How the de Young Museum’s crisis plan saved its exhibition

When an exhibit of fashions from the Muslim world seemed poised to spark a backlash, the nonprofit mobilized media outlets, influencers and other resources to change the narrative.

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What does it look like when a crisis response plan does its job?

Most of the time, we notice a crisis only when the plan fails to stop the negative headlines. However, sometimes the preparation and response can change the narrative and overcome adverse attitudes, delivering a win for an organization.

When the de Young Museum decided to launch an exhibition of fashion and clothing from the Muslim world, it faced criticism from both anti-Muslim figures and members of the Muslim community who did not feel adequately represented. However, the museum was able to respond effectively and generate a campaign that brought national media coverage and provided space for an important cultural conversation.

The campaign was the winner of PR Daily’s Nonprofit PR Campaign of the Year for 2019.

Miriam Cohen, director of communications for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, says the museum quickly realized this exhibition wouldn’t be business as usual. After the exhibition, titled “The Fashion of Islam,” was announced in The New York Times, there was immediate backlash.

“We instantly received so much negative pushback,” Cohen says. “We realized we really needed to stop and be just incredibly more thoughtful about the positioning, the wording and everything around the show.”

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