Why crisis preparedness matters

In a world where change is the only constant, and concepts such as ‘brand’, ‘reputation management’ and ‘corporate narrative’ have become part of the business lexicon, many organisations still fail to adequately prepare for a crisis.

A 2019 PR News & Crisp report found that 40 per cent of organisations either do not have a crisis communication plan or have a plan which is not up-to-date, and nearly a third of all organisations never or rarely conduct a risk assessment of potential threats to their brand’s reputation.

(Source: PR Crisis Preparedness Survey: Responding to Crises in the Digital Age, PR News & Crisp, 2019)

However, crises do not wait to strike until organisations are prepared. In our experience, they often occur at the most inconvenient time possible, such as when the CEO is on annual leave, or 4pm on a Friday afternoon.

Similarly, organisations can be responsible for an ‘own goal’ if they fail to respond to an issue or mismanage their response, and the issue then escalates into a scenario which suddenly demands attention, resources, time and money.

In an era of always-on news, citizen journalism, and the proliferation of social media, organisations should expect their every indiscretion to be publicly aired for analysis and criticism.

The one constant? No business, regardless of size, operational efficiency or reputational goodwill, is immune.

So what simple steps can leaders take to overcome the inertia that often befalls crisis preparedness?

1. Acknowledge you need to be prepared

The first step in crisis preparedness is agreeing that you need to plan!

The Board and CEO must be on the same page about the need to be prepared, and what format that planning takes. Does your organisation need a comprehensive play-book with step-by-step instructions, or will an agreed approach, some guiding principles and high-level clarification of duties suffice?

Regardless of the format, all organisations should have both an operational crisis response (outlining how to protect and manage people, plant and equipment) and a communication response (how to communicate with key stakeholders, and protect and manage the organisation’s reputation).

Many organisations have a well-prepared operational response but do not plan how they will communicate during a crisis — even though the latter can be the difference between organisations that emerge from a crisis with their reputation and stakeholder relationships intact, and those who struggle to regain value and trust.

2. Identify your risks and exposure

The next step is to identify your risks, vulnerabilities and exposure.

While this differs for each organisation, some consistent risks which threaten all organisations include:

  • Workplace misconduct (e.g. bullying and sexual harassment)
  • Cyber-security breaches
  • Social media indiscretions by staff (e.g. posting or sharing racist, sexist or discriminatory content)
  • Workplace injuries or fatalities
  • Product or service failures.

If leaders are unconvinced about the need to invest in crisis preparedness, time spent identifying the many risks which can befall an organisation is often the wake-up call needed to commit resources, time and money on next steps.

3. Eat the elephant

So you have agreed you need a crisis response plan and understand your greatest vulnerabilities. What’s next?

The first step is to identify who within the organisation will be responsible for developing the crisis response plan. Someone must ultimately have the ‘R’ (responsibility) or the project will inevitably be relegated to the bottom of the ‘to do’ list. Typically, the responsibility rests with the most senior Corporate Affairs or Corporate Communication practitioner.

It can be daunting developing a crisis response plan starting from scratch, especially if this is new terrain. The following items form the foundation of any crisis response and are required as a minimum:

  • Define your Crisis Management Team (CMT) — outline roles and responsibilities, and allocate personnel to these roles as well as a back-up (in the event of illness or absence).
  • Develop overarching principles that will guide decision-making — this is especially important when you are operating in an environment characterised by a lack of information, extreme time pressures, constantly shifting sands, and in which emotions are running high.
  • Outline how the CMT will operate — this includes the trigger for assembling the team, who has authority to stand-up the CMT, meetings logistics (where CMT members will meet including how to integrate members working remotely, the frequency of meetings, and record-keeping), decision-making procedures etc.
  • Identify your stakeholders — who you will need to communicate with during a crisis.
  • List your communication tools, channels and materials — including protocols around the use of each one (e.g. if/how you will use social media during a crisis, given the format lends itself to comments from keyboard warriors).

If budgets allow, large or particularly complex organisations with international reporting lines, complicated management structures or geographically dispersed management teams may benefit from engaging a crisis communication expert to draft their crisis management plan.

Alternatively, investing in a peer review of a plan developed in-house can be a cost-effective way to ensure it is pragmatic and reflects industry best practice.

Regardless of how you choose to improve your organisation’s crisis preparedness, one golden rule applies — the best time to plan for a crisis is when there is no crisis.