Crisis Management: Teams more than plans may save you in a crisis: Crisis Response
Should your company or organization have a crisis plan? Yes.
Will the plan protect you in a crisis? Maybe.
In the wake of the hurricane Katrina response debacle most senior managers probably reviewed their crisis plans. Good. However they should not let the plans create a false sense of security. During my many years of crisis management not one time – not once – did a client pull out a crisis plan in my presence to help us solve a sudden problem. Rather than use documents often costing thousands of dollars to prepare, executives preferred to work with senior staff. No surprise. Research shows that during a crisis, 85% of CEO’s rely upon teams, not plans.
Why? Plans are often unworkable and not supported by trained teams who can adapt to reality.
Look at what happened to New Orleans’ crisis plan and Katrina. NY Times columnist David Brooks described the plan as a “masterpiece of bureaucratic thinking… the plan lays out a course of action so that all personnel will know exactly what to do in case of a hurricane.” He continued, “One can imagine the PowerPoint presentations. The millions of cascading bullet points. The infinity of hours spent planning a hurricane response that would make a Prussian officer gasp with reverence.” Brooks cut to the heart of why crisis plans are fallible by saying “…the plan was so beautiful. It’s too bad reality destroyed it… planners can never really anticipate the inevitable complexity of events.”
Brooks reminded me of a famous military quote by a 19th Century Prussian general: “No plan survives contact with the enemy.”
Even PR professionals question how much plans can help when you’re eyeball deep in the mud.
At a conference, several crisis managers and I discussed whether plans should include checklists detailing how to handle most conceivable disasters. Our consensus was that checklists often are exercises in futility because the actual crisis will be different than what’s expected. Worst still, once a senior manager realizes her plan doesn’t fit what she faces, she’ll likely toss the plan and turn to her best people for solutions.
At a gathering of client PR pros I asked how many had crisis plans. Everyone did. I asked what was best about their plans. One person said sarcastically, “We need a plan to be eligible for federal funds.” I asked how many plans were useful. Only about 5 out of 40 raised their hands.
Complicating all of this is the inevitability that crises may look the same but never are. Each is unique. Solutions vary. I constantly must be on guard against assuming that what worked in one crisis will work in a similar one. That makes planning hard.
But you DO need a plan, the right kind: one that designates your crisis team, their responsibilities, backups, how to locate everyone, initial action steps, and written to adapt to the uncertainty that is inherent and inevitable in all crises. Large or complex organizations need more. For example, a giant pharmaceutical client has an intricate business continuity plan that involves drills to ensure a crisis would not interrupt the delivery of lifesaving drugs. Local governments need plans for disasters like Katrina. Schools need them to protect students against Columbine-like violence. Hospitals need to them to respond if H1N1 gets out of control. And so on. Notice that those plans are issue or contingency specific. The best kind.
Again, even a good plan only puts you into action. It is not a blueprint. The U.S. Marine Corps says, “…few plans will ever be carried out the way they are designed and that, in fact, they are not meant to be… the measure of a good plan is not whether it is executed as intended, but whether it provides the basis for effective action.”
So, no matter how fine the crisis plan, you still must depend on a team trained and empowered to adapt to what they actually encounter.
Companies sometimes ask me to help them draw up a crisis plan because they’ve been told they need one. I tell them, “Sure, but let me first help you establish your crisis team and then we can move on from there. The plan will only be as good as the team that implements it.”