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Crisis Preparedness: How to Develop a Robust Plan Before Disaster Strikes
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Crisis Preparedness: How to Develop a Robust Plan Before Disaster Strikes

By Tom Vogel

Crises are surprises — but your response can’t be. You shouldn’t wait until a crisis hits to put a crisis communications plan together. If you’re scrambling to develop a response as the situation unfolds, you’re already too late.

While you won’t know when a crisis is going to happen, you can anticipate how one might unfold and affect your organization. This is why having a crisis plan on hand is essential.

A crisis communications plan should:

  • Empower management with the information and tools necessary to make informed decisions under deadline pressure.
  • Enable your organization to communicate with one voice in an accurate, consistent, and timely fashion with all of its key stakeholders.
  • Provide clear and concise procedures for crisis response.
  • Establish communications as part of your organization’s overall Incident Response Team (IRT), with designated roles, timelines for response activation, and mechanisms to assess the escalating (or de-escalating) nature of the threat.
  • Mitigate the impact of an event or issue on your organization’s business and reputation.
  • Position your organization to recover as quickly as possible.

But how do you create a crisis plan and what should be in it?  Here are some important questions to consider:

Who are your stakeholders?

In the event of a crisis, there will be a need to communicate with the full breadth of your organization’s stakeholders. The nature of the underlying event or issue will determine the prioritization of the stakeholders that your organization will communicate with, the depth of the information you will want to share, and the appropriate spokesperson.

Besides your clients, employees, shareholders and the media, other stakeholders could include vendors, regulators, first responders such as the local fire and police departments, as well as officials and other leaders of your local community. And don’t forget how the clients of your clients might be affected by a crisis. Your clients may need messaging to share with them as well.

Do you have an Incident Response Team (IRT)?

To ensure the timely and ongoing direction of your organization’s communications in the event of a crisis – along with the coordination of the appropriate business remediation steps – it is essential to have an IRT in place with the authority to make all necessary decisions for external and internal communications and engagement. The IRT also needs leaders to manage the crisis communications process. We suggest at least two co-leads for the IRT. Many companies have a member of the C-Suite and the head of communications as the co-leads.

The IRT should include members of senior management such as the general counsel, head of sales, CFO, CMO, CHRO, CIO and heads of compliance, IT and operations while keeping in mind the group’s need to be nimble and act quickly.

The IRT’s role is critical. They should:

  • Assess a given situation based on the information available at the time and its potential impact
  • Use the steps outlined in the crisis plan to determine the seriousness of the crisis and the appropriate next steps
  • Determine when to communicate externally and internally – and then review and approve communications for key stakeholders
  • Continue to monitor/evaluate a given situation to decide if the current approach needs to escalate, de-escalate, or continue as is.

What are your most likely – or worried-about – crisis scenarios?

A crisis plan that attempts to cover every potential scenario ends up covering none because it would be too lengthy and dense to use as a quick reference and will just collect dust on the shelf.  A better approach is to focus on the top 4 to 6 most likely or worried-about scenarios instead. It’s likely that the messaging and processes for the most likely scenarios can be easily adapted for others that have similar attributes.

Speaking of identifying scenarios, we suggest that you conduct a series of interviews with the heads of each of your organization’s groups or divisions as well as key members of senior management to ensure that you haven’t missed anything. These discussions often turn up new potential scenarios and also serve to get buy-in from the broader organization about the importance of having a crisis plan in place.

How do you determine the severity of a crisis?

Not every crisis is the same. Some are one-off incidents that can be quickly addressed in a few days and, if properly managed, pose no major threat to your organization’s operations or reputation. Others can draw critical attention from clients, employees, shareholders, regulators and the media and pose a serious challenge to your operations and business over a more extended time period. The most serious crises threaten your core reputation and can cause long-term damage to your operations.

Establishing clear definitions for the severity of a crisis — say Level I, Level II, and Level III — will help to provide a roadmap for how to address each and the internal resources needed to do so. This will also help your organization to determine when to de-escalate when a crisis subsides or escalate when it worsens.

At the outset of a crisis, the IRT co-leads will begin the process of assessing the severity of a given situation based on the information available at that time.

What operational assets and processes do you have in place for a crisis?

In drafting a crisis communications plan, you should also include an inventory of assets and operational processes already in place to address a crisis. For an oil refining company, that could include a fire suppression system and backup plans with the local fire department.  For a financial services company, that could be business continuity plans.

This information is important to have on hand to communicate with stakeholders that your organization has processes already in place to ensure the safety of employees and no disruption to your services.

What is your initial messaging?

For each scenario and risk level, you should have templates of holding or reactive statements in place which you can complete by adding the details of the situation and the steps you plan to take to address it. It’s important that internal and external messaging be aligned, which is why we suggest drafting one template statement for each scenario and risk level rather than multiple statements for each stakeholder group. These templates can be adapted for each stakeholder group, as needed, once the contours and fallout of the crisis is clear.

What will you do after the crisis has subsided?

Once a major crisis has subsided, it’s important to begin rebuilding the trust of your clients, employees, shareholders, the public and other stakeholders. You should follow up on the situation by emphasizing your organization’s response to the crisis, the steps that will be taken to ensure it doesn’t happen again, and the changes your company has made as a result.

You should also conduct an internal post-crisis review to assess whether your plan and response were effective. It’s a good idea to analyze the fallout while it’s still fresh so that you can begin optimizing your crisis communication plan long before the next crisis occurs.

No organization is immune from crises, but being prepared with a comprehensive crisis communications plan can help mitigate potential reputational and operational damage. While hoping for the best, it’s crucial to plan for the worst by anticipating potential scenarios, establishing clear protocols, and empowering an experienced crisis response team.

Tom Vogel is a Senior Vice President in ICR’s Special Situations Group and a former bureau chief at The Wall Journal and columnist for Bloomberg.

Tom Vogel
Senior Vice President
ICR Inc.



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