Crisis Response in Today’s Breakneck World

Richard Long

In today’s post, we’ll lay out some crisis response steps your organization can and should take to protect itself in our new business landscape where disaster is just a tweet away.

 

In today’s world, a seemingly minor snafu can become an existential crisis in the blink of an eye thanks to social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.

This makes it more important than ever that your organization is ready for trouble before it strikes.

 

 

LIVING ON THE EDGE

Nowadays, business is living on the edge, whether it likes it or not. Problems that five years ago might never have been known beyond a small number of people can go viral in a matter of hours.

Think of all the stories that you’ve seen in recent years about airlines, restaurants, coffee chains, and other businesses that have found themselves in the middle of a public-relations tornado because of the actions of one or two front-line employees. The people in the C-suite are also capable of getting their companies in hot water; we’ve seen that plenty of times, as well.

 

AN UNFORGIVING ENVIRONMENT

In the news media today, there’s a whole new category of story: the roundup of social-media swipes at this or that person or organization. This trend amplifies the clamor and increases business’s risk and exposure.

As a result of these shifts, crisis management is very different today from how it used to be. Gone are the days when a business could count to a degree on its customers or partners being sympathetic if it suffered a business interruption or other negative event. The environment nowadays is much less forgiving.

 

THE SECRET IS TO PLAN AHEAD WITH STRONG CRISIS RESPONSE

So what should you do? Bring in the equivalent of an Old West gunfighter who can blaze away at your problems without aiming the next time you have a problem? Not a good idea. What you should do instead is, make sure you are ready ahead of time. Plan ahead, and then when something happens—scratch that, when you even think that something might be happening—put your carefully considered crisis management plan into action. That way you can act swiftly but also intelligently to deal with the problem.

Safe drivers begin slowing down when they see the brake lights of the car in front of them come on. Unsafe ones wait until they begin getting closer to the other car, but by then it’s often too late. Implement your plan at the first whiff of trouble. If the issue goes away, no problem. Just stand down.

 

COMPONENTS OF A GOOD CRISIS MANAGEMENT PROGRAM

Below is a list of the eight components of a good crisis management program. Make sure you and your team are ready to go in each of these areas before you get hit by a typhoon, whether a real one or one of the Twitter variety.

  1. Team membership. Identify your primary and alternate team members for each key role. Make sure the team members can handle their assigned role. Base the assignments on skillset, not rank or title. Regularly review your personnel, their assignments, and the team dynamics. Members must be focused on providing effective and supportive leadership during stressful situations. Choose people who are good in that situation, irrespective of their official rank or title.
  2. Crisis Management Plan. Develop a comprehensive plan, consistent with industry best practices, to direct the team and its response. As the saying goes, “A goal without a plan is only a wish.” While your plan cannot anticipate every possible problem, it can list critical information and predefined actions and decisions.
  3. Crisis Communications Plan. This is an important subpart of your crisis management plan. The communications plan should outline the steps that will be taken in a crisis to convey the appropriate information internally and externally. It should include templates, contacts, and potential communication triggers. It should also include tasks lists and details on the use of communication technologies such as emergency notification systems, conference calls, and online meetings. Thorough documentation allows any qualified member of the team to assist in the communications effort. You cannot rely on one or two knowledgeable individuals to be available. They might not be.
  4. Command centers. You should have physical and virtual command centers in place where your team members can assemble during a declared event. Make sure that the team plan indicates when a physical and/or virtual command center will be used. The plan should also identify secondary sites and technologies. Give careful thought to the logistics, safety, and availability of your command centers.
  5. Loss of human resources. Your crisis management plan should address the situation of the widespread unavailability of staff such as might be caused by a pandemic. It should include guidelines and standards for handling this situation. This is one specific situation which will have unique actions and planning. This is a weakness of many organizations. Few companies have plans detailing what to do if a sizable portion of staff, or individuals with singular knowledge or skills, are unable to work. Consider creating a standalone Pandemic/Loss of Individuals Plan which can be referenced in your Crisis Management Plan.
  6. Exercises. Hold regular mock disaster exercises to heighten team sophistication and maturity. These exercises should utilize realistic scenarios. While it might be fun to imagine dealing with a zombie apocalypse, it is better to run a scenario closer to a real-life situation. Using real events, and focusing on known weaknesses and gaps, induces a more realistic level of stress (as opposed to encouraging a game mentality). Exercises are about simulating managing an event. Performing the task at least at a minimal level should be part of the exercise. It is too easy to say something has occurred. It is not until the team tries to perform a task that they see how long it might take, or the additional resources needed to complete it. Also, avoid discussions on how to prevent the scenario or why it could never happen. Consider hosting some exercises that are limited in terms of the scenario but that you perform in real time with actual actions. We recently performed an exercise with a client where the team had to relocate from the primary command center to a secondary one. The results were eye-opening. It took the team over an hour to travel to the secondary center, get settled in, and resume managing the event. Also, note the team dynamics: Does anyone dominate the discussions? Does the leader facilitate or direct? Is there open and safe communication? Use these insights to adjust team roles, if appropriate.
  7. Training and awareness. Make sure the team is trained regularly on the crisis management process. Such training is distinct from and should be done more frequently than exercises. Consider sending monthly short training messages or inviting individuals to review their roles and plans. In your training, consider recent events in the news (ransomware attacks, IT outages, shooting incidents, brand-impacting events, etc.) and discuss how your team would respond if such an event affected your company.
  8. Maintenance. The crisis management process and documents should be regularly reviewed and maintained. Generate a schedule for updating all the documentation, plans, action item due dates, exercises, and other training items. Many organizations do not have a formal schedule for maintenance tasks. Over time, failure to update and maintain your program leads to a program that exists on paper only.

 

RESPONDING SWIFTLY AND WISELY

Crisis management has always been a high-pressure activity where every second counts. In today’s world, where every cell phone is also a bullhorn and a TV camera, and outrage is rewarded by attention, that is truer than ever.

By following the steps set forth above, and being prepared ahead of time, you can help ensure that your organization will respond both swiftly and wisely the next time trouble comes to call.

 

FURTHER READING

For more information on this and other hot topics in business continuity and IT/disaster recovery, check out these recent posts from MHA Consulting and BCMMETRICS:

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