Many organizations that have never experienced a real crisis assume one of two falsehoods: (1) a crisis will never happen to us, or (2) when a crisis happens, we will build a plan to respond. Both are equally misguided, high-risk, and costly. The key to managing any crisis is simply not to wait for the crisis to happen – start planning now.
Considering how best to secure a house in the middle of a hurricane is not the best solution in the moment – neither is starting to build a crisis plan while an organization is already up to their elbows in a crisis. Developing a plan in advance – when organizations have the time to think, test, and even fail – ensures that time spent in the early stages of a crisis is effective when thoughtful actions are critical.
Part of the reason why planning is so important is that a crisis has many uncertainties (often driven from outside the organization) that are only amplified by a constant conflict between an urgency to respond and likely many “unknowns” that require some level of further discovery. Time is needed to fully understand the breadth and depth of any crisis in the early stages and, too often, that time is spent developing a crisis plan from scratch.
Additionally, internal roles and responsibilities and external help is not always obvious or easy to organize in the midst of a crisis. Who leads on decision making? Who leads in resolution of the problem? Who leads on internal and external messaging? Who leads on information verification and investigation? Who leads on analysis of the scope of the problem and corresponding impact? Who leads on tracking social media awareness? Who communicates with the government or the press or employees or stakeholders? Does the organization need to engage lawyers, public affairs professionals, government experts, or public relations…or all of the above? The list could go on and on, but identifying who is doing what before a crisis is even on the radar puts an organization far ahead when a crisis eventually arrives on their front door.
Crisis planning is also important because it allows organizations to consider responses to a variety of scenarios – to effectively “war game” potential crisis moments and evaluate the risk of each. From a data breach to product recall, every crisis is different and each crisis will have a different response based on the nature and history of the organization. There is no “off the shelf” strategy that applies to everyone experiencing a particular crisis. Planning helps to consider a range of potential crisis scenarios and how an organization can uniquely respond to them.
Of course, all the planning in the world does not fully answer all the questions that emerge when a crisis happens. But, planning ensures you have a solid direction, division of responsibilities, and the flexibility to adjust course with a thoughtful and sophisticated approach.
Planning is not the norm (and that is not unique to crisis management, obviously), but is a vital step in effectively managing any crisis situation. Action without planning often leads to responses that add risk, become more costly, and extend the crisis. So, don’t wait for a crisis, start planning now.