The Hardest Part of Crisis Planning – Taking the First Steps

By Hinda Mitchell
September 24, 2015

Several times lately, I've been asked the question, "How much of your business is helping clients prepare for crisis, and how much is responding when the actual crisis hits?" While most of us who specialize in crisis communications appreciate the importance of preparedness, what we also know is that many more clients come in the door not realizing they need a crisis plan or knowing how to get started.

One of the first tasks in crisis planning is educating internal leadership on the difference between an issue and a crisis. We often want to "respond" to issues – but an issue is something that a business is engaged in managing. A crisis is something to which a business must respond.

For example: Environmental responsibility is an issue. Businesses of many types must consider their role in preserving the land, air and water for future generations. Many companies' day-to-day activities have an impact on the environment, whether it be emissions from a plant, discharges of wastewater, or other common processes. Regulators are often a part of this issues management program.

If a manufacturing plant has an ammonia leak resulting in hazardous emissions into neighboring communities or employee injury – that is a crisis. At that point, the company must go into response mode to ensure the safety of those involved, to protect the environment, and to prevent damage to the company's reputation.

Even when defined separately from issues management, crises in the abstract seem so remote and are often impossible to even conceive for company officials. That said, they happen more than we'd like to accept. When helping a client prepare for a crisis, we ask them to think about those crises that are both likely to happen and likely to have an impact on the business.

For example: A meteor hitting a manufacturing plant would clearly be high impact, but would not have a high degree of likelihood of occurrence. A plant worker being mildly injured on the job would be high likelihood, but unless serious or due to some kind of criminal negligence, would not be highly impactful on the business. Using the same example of a plant location, what could be both high likelihood and high impact is the possibility that that plant might have a fault in a production line that would lead to adulterated product and a possible recall.

This "high-likelihood, high-impact" method of identifying potential crises is an essential exercise in preparedness and also is instructive in determining those crises that, given those parameters, could have a negative impact on the reputation of the business.

What is equally critical is to have all internal stakeholders and subject matter experts engaged in the crisis identification exercise and subsequent planning process. A crisis response plan is not something you can "order up" and wait for the binder (or electronic file) to arrive. While a plan can be supported and crafted by an outside source, the direction and insight that shapes the content of the plan must originate within the organization itself.

A good crisis preparedness plan needs broad acceptance across the business. From human resources to operations, from sales to regulatory compliance, each business unit must recognize its role in crisis planning and response – the best way to ensure that is to secure their early and regular participation in the preparedness process itself.

When business or organization leaders fully understand how to define a crisis and what crises are most likely and impactful, and when those with a stake in ensuring the company's ongoing reputation have an active voice during crisis preparedness planning, the company has the best opportunity for development of a crisis response plan that is focused and effective. A strong, complete and well-planned crisis response is critical to mitigating any long-term damage to the business and its reputation.