Crisis management: It helps to have a plan

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The phrase “going postal” was coined in 1993 following a ten year period where a total of 35 people were killed in 11 different post office shootings by postal employees. The term has come to be synonymous with disgruntled workers in any profession taking their anger out at the office.

September 11, 2001 is a date none of us living now will ever forget, the first time since Pearl Harbor was bombed that terror crossed the U.S. border and threatened our sense of national security. (Read Harvard Business Review’s article on Morgan Stanley’s efficient response to the 9-11 crisis.)

In Nashville, where I work and live, we had an unprecedented flood on May 1, 2010 that displaced thousands of families and businesses.

Savvy managers prepare for crises before they occur – because with crisis it’s never a question of IF, only WHEN, WHAT kind, and HOW bad.

There are 3 types of crises:

  1. Behavioral
  2. Environmental
  3. Operational

Behavioral crises can come from outside sources like an act of violence (Aurora movie shooting in July 2012), or they can come from inside sources like the company president committing fraud (Martha Stewart in 2004).

Environmental crises include natural disasters (tsunami in Japan in March 2011).

Operational crises are things like a virus that threatens a company’s computer system, a malfunction in a key piece of manufacturing equipment, or an accident involving a transportation system – air, land or sea.

A crisis can create different kinds of threats (Crisis Management and Communications, Dr. Timothy Coombs, 2007):

  1. To public safety
  2. To financial health
  3. To reputation (which can impact financial health)

Most crises occur at a low or minor level…some medium…others high.

Here are a few tips on handling a business crisis:

Acknowledge that it could happen. If company leaders will just think about the different types of crisis an organization is susceptible to, it can help combat shock when it happens.

Develop a crisis management plan. Articulating even a loose plan of action for combating a crisis can have a tremendous impact on its outcome and long-lasting effects.

Communicate the crisis management plan. Have a checklist and/or list of important resources (like the location of the nearest hospital) and phone numbers (employee’s next of kin, police, and fire) and ensure all employees know where to locate these lists. Make the crisis management plan a regular agenda item on annual or semi-annual staff meetings.

Revisit the crisis management plan. Continually reassess your crisis management plan to see if time, operational, and technology advancements call for revisions to it. If you experience a crisis – on any level…low, medium or high level – revisit your plan immediately after to see what its strengths and weaknesses were.

Funnel media communications through one spokesperson. A company can often minimize damage to its reputation, or confusion as the result of mixed messages, by funneling all communication responses to the media through one (educated) spokesperson. If employees are apprised of this policy and know who the spokesperson is prior to a crisis, it can lend comfort and clarity.

Two final thoughts…each business should research and develop the most appropriate crisis management plan for its particular workplace and employees, and each business must decide how transparent it will be with both internal and external stakeholders when crises occur. Personally, I believe it’s typically better to be transparent. David Letterman is a good example. When the news that he’d had affairs with former interns came out, he admitted it quickly and directly. The story and the speculation died.

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