Crisis Planning: Keys to Success
What do the COVID-19 global pandemic, a volcanic eruption, the Washington football team, and a cyber-security breach all have in common? Crisis. While some may have expected a punchline for the answer, the serious consequences of ineffective crisis preparation, plan execution and plan recovery for people and organizations has real world impact. Yet, time after time, a crisis has resulted in some of the most positive opportunities for change in world and American history. When a crisis becomes an opportunity with positive outcomes versus a risk with negative consequences is not random. True collaboration, effective communication, and crisis planning are essential elements to maximizing positive crisis opportunity.
This column will examine the common elements of a crisis by definition and the keys to maximizing opportunity and minimizing risk before, during, and after a crisis. The lessons learned in an organizational reputation crisis are applicable in preparing for any crisis.
Following the fundamentals of crisis planning, execution and recovery, regardless of crisis type or duration, provides the answer key to the most important question: how do we maximize crisis opportunity and minimize crisis risk? But before we get there, we need to define a crisis and see the common elements. A crisis is not always a disaster or an emergency. A crisis is broader than an emergency (an urgent action) or disaster (a calamitous event).
It’s important to define a crisis before examining fundamental keys to success. Dictionary definitions are a starting point and serve as a foundation to preparing for, operating within, and recovering from a crisis. Most formal definitions of a crisis include the words: turning point, crucial time, and decision:
“a crisis is an unstable or crucial time or state of affairs in which a decisive change is impending”.
The National Fire Protection Association’s definition:
“An issue, event, or series of events with potential for strategic implications that severely impacts or has the potential to severely impact an entity’s operations, brand, image, reputation, market share, ability to do business, or relationships with key stakeholders. A crisis might or might not be initiated or triggered by an incident and requires sustained input at a strategic level to minimize its impact on the entity.”
A definition used by many organizational reputation professionals:
An event or events that triggers a real, perceived, or possible threat to life, health and safety, the environment, facilities, the economy, or the organization’s credibility. The public and media will likely define it.
I have over 32 years of experience in law enforcement and public safety with the last 10 of those years leading large, statewide public safety and emergency response organizations. I have personally been involved in policy and crisis planning and, as importantly, have served on the front lines of crisis, disaster and emergency response including organizational reputation-threatening crises. Some crisis events I have been a part of have served as national models of effective crisis planning and some could serve as models of what not to do. From life threatening external crisis events such as active shooter incidents, tornadoes, water crises, cyber-security breaches, Ebola outbreaks, and biological attacks, to organizational integrity crisis events involving employee criminal conduct and sabotage, a crisis has fundamentally shared elements and fundamentally shared steps for success or failure. While there is science behind planning, there is an art of crisis planning execution. It has been my experience, and validated by countless examinations following crisis events, communication is the key factor before, during and after a crisis. And communication is not a one-way street. Communication is the lever to activate collaboration. If a person or group feels talked to instead of listened to, trust is not likely to result. However, true collaboration involves ensuring each stakeholder and partner has a voice – true input.
Effective communication builds trust. Ineffective communication erodes trust. Trust is fundamental to maximizing opportunity and minimizing risk in a crisis. Communication is equal parts internal to the organization and external to the organization.
So, the keys to maximizing opportunity and minimizing risk before, during, and after a crisis? Here are the three fundamental steps:
- Prepare for a likely crisis:
- Conduct an organizational risk assessment and develop a continuity of operation plan for every likely risk.
- Develop a collaborative crisis management plan that includes an internal and external crisis communication plan exercise. Ensure every person in the organization, along with external stakeholders and partners, understands and appreciates their role. Revise the plan continually to adapt for new risks.
Three steps to success. It doesn’t need to be more complicated than that. Each person within an organization has the ability now to maximize opportunity and minimize risk in the next crisis. That’s the best opportunity for everyone.