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7 Crisis-Planning Steps You Need to Take Before Your Summer Vacation

Crises don't take holidays, so your company has to create detailed processes ahead of time to deal with them.
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What do the deaths of 19 firefighters in Arizona, the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy, and 9/11 have in common? Each terrible crisis occurred during those lazy, hazy crazy days of summer.

So while you, your executives, and your other employees are busy finalizing your post-Memorial Day vacation plans, you might want to stop and consider this other fact: A recent Peppercomm survey of 100 clients and prospects revealed that while 78 percent have created a crisis plan, less than one-third have tested the plan to see if it would actually work in a real crisis!

Guess what's the worst possible time to test your crisis plan? Yes, Virginia, right when the crisis is breaking. Just ask L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling. It took Sterling two full weeks to respond to his self-inflicted crisis and, when he finally did so, he created a whole new crisis by attacking basketball legend Magic Johnson. I believe the expression "Two wrongs don't make a right" was first coined by one of Sterling's ancestors.

So what should you do to make sure your organization is crisis-ready before you head for Tahiti, Tanzania, or Trenton? Here are seven critical steps:

1. Simulate a real crisis.

Dust off your existing plan, select a plausible crisis, and set aside half a day to simulate it, with each of your line managers fully participating. My firm has worked with clients to simulate everything from a high-profile sexual harassment charge to life-and-death scenarios like a plant explosion and a CEO kidnapping. In each instance, we've insisted the line managers play themselves (e.g. the head of sales was responsible for communicating with customers; human resources was in charge of employee communications; building security oversaw evacuation, etc.).

2. Insist that attendance is mandatory.

If you really want to be crisis-ready, demand that each of your executives take the simulated crisis very seriously. Introduce a few creative elements, such as a critically important customer waiting on a phone outside the conference room threatening to yank his account if he isn't told exactly what's happening. Or pretend a local TV crew is outside your office, interviewing your employees in the parking lot and demanding to speak to you, the owner, ASAP. Discuss these unexpected developments as a team, and make a group decision whether to act or ignore each plot twist.

3. Communicate with every key audience.

Develop a simple matrix that lists every one of your key audiences. (See below.) This should be your go-to guide as you manage an unfolding crisis. It not only identifies each audience that is critical to your business, but also assigns individual ownership, as well as what will be said and when. The latter components are critical since you want your employees to learn about bad news first. There's nothing worse than having your employees find out about the crisis before you've had the opportunity to brief them.


4. Create a war room.

This could be as simple as a conference room that you set up in advance. Its purpose is to serve as command headquarters throughout the duration of the crisis. It should be set up with TVs, computers, and phone lines so that your team can keep track of breaking developments and formulate responses (or non-responses) quickly and correctly.

Note: There are some instances in which a non-response is the smartest strategy in the midst of an unfolding crisis. The Pepsi Syringe crisis from the early 1990s is a classic example. Pepsi refused to issue any statement other than the fact that it was investigating how syringes had found their way into a few Pepsi cans. Until they knew the full story, and how it occurred, Pepsi didn't issue a single statement. In hindsight, that was brilliant, since it was an isolated incident caused by one irate employee who had been fired. There had been no need to suspend all bottling activities.

5. Appoint a lead spokesperson.

Could BP have chosen a worse spokesperson in the aftermath of the gulf oil spill than British hotshot Tony Hayward? The jet-setting CEO seemed distracted at best, and in response to being asked by reporters about his concern for the situation, he famously replied, "I'd like my life back." He was next seen sailing in a regatta back in England, and was terminated soon afterwards.

Appointing the right spokesperson isn't a slam dunk. It should align with the specific crisis. If it's a cybersecurity breach, odds are good your top IT executive should be the lead spokesperson. If it's a major sexual harassment suit alleged against the CEO, you might want to opt for the most senior woman executive, the head of human resources, or both. If the crisis is a true calamity, and human life is lost, then the CEO must be the lead spokesperson. In those situations he needs to convey concern, show he's committed to finding out what caused the event, and communicate the steps he'll put in place to assure it'll never happen again.

6. Create a dark site.

Have your marketing and IT teams collaborate to create what's known as a dark site. This is a website that contains all of the pertinent information about your company. Should a crisis occur, specific news and contact information can be added to it and all interested parties (families, the media, customers) can be directed to the new, crisis-specific site once it goes live. I've seen companies activate their site within minutes after a crisis has occurred. That enables you to underscore the company's commitment to providing swift, accurate information. Turning on a dark site quickly will ensure key audiences aren't speculating and spreading false rumors--because you won't be keeping them in the dark.

7. Create a measurement scorecard.

Believe it or not, many companies emerge from a crisis with an enhanced image and reputation. Johnson & Johnson's swift response to the Tylenol poisoning crisis (in which they removed every bottle from every shelf) resulted in the company gaining market share after the crisis was solved and new, tamper-proof lids were placed on each bottle.

When you create your measurement scorecard, examine and grade the following areas:

  • Composure (How well did your team keep its cool?)
  • Collecting information (Did you have all the key facts when you needed them in order to make the right decisions?)
  • Analysis (Review what decisions you did and didn't make, and determine if they were correct.)
  • Reaction (Did you and your team jump on the crisis as soon as possible, or did your response make Donald Sterling seem like Speedy Gonzales?)
  • Evaluation (Grade all of the above on a scale of one to five, and see how you net out.)
  • Success (Did your crisis management actually improve employee morale and customer relations, or did the business suffer as a result? Again, be completely honest in defining your success, or lack thereof.)

One final note: Sadly, crisis is a 24/7 workaholic that never takes a vacation. So don't look at the above exercise as a one-and-done deal. Simulate multiple crises throughout the year. And learn from your mistakes. There's one mistake every single crisis client with whom I've worked makes time and again in our simulations: In the heat of battle, a line manager will completely overlook a critical audience. So in their rush to, say, safely evacuate the building, the head of sales will forget to call the 800-pound gorilla client company. Oops. You do not want your largest client to hear about your mega-crisis from a second-hand source. That spells almost certain termination.

So kick back and enjoy those two weeks in the South of France. But before you board the plane, get yourself and your team into a conference room and plan for the worst.

Last updated: May 20, 2014

STEVE CODY | Columnist

I'm a climber, comedian, and dog lover. But not necessarily in that order. I also happen to be co-founder and CEO of Peppercomm, a strategic communications firm headquartered in NYC, with offices in San Francisco and London. I publish RepMan, a daily blog, and have had the opportunity to appear on CNBC, MSNBC, NPR, and a host of other top-tier media over the years. scody@peppercomm.com

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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