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Thursday, April 30, 2009

Top Ten Tips On How To Deal With A Crisis - For Businesses Without A Crisis Plan

As human beings, we're very good at thinking that really bad things only happen to other people - or that by virtue of Murphy's Law, they are inevitable and unavoidable. The same attitude applies in many businesses despite well documented casualties from recent events such as flooding and supply chain issues. Crisis planning is an essential component of being a well managed and resilient business and offers the best chance of staying up and running after a significant disruption.

What qualifies as a business crisis?

The nature of a crisis can vary widely - from natural disaster, through a leaked memo containing sensitive information to the office next door involving you in their crisis by default. In other words, a crisis can come from almost anywhere but by definition is unexpected and has the potential to have negative consequences. A crisis may affect the safety of staff, the availability of resources, critical systems, shareholders and potentially threaten the mid to long term success or existence of the business.

Here are some tips on what to do if a crisis strikes your business before you have a crisis plan in place.

1: Find out what has happened

This may sound like an odd thing to begin with, but it's arguably the most important. When a crisis strikes, whatever the cause, it can be hard to get a handle on what exactly has provoked the alert. How have you heard about it? Are your sources reliable? Do you have any staff that can give you eyewitness accounts? Only once you know the true nature of the crisis and its extent can you deal with it appropriately. Separating rumour from fact can be more difficult than you imagine in the immediate aftermath of a crisis.

2. Clearly identify a crisis team and team leader

The key characteristic of a crisis team is that they need to work well together, whilst also having a wide range of skills and knowledge. There must be at least one person with enough authority within the team to make strategic decisions and authorise spending as some crises will necessitate emergency funds to cover accommodation, travel and food for those involved.
The team leader doesn't necessarily have to be the most knowledgeable about the business, as long as he or she has the ability to stay calm, assimilate information presented by the crisis team, can command respect and act decisively, delegating as necessary. People are likely to be stressed, sometimes panicky - can the crisis team leader handle that?

3. Assess the impact (on your people, assets, customers and reputation)

Once you understand the extent of the crisis, you can evaluate how it will impact upon your business. Are any staff hurt or in danger? Do extra members of staff need to be brought in (because the crisis has happened out of business hours or during a holiday for example)? Do you have any stock that is at risk? Are you still able to provide essential customer services, or will you need to close? How will the press react?
It is important to understand what at this stage is time critical for the business so you can prioritise what is needed to continue operating effectively.

4. Develop an action plan

Having assessed the impact, determining what needs to happen in a methodical way ensures that nothing is left out nor actions duplicated. Most crises involve time pressure; some people refer to a "golden hour" immediately after the crisis has occurred; what you do in that first hour can significantly impact upon the outcome. Don't underestimate how chaotic things can be during some crises - once immediate responses have been carried out (i.e. evacuation of a building) time taken to lay out a plan could potentially alter the outcome for your business. A plan, however basic, will help ensure there is integration and co-ordination in what happens - and minimise the likelihood of 'left hand /right hand not talking syndrome'.

5. Develop a timeline of what is happening when

This is clearly going to differ depending on the nature of each crisis, but based on your plan could include events such as arrival of critical staff members, arrival of technical support teams, anticipated restoration of power, broadcast times etc. Outlining when key events are going to happen enables the efficient allocation of resources.
The best crisis teams are able to focus on the future effectively, see needs approaching and prepare for them as well as avoiding issues that inevitably occur along the way. Many times the crisis is just the first in a string of events that ensue as a result of the disruption to normality.

6. Implement the plan

Having developed the plan, the next major challenge is communicating it effectively to those that need to know. This is a real test of your team and, without a pre-determined and rehearsed crisis plan already in place, one of the most difficult areas to manage well ‘on the hoof'. How you talk to staff, executives, emergency services and the many other people who need to know what you are doing and when is critical to your success in managing the crisis and your reputation. At the end of the day, you must DO something. The worst plan is one that arrives too late.

7. Maintain a log of decisions, actions and issues

Maintaining a detailed log of decisions, actions and issues is an important component of crisis management. Not only will it enable you to ensure all actions are completed on a continuous basis and help tie up loose ends when the crisis is over, it may become a legal document backing up accounts of events should litigation ensue. Choose the person to maintain it with care and ensure it is reviewed by the crisis leader on a regular basis.

8. Develop an internal and external communications plan

Communications are critical - brief those who need to know on a regular basis: the media, your staff, stakeholders and customers. However, it is important that the right information reaches the right people in a timely fashion so development of a clear communications plan will support you in achieiving this. Effective communication in the face of crisis can greatly enhance your reputation.

9. Look after your staff and their welfare

Your staff may be coping with shock, stress and more. Ensuring their welfare is clearly within the remit of a responsible employer, but it also means that the crisis won't be worsened by neglect of their needs. In some instances there can be long term impacts if issues are not dealt with correctly in the early stages.

10. Manage your information

One of the greatest challenges in dealing with a crisis is the management of information as it flows in and out of your crisis team. This is where you develop a clear picture of what is reality and separate fact from fiction. The lynch pin of your response will be centred around the information you receive and how you respond to it so its processing must be fast and accurate. White boards, flip charts and briefings all help.
And when the crisis is over?

On returning to normality, review how you dealt with what happened and learn the lessons for next time. If you are reading this and are lucky enough to have escaped a business crisis so far, do consider developing a crisis plan - the time spent planning is never wasted and will enable a much more effective and controlled response, reducing the strain on your staff - "train hard, fight easy" is a worthwhile maxim in the world of crisis management and is supported by the experience of all those businesses who have gone before you

Dominic Cockram
Founder and Managing Director of Steelhenge Consulting Ltd

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