What should you be doing now to prepare for the next crisis?
As we work at home during this pandemic and listen to the experts predict what might or might not happen next with COVID-19, it may be time to think about updating our crisis management plan for the next crisis. Why update the plan if the pandemic has passed? Well, the CDC and other experts think that, once the curve has flattened, we may have another outbreak in the fall. Or perhaps not all of us will be able to go back to work at the same time. And, let's be realistic, there are other crises that we may face in the future. The global financial situation could be a hurdle you need to consider. Also, the hurricane season is just around the corner.
Crises can take any form, from an act of God to a financial crisis to a biohazard accident, and no organization is exempt from them. Every crisis must be managed in order to preserve a business's credibility, reputation and value. Sometimes you'll have some warning that something is going to happen - like this pandemic and its possible resurgence for example - but often you won't. Regardless, you should create a crisis management plan that could mitigate or even possibly avert some crises. Would your current situation be any different - better - if you had all the steps below in place? Ask yourself the following questions to help you update, create and implement your crisis management plan and make the next crisis a bit easier to handle.
Do you have a crisis management/crisis communication team?
If you have a team, great. If not, you really need to put one together. The crisis team is the group of people who not only will work to identify potential incidents and/or disasters and determine ways to respond to them; they also must make the determination of whether there is an actual crisis. The team should be composed of senior-level executives or key line people in the following areas: operations, marketing, finance, legal, and public relations/communications. The CEO should be on the team if possible, as should any other relevant executives. Often, the organization's entire senior/executive management team will participate.
Identify the role or roles each team member will play and maintain current contact information for each of them. Who will handle on-site communications? Who will handle the media? Will there be one spokesperson, or will there be a trio or more to cover all relevant areas? Finally, identify a backup person for everyone on the team and make sure you have their contact info. Clarify all the roles and responsibilities, write it all down and distribute it so everyone knows who's who and what's what.
What are your organization's potential vulnerabilities?
It is said that any chain is only as strong as its weakest link. To prevent breakage, your crisis team needs to brainstorm to determine existing vulnerabilities and to figure out how to mitigate or avoid them. The people on your team are the ones who know the most about the organization and who have valuable knowledge about its strength and weaknesses. Consider every imaginable, unimaginable or unlikely crisis you can think of, vulnerabilities that could lead to crisis, and any planned crises, then determine the impact on your business. Okay, no one actually plans a crisis, but it is possible to plan activities that could result in a crisis. Layoffs, for example, or plans to remove the CEO could precipitate a crisis or disruption.
What are the ways in which you were NOT prepared for this pandemic? Did you have all your bases covered to easily convert to everyone working at home? Probably not, but I doubt anyone did. Was technology available to support telework? What other scenarios come to mind when you think about what's going on now? Were there other weak links? What financial concerns do you have and how might you change your plan to deal with them better?
The more vulnerabilities you can identify, the better you can prepare and the better your ability to respond. Even if none of your scenarios surface, you'll have done enough planning to help you move quickly in any crisis. You should have a strategy and response plan for each of the vulnerabilities you identify. This should include who will make the decision about the crisis and what steps follow to mitigate, control and rectify the crisis. Use specifics when you do this, based on the roles and responsibilities you identified earlier.
Have you gathered the information you'll need to develop key messages if necessary?
When you have identified what types of problems you could be up against, it's time to gather information and develop three key messages to include in all your communications about the crisis. These depend on the situation but should convey at least your concern and sympathy about what happened and what actions you are taking to resolve the crisis. By now you have likely developed messages about how you are handling the pandemic crisis. Would you change them at all after reviewing your vulnerabilities? Are you able to concisely state everything that you're doing during this pandemic to keep people safe and keep things moving? Have you had layoffs? Can you explain how this is affecting your organization financially?
You'll pretty much be able to predict the kind of questions that will be asked, and you can save time by preparing answers to some of these questions ahead of time. Use the general organizational information you have in order to put together a fact sheet or a one-page summary about the organization for media or other external audiences. You'll also need some specific information about subsidiaries, divisions, etc. Just keep it simple, identifying what they do, who and where they are, and any other information that could be useful. With this information at hand, you should be able to respond quickly to a crisis. Once a crisis occurs, you could have no more than 24 hours - or as few as 30 minutes - to respond and to gain control of the flow of information about the situation.
What's your plan for internal communication?
Because your employees are your most important stakeholder group, they need to know what's happening and how you're dealing with it - as well as how they should deal with it to prevent a loss of confidence on their part. For example, how did you communicate to them that they'd be working at home? Did they know if they had to use vacation or sick time? Did you make any changes to employee policies that they needed to know about? Are you communicating with them regularly to help keep up morale and let them know what is happening with any plans to return to work or not?
Pandemic aside, there are other situations about which you'll have to communicate. Everyone will know if there is a fire or flood, but what if they see picketers in front of the building? Will you communicate what it's about? Tell them what you're doing about it? Let them know how they should handle the situation? They need to know who's on the crisis team and what each person's responsibilities are. Tell your employees as much as you can about what is happening. If there are things you can't tell them, let them know why you can't tell them.
Remember that you will have as many spokespersons as you have employees. They may not talk to media, but they will talk to their spouses, parents, friends and anyone who asks what's going on - plus they may be posting information on social media sites. You need to plan how much you will say to employees and how you will say it in order to maintain control of these communications. If you can provide messages that the employees can use to talk about the crisis, you'll go a long way toward preventing rumors that will end up on social media. Just remember that you must be honest and provide them with information or they are likely to make things up themselves.
How are you dealing with the media?
Talking to the media in a crisis will go a lot better if you already have developed a good relationship with them, both personally and for the organization. Perhaps you've already been contacted by reporters to discuss what you are doing during this pandemic. Or, if you're in an industry that's critical, the media may want to know what if anything is happening to maintain business. If you're in an organization that provides funds to charities, are you still able to maintain your normal level of help? Are you doing more? Have you implemented any special programs during this time? If you've established some credibility with the media, you'll find your crisis communications easier. Use the plans you developed earlier to determine who will do briefings if necessary, how you will handle calls, who gets to talk to the CEO, etc.
Before you talk to the media make sure to understand the scope of the crisis and how it's affecting your organization. Then you can craft a statement and answer questions. Make sure all reporters' calls and questions are answered because if you don't talk to them, they will find someone to talk to. Remember that nature abhors a vacuum and you are in a better position to control the message if you speak to media
Have you tested your plan?
Finally, no plan can be considered final until you're as sure as possible that it's going to work. How do you get to that stage? You test it and train employees so everyone knows what to do and who's in charge, among other things. Distribute the information to all relevant parties. But that's not the end of it. You need to assign someone to keep the plan updated and you need to test the plan. Take an afternoon and put the crisis team through its paces. Create a scenario, dust off the plan, and see if it works. Document everything and make any necessary changes. Keep a record of who said what when, so you can review and assess the effectiveness of the statements, the responses, and the decisions that were made. Have a debrief session after the test to discuss what happened, what worked or didn't, and what needs fixing. Once it's fixed, put it away until the next test, which should be in about six months when you will make any further adjustments.
This pandemic has been a difficult situation for everyone in many ways. During this time, have you discovered things that will help you through the next crisis or, God forbid, the next pandemic? What lessons have you learned that will inform what you do next time around? If you have any insights you'd like to share, just reply here and let us know what they are. We'll share in an upcoming blog (without your name if you like).
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