Crisis Management Plans; Proactive and Agile, not Prescriptive and Rigid

Crisis Management Plans; Proactive and Agile, not Prescriptive and Rigid

Marks Musings - June 2023


By Mark Harris, CrisisFit® Crisis Management Lead and Advisor with Sheena Thomson Consulting

I’ve recently read quite a number of articles, posts, and books on crisis management and crisis communications.  In parallel to this activity, I’ve moved house and been sorting through reams of paperwork amassed over the last 25-plus years. Both activities have prompted me to reflect on how crisis management planning and preparation has developed since I entered the commercial world.

When I embarked on my commercial career, I encountered two types of crisis management plan when advising clients, that is if they had a plan at all. Too often there was no plan. Generally, the two types of plans were:

1.     Developed by a person coming from the business continuity planning point of view

2.     Developed from a crisis communications point of view.

In both cases, the plans were on paper in folders, with the difference being that the business continuity-influenced crisis management plan was a huge document. When I was with one client advising them on product extortion, the plan was contained in two lever arch files.

In another situation, when advising a client in their response to a kidnap, I asked where their crisis management plan was. I was told that the large box file holding the door open was the crisis management plan, as the air-conditioning had broken down.

The crisis plan authored by the communications team would often be far fewer pages, however, the focus was on crisis communications and not crisis management.

What did this mean regarding an organisation’s ability to respond to a crisis back in the day? In my experience, organisations with a rigid structure and a crisis management plan and prescriptive instructions on how to respond to set incidents would often become paralysed when the situation they were responding to did not match the plan.

The situation may largely be covered by Annex K, with an element of Annex B, and a dash of Annex G resulting in an inability to address the issues. In addition, the misplaced belief that with a comprehensive crisis management plan covering all eventualities, training and practising were not necessary; the crisis management plan would be open if a crisis occurred and, as if by magic, following the instructions, the crisis would be resolved. Invariably the crisis wasn’t resolved because it did not fit the templates contained in the crisis management plan.

And those organisations responding to a situation with a crisis management plan influenced or drawn up by the comms team would be excellent in their communications. However, quite often the issues arising from the situation they were responding to, would often not be addressed fully or resolved. It is imperative that an organisation resolves the issues and fixes the problem, rather than just talking about it. Hence the maxim; “you can’t talk your way out of a situation you’ve acted yourself into”.

There is no doubt that the ‘landscape’ facing organisations these days and over the last five years has changed enormously since the nineties and noughties, as have the requirements for crisis management within an organisation. In today’s world, with an escalation in geo-political risks, supply and distribution chain risks, and customers questioning an organisation’s values or policies, against the backdrop of citizen journalism and the speed of social media, crisis management preparedness and response needs to be proactive and agile, not prescriptive, and not rigid.

So, what do I mean by being “proactive” when it comes to crisis management? It means being ahead of the curve; being prepared, scanning the horizon to see where the next threat or risk is coming from, and then conducting a scenario-based exercise against that threat or risk if you cannot avoid it. In short, getting a dynamic risk management culture in place at all levels of the organisation.

Being proactive in my opinion also means having a crisis management plan outlining values, that highlight the risks in general that may interrupt normal business operations, a simple 24/7 notification system and then the contact details to get the right minds and the safest pair of hands in play. But the plan is not a huge document. Once you have gathered the right people physically or virtually, determine the strategic objective, i.e. what is the end state we want to arrive at which signifies we’ve successfully resolved the issues and fixed the problem? With the right people, and having established the strategic objective, discussions and decisions based on the values of the organisation will resolve issues and fix the problem. And it is this ability to convene the right minds in a timely manner that will give your crisis management system the agility and flexibility required in today’s world. This is against the factors mentioned previously.

Proactive risk management and a robust, yet agile crisis response and crisis management, must always be supported by a communications team with a well-thought-through crisis communications plan. All elements of your proactive and agile crisis management system must be trained and rehearsed regularly. Getting this in place and done right will ensure your organisation’s resilience and enhance your reputation, as you resolve issues and fix problems in a timely and responsible manner.