14 Aug 2017

Crisis preparedness is not about disaster – it will make your organisation and its people better operators

Some years ago, I failed to persuade a CEO of an early-stage, but well-funded company, that he should invest a relatively modest part of his budget to create a plan for crisis communications just in case the worst should happen. Being a bullish optimist, he couldn’t see the point: his company and its offerings were so compelling and robust that nothing could possibly go wrong. A year later, an ill-judged media interview following a series of events including a software bug after a product launch and a short-term financing oversight by the FD, caused the company to lose its biggest customer and have to cut half its staff.

While communications cannot compensate for operational shortcomings during extraordinary events, there is no doubt that a clearly documented and practiced approach to responding can help businesses find a smoother path through choppy operational waters.

CFOs may wince at the time and cost required to prepare to communicate during the worst of times, but the potential cost of not doing so is far worse. Prudence is a good thing, but the benefits in preparing for the worst have overwhelmingly positive implications beyond the ability to respond in a crisis: they provide surety of systems, enhance cross-functional engagement, promote collaboration, deliver enhanced knowledge to employees and make executives better communicators.

Systems can’t stop it going wrong, but they help you if it does

For organisations of every stage of maturity, a crisis communications plan is an important component of any disaster plan.  It can act as a guide to help you quickly contain a crisis and recover from its impact. Whether it’s a weather disaster, highly publicised legal action or a bad product review, your reaction should be immediate, focused and emphatic.

A crisis communications plan should provide a solid system to guide your response through three core elements. It should outline a response process: how the organisation is alerted to an event trigger and how it mobilises to respond. It should define who does what and when, in particular during the first 48 hours after a crisis hits, when clear communications to stakeholders can matter on a moment-by-moment basis. And it should provide a set of useful tools and templates to save your team time in the heat of the moment and enable them to focus on the big picture.

Preparation has deep-felt benefits

Regular ‘live’ practice of these crisis responses provides an opportunity to develop collaborative working across teams throughout an organisation. While industries that need to regularly respond to potential crisises – such as airlines – run monthly simulations (as well as getting almost daily issues management practice in the day job), all organisation should look to do at least one practice run, or simulation, every year.

For small organisations, these drills provide much-needed testing and peace of mind. For mature organisations, crisis preparedness training is a spring clean for your systems. It’s like clearing out your wardrobes and deciding which clothes and shoes to keep, and then putting everything away neat and tidy.

The consequences of running through a real-time crisis simulation is typically a feeling of exhilaration. While participants will feel like they have just done an exam, they will also – if they have been prepared properly – feel confident that they know what to do when a crisis hits. You can’t feel in control if you don’t know what your role and responsibility to your colleagues is

There is another advantage which is not necessarily crisis-related but equally compelling: trained spokespeople tend to be the better communicators. They are more confident with a better idea of how they come across (having practiced difficult questions with a camera in their face), and have a better command of how to deliver succinct messages with proof points that back them up: a useful skill with applications in a wide variety of business settings.

A version of this article was published in Gulf News on August 15, 2017.