozens of media requests, the Etched team prevented all but one story, which was neutral in tone and sentiment.
The luncheon was executed without issue and internal staff, as well as the international headquarters, had a renewed sense of confidence. Stakeholders also remained supportive of the organization. Donors and fundraising efforts were not impacted in any way by the photo.