6 Practical Tips For Sharpening Your Crisis Planning

Given the dreadful state of the world at the moment, from geopolitical ructions to exposure to cybercrime, Harald Axelsen of EcoOnline explains how best to manage a crisis if your business finds itself at the heart of one.

Organisations in both the public and private sector are never far from a crisis, whether that’s press exposure of inappropriate partying, to coping with pandemics, extreme weather and geopolitical upheavals. On Monday you might be dealing with staff shortages due to a rail strike, and by Friday a reputational crisis could have flared up out of nowhere. 

To some extent, the bigger the organisation the messier the crisis can be to deal with. On the other hand, in the age of digital sharing with social media spreading bad news like wildfire, SMEs must put crisis mitigation and contingency and communication plans in place too, if they want to keep customers, investors, and their staff happy. 

Experts in crisis communication for high-risk sectors such as aviation talk about the ‘golden hour’ – the theoretical time after an incident, in which an organisation can establish the facts and most importantly, send out a measured response. However, again the growth of digital and social media has dramatically reduced the golden hour to minutes. Anyone who owns a smartphone can broadcast news of a crisis, putting a brand in jeopardy almost instantaneously, and not always accurately reporting the facts.

Digital Environmental Health and Safety (EHS)

Mercifully today there are digital tools designed to help organisations identify risks, set up contingency plans that the entire workforce can be trained for, and prevent a bad situation from getting worse. Digital EHS (environmental health and safety) platforms are put in place to protect assets, save lives and try to minimise the impact of a crisis when it’s happening. Such tools help create a safety culture with transparency and communication at its core and give organisations a powerful framework for responding swiftly when a crisis does erupt. 

There are interesting schools of thought about the psychology of planning. The human brain seeks cognitive shortcuts, tending to focus on what we’re familiar with, defaulting to an optimistic ‘that would never happen’ stance. Crisis management planning must go well beyond this, meaning high-hazard, low-likelihood events should be addressed. Worries about the cost of contingency planning for all eventualities must be set aside. 

Watch out for the ‘paradox of good planning’. You need to recognise when a situation changes for the worse, or new threats come to light. For instance, the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 is believed to have been exacerbated by engineers sticking to a testing model when they should have seen shortfalls and found a new solution. There may come a time when you have to adapt or even abandon a plan when one problem activates a whole new set of complications. 

Here are my 6 practical tips for sharpening up your crisis planning:

1. Assigning roles

While you want a coherent team to know how to react and communicate in a crisis, you need to make sure ‘groupthink’ doesn’t prevent people from raising concerns, or the right decisions being made at crunch-time. Consider bringing in a new person to take a fresh look at the plans. 

2. Actions cards

These should use active language to detail exactly who will do what. They should be both digital and printed out – ideally always kept close, such as printed and folded into credit card size. 

3. Rehearsals

Acknowledge that time is a challenge – but like running hurdles, you don’t need to rehearse the ‘whole race’. Focus on the start, and what will happen in the first few minutes. Even for scenarios you think you can’t plan for – like a terrorist attack – you can still work through how you’d apply the plans in a variety of unique situations.

4. Tabletops

Tabletop exercises involving key decision-makers are a cost-effective way of testing communications, technology and procedures. You can test both expected and unexpected emergencies.

5. Status checkpoints

Have a predefined agenda for checkpoints or status meetings that take place at set times during a crisis. Decision-makers must respond to particular prompts – for example, about communication with stakeholders, the status of equipment, or the spread of the crisis. 

6. Flexibility is your secret sauce

While we can’t plan for everything, we can be prepared for a broad range of scenarios, and ready to face the music with confidence, if we have the right tools to hand. My final piece of advice is to always build a high degree of flexibility into your crisis management tools. This way, when key people recognise a plan isn’t working, they can rapidly make the necessary changes. 

About the author: Harald Axelsen is the in-house crisis management expert for leading Environmental Health and Safety Advisor, EcoOnline.

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