Weathering a storm: Crisis readiness in the 21st century

It’s an unfortunate fact that adversity affects businesses every day. We have only to look at the news headlines regarding crises of varying scale and scope that are happening in real time around the globe. These days, it’s not a matter of “if” a business will experience a crisis. It’s a matter of “when,” “where,” “how” and “why” one will occur and what its impact is going to be.


Is your organization ready to protect brand equity, reputation and the bottom line in the face of a business crisis, including those that arise from corporate misconduct, cyber attacks, accidents, product failures or vendor risks, among many others that could occur?


Since 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, a lot of companies have felt the need to create business continuity plans aimed at keeping the doors open in the event of terrorism and weather-related incidents. But, there are many other types of crises that could — and do — occur on a daily basis. These must also be addressed and planned for if a company and its employees are to effectively prepare, respond and come out still standing on the other side.


Here are a few tips and suggestions that can help.


1.     Preserve reputation: Protecting your organization’s reputation must be the foundation of your plan. Know your value proposition and culture and ensure that it is front and center in all aspects of your strategy. Your mission, core values and tenets for success should be the consistent threads of crisis response plan components and key messages.


2.     Know your stakeholders: Think through all audiences with whom your organization interacts, internally and externally, top-down. Be mindful not to overlook anyone and their corresponding expectations and needs, particularly when it comes to communications during and following a sudden or smoldering crisis.


3.     Plan your work, work your plan: There are several key components of a well-crafted crisis management plan, including in the areas of business management, operations and communications. Plans need not be lengthy tomes. They should be functional and accessible. Ensure that all relevant employees know where to find the plan electronically and physically. And, training them on how to implement it is of critical importance.


4.     Identify crisis response team members: Form a team that may be comprised of the core crisis management team, operations team or functional area experts (who can rotate on or off according to the situation). Depending on the scale of the crisis, you may need to leverage all hands on deck. Make sure everyone has a seat at the table, but also define who fills the role of the ultimate decision-maker(s).


5.     Enable effective crisis leadership: As many accomplished business executives have found out the hard way, leading in times of crisis is different from leading a company day-to-day and must be learned. The stakes are often much higher and previously unfamiliar levels of stress are common during a crisis. However, catering to the needs of all stakeholders and fostering trust while displaying ethical, sound and timely decision-making are more important than ever.


6.     Develop categories, triggers and scenarios: An effective crisis management plan goes beyond business continuity to include situations and triggers that would cause the plan to be implemented. Organize the plan so that intact policies and procedures are easily referenced by situation type, including preparedness tools and templates that will help the team respond in a pinch. Ensure that scenario planning takes a global approach covering all types of situations.


7.     Live the plan: It’s not enough to write a plan and put it on the shelf. Plans must be reviewed on a regular basis and sometimes updated in real time. Something as simple as taking a headline and discussing how the team might respond can be an effective tool. Every hypothetical situation should be a safe learning environment to find and correct vulnerabilities. Discuss vulnerabilities that are uncovered and craft a strategy and tactics to enhance the plan based upon what is learned.


8.     Promote recurring training: Cultivate a healthy learning environment through regularly scheduled training, including crisis readiness and crisis communication exercises aimed at helping team members to implement response plans and procedures, develop and hone important skills and keep tools sharp. Formally establishing a company-wide crisis training schedule supports the process significantly.


If your phone rings tomorrow and you are suddenly confronted with a crisis, are you and your colleagues prepared to handle it? What steps will you take to mitigate the damage to your business? Do you know who is responsible for what actions? And, how comfortable are you that the organization can answer tough questions from the media and withstand negative publicity that could arise?


Wherever your company is along the crisis readiness path, the planning, testing and training that occurs today will be invaluable to weathering the storm.


Oliver S. Schmidt is Managing Partner at C4CS®, a leading strategic communication and crisis management firm with headquarters in Pittsburgh, and offices in North Carolina and Europe. He has more than 25 years of experience in consulting, training and executive coaching, and has made presentations and conducted management workshops on crisis readiness and related topics in several dozen countries.


 Cynthia Cavendish-Carey serves as Senior Strategist for C4CS®. With over 25 years of experience, she is a seasoned business and marketing strategy professional with a specialty in crisis preparedness and reputation management. A native of the area, Cynthia currently lives in Pittsburgh.