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 episode 5 of the PreparedEx podcast, Rob describes 10 of the more common issues that are observed when conducting simulation exercises and monitoring events as they happen or reviewing reports after crises. These common mistakes are taken from sectors including: financial services, oil and gas, chemicals, consumer products,insurance and healthcare to name a few.
- Not Having a Clearly Defined Organizational Policy and Senior Leadership Approval
An organization’s crisis management capability needs to be developed within the unique context of that organization and will, with time, become dependent on it. For the crisis capability to have any credibility, it should be developed based on clearly defined organizational policies approved by senior leadership. The capability to manage crises should not be seen as something that can simply be developed as and when needed. It requires a systematic approach that creates structures and processes, trains people to work within them and is evaluated and developed in a continuous, purposeful and rigorous way. The development of a crisis management capability should be viewed as a mainstream activity and one that is proportionate to an organization’s size and capacity.
- Lack of a well-established Crisis Management System
A crisis management system should be part of the mainstream of organizational management and not just a set of arrangements for responding to the “day of the crisis.” That implies it will be apparent that additional work for the organization and, possibly, some significant changes. But developing, exercising and being able to use a crisis management system can provide a shared sense of focus, a collective purpose and higher levels of confidence and morale. This can lead to an organization that is generally more resilient and better able to adapt to change. Well-prepared organizations that deal effectively with actual or potential crises may emerge from the experience stronger, internally and in terms of their brand, even after suffering significant short-term losses. On the other hand, organizations that are seen to have failed to prepare for a crisis will suffer potentially massive reputational damage. They may even be seen as having betrayed their staff, customers, and stakeholders.
- Indecisive Leadership
One of the most important functions of a leader in a crisis is to stabilize the situation as much as possible. A very important aspect of crisis leadership at the start of the response is the ability to identify and take steps that will limit the damage already caused and contain it, so that subsequent activities have a firm basis. Chaos will reign as a crisis evolves and the leader’s primary role initially is to demonstrate calmness, authority and determination. This will serve to defuse tensions, provide a focus for activity, inspire confidence in the team and reassure stakeholders that something is being accomplished. Strong leadership at times exhibits a literal strong personal force, but the leadership in a crisis also needs consensus building and is a collective product, where more often decisive decisions have more to do with teamwork, flexibility, communications and brokering solutions. At both levels, leaders need to be comfortable within the uncertainties that crises present and capable of driving an organization coherently through very confused situations. Many will argue that the number one personal attribute of a good leader is “confidence.” In our experience we have observed that the top crisis management teams (CMT) have good leaders who have gone through a number of exercises with different scenarios and through the process have become more comfortable with their contingency plans and their team. They exhibit more and more “confidence” with each exercise.
- Not Engaging All Stakeholders
A stakeholder is a person, group or organization that has interest or concern in your organization. Stakeholders can affect or be affected by the organization’s actions, objectives and policies. Some examples of key stakeholders are creditors, directors, employees, government (and its agencies), shareholders, suppliers, unions, and the community from which the business draws its resources. Your stakeholders should be kept informed of potential or actual crisis events. And your communications strategy should identify and prioritize which stakeholders will get what information; when (i.e., what triggers the contact), how, and by whom in the organization. Although communications may be adjusted in tone and style for different stakeholders, the basic message being conveyed should be consistent. Crisis managers should be aware that a crisis might generate new stakeholders as interest groups (e.g., in the case an environmental crisis, environmental activists will become relevant). Each crisis can bring in different new stakeholders and many of these can be predicted. Some, however, may come as a surprise and your communications plans and processes should be flexible enough to accommodate these new stakeholders and meet their respective needs.
- Limited External Relationships (Reputional Capital)
One of the most invaluable assets an organization in the throes of a crisis can have are credible and respected third-party supporters. The company’s CEO can deliver messages about how responsible and effective the company is in its handling of a crisis, let’s say, a fire. But, far better for the company’s crisis communications and its long-term reputation would be if the local fire chief were to report that the company’s handling of the fire was highly responsible and effective. Too often, companies ignore the importance of forming these relationships, and when a crisis occurs, their communications suffer.
But gaining third-party support doesn’t just happen. It must be strategically developed over time and is an essential part of crisis preparedness. Gaining third-party support includes engaging regularly with the types of third parties who can lend their support during a crisis. Fostering good relations with the local police and fire departments are key. So too are cultivating close relationships with those constituents your business depends on – customers and their communities, news media, employees, government officials. As part of your efforts to cultivate third-party support, you’ll want to be a good corporate citizen, visibly supporting things your constituents value, such as local education, sports, healthcare and cultural programs.
- Lack of Situational Awareness
The key asset in crisis management is information. Its effective management is crucial. At some point information should be processed into a form that can be used as a coherent basis for decision-making. This is called Situational Awareness (SA). SA is the concept of developing the ability to observe your environment, orientate to rapid changes, and make decisions and act upon those decisions at a quick pace during high-tempo operations. SA also goes beyond knowing the now; it is also being able to assess the implications of what is (and what is not) going on and to project how the current situation might evolve in the future. It is important to recognize that at all times during the crisis there is a clear understanding between what is definitely known, what is rumor or assumptions, and what is being reported by others (e.g., media, social media, local first responders, regulatory agencies, etc.). Good SA leads to what often is referred to as the “Common Operational Picture;” that is, the same understanding by everyone of what has occurred, what actions are underway to address the crisis, and what is the desired outcome. Developing SA is a deliberate, active, and disciplined process that requires practice and should be exercised on a frequent basis. Developing the ability to achieve SA as an individual is a great benefit; but having the ability to achieve it as a team is the ultimate goal.
- Lack of a Situational Reporting System
When an agreed level of situational awareness (SA) has been achieved by the team and articulated, it can form part of the common operational picture (COP). The COP in turn is used to generate periodic situational reports (SITREPS). A SITREP is a report that presents an agreed and formal statement of SA. But it goes further because it is presented as a common organizational basis of understanding upon which crisis management decisions that affect the whole organization can be based. There are many advantages to using SITREPS as a decision-making tool. One is that SA upon which it is based is derived from cross-organizational analysis.
It should reflect consensus to the greatest extent that is practicable, and so help to ensure that all departments’ perspectives are represented and balanced. This reduces the risk of biased or skewed decision-making. Decisions can then be based on the best level of consensus that can be achieved on the situation, its dynamics and its implications, which has been through a rigorous process of assessment, verification and grading. By having an agreed statement of understanding, it reduces the tendency for members of decision-making teams to place conflicting interpretations on information at the point of decision. The aim is not to close down discussions, but to increase the speed and confidence with which decisions can be made. Decision-makings become more confident, because they know that the information they are basing decisions on has been through a process of rigorous, multi-department analysis, assurance and verification. Decisions become more easily defensible, since they can be related to an agreed statement of SA, based on a shared process of rigorous, multi-department analysis, assurance and verification. The SITREP can be easily updated as circumstances change, and forms a running basis for briefings, reporting, handover/takeovers, press releases and post-action analysis. It also forms a rolling record of the analysis and decisions of the crisis management team. This is extremely important. If some form of official enquiry or legal activity takes place after the crisis, contemporaneous records may be demanded and will be examined very carefully.
- Not Having a Master Events Log (MEL)
The Emergency Operational Center (EOC) is set up during a crisis to coordinate major event and decisions and is the primary source of information about the scope of the emergency and the progress of emergency support coordination. Most effective EOCs develop logs, called Master Events Logs (MEL) or EOC Master Logs to maintain a record of major events, decisions, and messages. These logs are usually maintained electronically and can be displayed electronically on the wall. Having the MEL display and other displays on the walls of the EOC has advantages over briefing books or individual computer screens. Wall displays are always visible, so there is never an “out of sight, out of mind” risk. And, perhaps more importantly, the staff does not need special training to find display information that can be only viewed one display at a time on a computer screen. For example, the EOC operations chief or emergency manager could stand in the middle of the EOC and brief anyone calling in on the telephone by scanning the EOC displays and reading emergency information. And local first responders can enter the EOC and quickly view information on a display about evacuations and road closures while coordinating shelter transportation on the telephone. There is merit in consciously adopting and advocating special tools like the MEL in your EOC rather than leaving the creation of situational awareness to chance and idiosyncrasy. They give people working under extreme pressure an underpinning framework, which militates against their being overwhelmed by information or the magnitude of the task. They also help create consistency and unity of approach in a team. Decision-makers also draw confidence from knowing that a consistent discipline has been applied in the interpretation of the information they should use to support and inform their decisions.
- Lack of Defined Roles and Responsibilities of Crisis Team Members (who’s responsible for what?)
Roles and responsibilities required to implement all crisis management capabilities should be identified, documented, and communicated well in advance of a crisis. Thoughtful consideration should be given to people, skills, experience and competence. Included in this process is consideration for the resources needed for each element of the capability and the associated requirements for training. Individual(s) should be appointed and given appropriate authority to be accountable for the development and implementation of crisis management capability, and its ongoing maintenance and management, across the whole organization.
- Not Having a Decision-Making Process Pre-Determined
Responding to a crisis without a pre-determined decision-making model or having to respond to a crisis with a new decision-making model that has not been previously employed by your crisis management team is in effect putting your organization at a great disadvantage. Valuable time that could be used to stabilize the situation and start the recovery process will be lost. This is a mistake that can be rectified. There are a number of decision-making models that have been used successfully by corporate and military organizations during times of crisis. These models include the 5-step, 7-step, 8-step process, and variations of each. While any of these decision-making models can be effectively employed by your organization, to a large degree your success with employing any model will largely be determined by your team’s familiarity with the model’s process. That is, the crisis management team needs to conduct exercises employing the decision-making model selected by leadership and incorporate different scenarios so team members will have a good understanding of the process and their roles and responsibilities before an actual crisis occurs.
- Briefing Cycle Discipline
One of the more important objectives the leader of the crisis management team should establish early during a crisis is the briefing cycle discipline. Setting an operational rhythm for the response, so that meetings, briefings, situational awareness (SA) dissemination, press releases, conferences and the like can be arranged coherently. The crisis management team may not sit in continuous session, and it can rely of a variety of supporting systems to implement actions, report on their impact and deliver information updates. In particular, significant changes in SA will need to be signaled clearly and quickly.