Survive the Surprise: The Keys to Great Crisis Management & Communication
Some issues hit without warning, thus constituting a crisis. They interrupt the flow of the day demanding immediate, unadulterated attention. Common crises are workplace injuries, employee or customer complaints, natural or technological disasters, organizational misdeeds, negative rumors or workplace violence. While we hope, as managers, we are never confronted with one of these issues; the reality is we will be at some point.
Crisis management1 is defined as the process by which an organization deals with a major event that threatens to harm the organization, its stakeholders, or the general public. In contrast to risk management, which involves assessing potential threats and finding the best ways to avoid those threats, crisis management involves dealing with threats before, during and after they occur. That is, crisis management is proactive, not merely reactive. It is a discipline within the broader context of management which requires special skills and techniques to identify, assess, understand and cope with a serious situation.
Preparing ourselves for a potential crisis instead of burying our heads in the sand is why we are managers; because we manage to keep our heads on through even the toughest moments. The difference between a good manager and a better one is how prepared they are to deal with a crisis effectively. When we think through the steps and strategies to successfully navigate a crisis we can lead the employees, customers and our locations through it with a positive brand image intact.
Even for the best manager, an unexpected crisis without a plan in place to deal with it is the worst case scenario. As your team’s manager and leader, you are the voice of reason that employees and customers will rely on most during a time of upheaval. Your willingness and vigilance to plan ahead for a variety of possible threats will help you process and think through a problem more clearly when the time comes. And you will be able to provide the strength and support your team is depending on; which would be your critical role should a major event occur on your watch. Remember, practice makes perfect. At least once a year, you should sit down with your team to re-evaluate your crisis action plan and crisis communication strategies. This on-going reminder and re-training is critical when you need to put that knowledge into action.
An instrumental crisis management public relations professional once said, “Crisis management is the art of making decisions to head off or mitigate the effects of such an event, often while the event itself is unfolding. This often means making decisions about your institution’s future while you are under stress and while you lack key pieces of information.”
TIP: Get a more in-depth look at crisis management in action in this blog, “Crisis Management Hits Close to Home” http://blog.bettermanagers.com/2012/08/01/crisis-management-colorado/.
P-I-C Your Plan2
To effectively navigate a crisis, it’s important to follow P.I.C. which stands for: Planning, Incident Response and Crisis Management.
Planning relates to getting your organization in the best position to react to, and recover from, an emergency.
Incident responses are the processes that you have put into place to ensure that your institution reacts properly and in an orderly manner to an incident as it occurs.
Examples of Incident Response Include:
- Denial of entry to suspicious persons
- Calling for medical help when someone is injured
- Evacuation after a called-in bomb threat
- Administering of medication for a sick person
Crisis Management is the oversight and coordination of your organization’s responses to an incident that threatens to harm or has harmed the organization in some way. It takes into account your planning and automatic incident response, but must also dynamically deal with situations as they unfold, often in unpredictable ways.
Business Crisis Management3
There are two distinct categories of crisis in business that need to be recognized. In one, we lump all those events over which we have no control, such as product tampering by outside forces or natural disasters. Even in these situations, there are always some actions we can take like tamper-proof packaging, liability insurance and proper protocols. But generally these events can blindside us.
The second category contains all those events that might have been avoided had we chosen to take the actions necessary to protect ourselves and the public. Some are obvious, while others are not. For example, in retrospect we can look at the BP oil spill and see things that could have been handled better. However, often how to handle events is not so obvious and when management believes it is doing the right thing, but is in fact fueling a potential crisis, we have the makings of a catastrophe.
Build Your Detailed Action Plan
One of the most important things you can do to prepare for a crisis is to build and distribute your location or company’s crisis action plan. This should be detailed enough to cover most contingencies but not so detailed that your employees will feel too overwhelmed to perform it or even read it. Keep it simple and easy to follow. Distribution of your action plan should also be accompanied by a meeting with staff explaining the steps and answering any questions. Once everyone understands the businesses’ action plan for some of the potential threats, it will be much easier for everyone to react appropriately when a crisis arises.
Your Action Plan Should Include:
- The company policy for dealing with injuries, when to call 911 and whom to report an incident to
- Evacuation procedures for various natural threats
- Important phone numbers, pager numbers and outside resources the company designates as trusted resources
- A checklist that outlines how to assess a crisis, communicate to the correct parties, establish a plan of action and disseminate information to the public (if needed)
- List of key individuals and their assigned responsibilities in different kinds of crises
- Protocol for answering questions from press immediately after an incident including standard responses for before any real information has been verified
The 5 Most Critical Crisis Response Tenets4
Your Crisis Response Must Be:
Prompt. When a sudden crisis threatens to harm people or property, seriously interrupt business, damage reputation, and/or negatively impact share value, your response must be concise and immediate. A crisis abhors an information vacuum. If you don’t communicate, rumor and innuendo will fill the void.
Compassionate. Consider the reality that addressing feelings is often more important initially than addressing facts. Yes, you want to get the facts out, but your response should not be totally fact-based. In crises, especially where people have been or could be harmed, your actions and messages must reflect that you actually care. If they don’t, you run the risk of being cast into the league of those who don’t take accountability or don’t understand the wider repercussions. People are more apt to forgive your mistake, if you show you care and are going to do all you can to make it right.
Honest. Don’t lie by commission, omission, understatement or exaggeration. Be honest in your crisis response. If you’re not, it may not only come back to bite you down the road, it could do so much sooner than you think, creating a whole other crisis that could have been avoided.
Informative. Obviously you don’t want to reveal anything that compromises your legal position. But in your crisis response you must be as informative as you can. In a crisis where people’s lives, safety or security (of any kind) are under threat, they don’t want to see you stonewalling. They are scared or concerned. They want answers. They want to know how this crisis affects them in detail. If you don’t tell them, somebody else will, and often they’ll get it completely wrong. So, to the degree you can without jeopardizing your legal position, be forthright with information.
Interactive. This means allowing two-way communication with all important audiences, using methods most appropriate to each. An organization’s crisis doesn’t only happen to the organization; it also happens to its stakeholders—that means everyone the business touches. An organization in a crisis that shows willingness to listen to its stakeholders takes a major step forward in winning their cooperation and loyalty.
In conclusion, a crisis is not just the obvious hurricane or food poisoning incident. Businesses that fail to respond rapidly and actionably can and do create their own crises. By evaluating your philosophy, strategy and honesty, you can put in a great foundation to weather any storm. Action must be taken to minimize your vulnerabilities, but at the same time, take into account the best interests of the public if you value brand longevity.
- Wikipedia: Crisis management <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crisis_management>
- Security Strategies for Today’s Dangerous World–Addendum: Crisis Management < http://www.adl.org/security/crisis%20management.pdf>
- All About Crisis Management, < http://managementhelp.org/crisismanagement/index.htm>
- Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc., < http://www.bernsteincrisismanagement.com/