When you establish your crisis management capability, conduct crisis management exercises, or actually go through crises, what are the most common issues or gaps that are uncovered? Within this article, I define a few of the more common issues that we see when conducting simulation exercises within the corporate space as well as reviewing reports and monitoring crises.
1. Setting Clear Expectations Early
When an incident happens it is essential that the top management of an organization establish, define and document their policy for crisis management, which includes clear directions and expectations. It includes a statement of intent that clearly and concisely outlines their objectives, describes in broad terms how they intend to realize them and conveys their commitment and determination. The policy statement should include a definition of scope. It should identify who is to be responsible for various aspects of the response and recovery actions and its overall coordination. It should also establish priorities, timelines and standards for the delivery of the organization’s crisis management capability, as well as budget and other resource limitations as necessary. The document should address key questions that set the tone for the duration of the crisis such as: What has happened? What has changed? What is the impact? What might happen next? How long is this crisis likely to continue? What actions should be taken immediately? What’s the desired realistic outcome? How often should the team meet? Are the roles and responsibilities defined and understood by the team? These simple questions will allow the leader to set some clear expectations during the early stages of an evolving crisis. These can obviously be updated as the situation unfolds.
2. Lack of Coordinated Communications Strategy
Effective communications are essential for any organization to succeed, and in a crisis they are critically important. For this reason, a well-developed crisis communications strategy should make provision for internal communications, as well as the more obvious external requirements of dealing with stakeholders and media. Reputations can be lost and organizations can fail because external relationships, popular perceptions and media portrayals are not given due attention. An effective communications strategy should be underpinned by an understanding of issues management, risk communications and stakeholder engagement.
3. Addressing Assumptions
It is important to understand the differences between facts and assumptions. In the initial phases of responding to a crisis, the crisis management team (CMT) gathers two categories of information at they initiate the planning process—facts and assumptions. Facts are statements of known data concerning the situation, including what is actually known about the crisis, specifics about what caused the crisis, actions already implemented relative to the crisis, future planned actions, and ongoing actions by external organizations (e.g., venders, local first responders, Law Enforcement Agencies, etc.). Early in the crisis there are many unknowns and the reason assumptions are used is so that the planning process can proceed. Assumptions are suppositions about the current or future situation that are assumed to be true in the absence of facts. They take the place of necessary, but unavailable facts and fill the gaps in what the CMT knows about a situation. An assumption is appropriate if it meets the tests of validity and necessity. Validity means the assumption is likely to be true. “Assuming away” potential problems, such as media reaction, customer complaints, FDA, law enforcement reaction, would result in an invalid assumption. Necessity is whether or not the assumption is essential for planning. If planning can continue without the assumption, it is not necessary and should be discarded. Try to keep assumptions to a minimum. When possible, assumptions are cleared with senior executives to ensure they are consistent with senior leadership policy. Assumptions are replaced with facts as soon as possible. To determine assumptions, the CMT should: (1) List all appropriate assumptions received from senior executives; (2) identify the assumptions necessary to initiate the desired plan of action to respond to the crisis; and (3) list conditions that would invalidate the planned courses of action. Throughout the crisis the CMT should continue to review the assumptions being used. If the assumptions at some point prove to be false, then the course of action underway based on those assumptions should be reviewed and revised.
4. Lack of Forethought when Transitioning into Recovery
Depending on the magnitude of the crisis, your organization may face a long recovery period. But recovery may present opportunities to regenerate the organization and bring forward long-term development plans. On the other hand, it might mean ceasing to do certain types of business. The implications of the above implies that recovery (a) should start as early as possible; (b) should have a strategic direction from the outset; and (c) can actually create new strategic opportunities.