Crisis Management: Crisis Planning Lessons From Tragedy: Crisis preparation
The specter of hijacked planes hitting the World Trade Center and Pentagon frightened us to the core, but it inspired spontaneously excellent crisis management. While no one anticipated such an horrific homeland attack, executives around the country quickly informed employees; ordered evacuations; canceled, reduced or delayed work schedules; communicated sympathetically; and even forbade airline travel – briefly – to ease the fear of flying that so many felt. Faced with initial disruptions of supply lines and a new blanket of security, companies exhibited fierce ingenuity and determination to deliver services and products. Despite chaos and uncertainty, American business intuitively did the right thing. Can there be a better example than Wall Street operations rising out of the ashes of ground zero to resume within less than a week?
In the face of calamity beyond the pale and despite managers’ notorious failure to plan for crises, why did so many do so well? Extreme threat compels us to be more caring, unselfish, and resourceful. We default to our better natures. Budgets, bureaucracies, hierarchies, legal liabilities, and rules defer to flesh and blood.
While we should not rely on emotions born of catastrophe to drive us to do what is right in a crisis, we can draw important lessons from this God-awful shared experience. Overriding is that crisis planning must be realistic. There is little value in unwieldy and untested systems.
Throw out thick crisis plans – You saw how little time we had to react to the September 11 disaster. So, why create phonebook sized crisis manuscripts? If you have or are developing one, use it as a doorstop and start over. Write lean documents to be truly helpful when you are anxious and making smart decisions on the run.
Throw out long crisis checklists – Again, as we saw in New York and Washington, every predicament is unique and you have to improvise. Give yourself flexibility not a rigid list. (See vulnerability audit).
Create a small savvy crisis team – Three people (COO, general counsel, and PR chief – or their equivalents in your organization) with designated support teams of experts. In the aftermath of the attack, I doubt that large groups of executives sat around tables deliberating. A few key leaders convened, contemplated, and acted. You want to duplicate that environment. Carefully select spokespeople. Save the most serious cases for the CEO to be crisis manager or spokesperson. Otherwise, let him/her run the business. Choose backups for every critical role and tell how all can be contacted 24/7.
Conduct a vulnerability audit – List your worst-case scenarios and draft tight action plans. Provide just enough detail to ensure critical steps are not overlooked. You want to facilitate decision-making by crisis managers; not encumber them with paperwork they would probably ignore anyway.
Declare crisis principles – So many did so well after the attack because they jettisoned bureaucracy and cut to the chase. We certainly hope that whatever challenges you face will never approach the gravity of 9/11/01, but you do want to maintain the same value-based mindset of the response. Therefore, write principles into your plans for philosophical guidance. Here are several. Reassure people that they are safe. Take care of victims or perceived victims. Inform stakeholders. Fix the problem. Don’t make it worse. Get it over with.
Update your business continuity plan – I trust that you already have such a strategy. Surely you know how you will satisfy customers and clients should a supplier go bankrupt, a computer fail, a key executive quit, a fire strike, an embezzlement occur, a major client move on, etc. This is a good time to review your business continuity plan.
Test plans with a drill – Even if only as a tabletop exercise, check your plans. An untested plan is no plan.
CEO should pre-authorize actions – These plans may fail if a senior executive second-guesses or ignores them when trouble starts. Get top management endorsement for what you intend.
I have found through experience that you line up your smartest people and help them make the best decisions. Plans should lubricate that process, not interfere with it. Sadly, I see organizations waste resources on documents that will only gather dust. I hope your planning encourages the qualities that came to the fore after the terrorist attack.