Best Practices: The Nine Stages of Superior Crisis Planning
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Best Practices: The Nine Stages of Superior Crisis Planning

This planning model is based on values. Crises are incidents that thrust an organization’s values into the realm of public scrutiny. This must be recognized early in the crisis planning process.

Paul Holmes

by Larry Kamer
September 11 has changed, and will continue to change, our perceptions about risk and crisis. Crisis planning has always required thinking about terrible things, but the way through that challenge has been to study what others have done when faced with the same series of events. Food poisonings, oil spills, executive disappearances—these all have unfortunate but instructional precedents. September 11 did not.
Corporate crisis plans have always posed the challenge of anticipating the unthinkable. Now, they must also do the same for the unprecedented.
Thus the first lesson for crisis planners in these early years of the new millennium is to recognize the changing, even volatile expectations about risk that stakeholders to a crisis will now possess.  
These stakeholders (employees, shareholders, neighbors, news media, analysts, regulatory agencies, activists, executive management teams, vendors and suppliers, et al) developed keen insights, even playbooks, for crisis management in the late 1980s and 1990s. They had ample material, thanks to Bhopal, the Tylenol recalls, the Exxon Valdez, TWA 800, and other incidents that now comprise the Crisis Hall of Fame. These playbooks will now dictate that companies pay attention to two central questions when responding to crises:  “Could terrorism be involved?” and “What are you doing to protect us from the risk of terrorism, anyway?”

The City of San Jose has received extensive coverage for its comprehensive approach to, and investment in, crisis and disaster planning. One prominent California hospital recently disclosed its new bioterrorism crisis readiness plan.  A Bay Area transit system has openly discussed plans for installing chemical weapon sensors on train platforms. High profile public institutions are often the earliest adopters of new modes of crisis planning, and the leaders of these organizations know full well that they will be among the first to be held accountable when a crisis has not been anticipated or handled effectively.
Will responsible companies or industry groups begin to feel this same pressure in this new era of risk? When they do (and I think they will), it will be important to have a straightforward methodology to tackle the seemingly insurmountable tasks involved in planning for a crisis—that is, putting crisis response into place before the crisis hits.
At Kamer Consulting Group, our methodology for crisis planning takes the client through nine dynamic processes. This planning model is based on values. Crises are, when it comes down to it, incidents that thrust an organization’s values into the realm of public scrutiny.  This must be recognized early in the crisis planning process.
Step 1.  Chartering the Crisis Team
This has to be done by the CEO. A crisis team that reports to a CFO, chief counsel, or VP of communications risks being pigeonholed into one discipline, defeating the purpose of an effective, functioning crisis team, which is cross-disciplinary.  The CEO should ensure representation from: finance; operations; safety; law; communications/marketing; HR/labor; and security.
The crisis team should be as small as possible.  Its tasks are to oversee the process of devising an effective crisis plan, ensuring a schedule of training and testing, and securing the resources for carrying out what the plan will call for.
Step 2.  Articulating Workable Values in Crisis
The crisis team must keep one thing in mind, above all, when anticipating and planning for crises:  crises are fraught with risks, which present themselves immediately, and opportunities, which give small clues and only manifest themselves over time.
The team should ask:  “How does our organization act quickly, flawlessly, and show its true colors in crisis?”  This approach will keep managers focused on the right set of priorities in a crisis situation – not simply making the crisis appear to go away.
Rudy Giuliani would earn very high marks as a competent mayor were his accomplishments limited to efficient deployment of emergency personnel to the World Trade Center site. Using the immense challenges of that crisis to articulate the values of his city earned him a place in history.
In his excellent book, Defining Moments, Joseph L. Badaracco of Harvard Business School describes the reality of managers seeking to act on values as the need to “choose between right and right.” [1]  These “…defining moments compel managers to reveal, test, and choose the ethics of their organization.  Defining moments shape an organization because they cut through all the finely crafted pronouncements about what the company aspires to do and reveal instead what it actually does.”[2]
This is especially true in crisis, as any manager who has been there can attest.  The decision to offer refunds, talk to the press, issue a warning, or take out an ad explaining oneself are rarely black-and-white choices. 
Machiavelli teaches us that weak leaders and fragile organizations accomplish little in this world, because they are preoccupied with survival[3].  Strong articulation of values at the front end of the crisis provides the underpinnings of superior crisis response – not just making the crisis go away, and not just surviving.
Step 3. Crisis Risk Assessment

No crisis plan can attempt to capture response strategies for every conceivable crisis - from a fire in the warehouse to a nuclear winter.  It is also true that organizations, either through planning, requirement, or happenstance, generally come into the crisis planning process having already given some attention to potential crisis situations (handling fires, bomb threats, earthquakes, etc).
What everyday situations can, if not handled properly, blossom into a crisis? What smoldering situations exist within the organization that can suddenly become public spectacles? Are there trends in your industry, or crises that have happened to competitors, that should be learning tools?
The assessment comes in matching these risks with likely damage they could do to your organization’s operations, finance, or reputation.             Those that score high on both counts should be the immediate focus of crisis planning, with those scoring lower on one score or the other relegated to a lower position on the list – but not forgotten.
Step 4.  Establish Roles
Here, the crisis team makes two important determinations. First, it divides up and assigns responsibility for the development of different aspects of the crisis plan. Next, it decides who will be on point for management roles in the event of certain kinds of crises.
It’s important to understand that in a crisis-response organization, especially in a large-scale operational response like a natural disaster, or an industrial accident, managers will likely take on different or expanded roles. This is especially true when one is involved in a crisis response involving multiple agencies or companies.  People often find themselves leading or working for those they do not often come in contact with—or, sometimes, people they’ve never met. 
Early in the planning process, the crisis team needs to establish this expectation of new faces, defining the key roles, and identifying who will fill those roles.  Much of this thinking arises from the Incident Command System (ICS), a military-like management approach first employed in California in the early 1970s to blend resources to fight wild fires.  The ICS is now the standard response used by public safety agencies, allowing crisis organizations to expand and contract as the crisis intensifies and ebbs.[4]
Again, training for second-nature response is the goal, so it makes good sense for the member of the crisis team responsible for communications to handle the communications planning section, the lawyer the legal section, and so on.
Step 5.  Develop Interim Responses
Not long ago, several colleagues and I were asked to lead the crisis planning process at a 100-year-old food processing facility in California.  The factory was enormous by today’s standards, reflecting a time when land was cheap and logistics could be spread over a vast area:  quarter-mile-long conveyor belts, massive fuel and grain storage tanks, crisscrossing railroad tracks everywhere. This space had become an invitation to store vast amounts of unused materials, such as wooden pallets, stacked for yards under the conveyors.
The industrial process consultant on the project began to ask basic safety questions, first about the pallets (potential fire or accident hazard), then about the large diesel fuel tank at the front of the plant (potential fire, explosion, or spill hazard).  One thing became clear:  the plant was full of unnecessary hazards that could and should be eliminated almost immediately.
The pallets were removed within a week, and the diesel tank emptied and dismantled several weeks later. All it took was a trusted outsider asking questions about what people inside the plant had come to take for granted. 
Crisis planning will reveal problems in need of immediate attention, and the crisis team should not wait until a written plan is completed to act on them. 
Step 6.  Write the Plan
A detailed, written crisis plan is the physical product that the crisis planning process yields, but a written plan can give your organization a false sense of security.  Abandon the notion right now that in crisis, you and your people will simply turn to the crisis binder that sits on a bookshelf, and that it will provide you with a step-by-step action plan that will see you through.  Crisis plans -- without the requisite planning, training, and testing -- could be the most expensive coffee table books your company ever buys.
Know this, too:  the most useful parts of your crisis plan will be the lists – phone lists, materials lists, media lists.  Be sure these appear at the front of your plan.
The plan is necessary because it states the organization’s approach to crisis management from values through execution.  That needs to be memorialized in writing, because it needs to survive executive and employee turnover, and serve as a corporate policy and compliance document, a training manual, and a playbook.  It’s showtime when the crisis hits, and the audience will have little tolerance for actors who still have to read their lines.
Step 7.  Train on the Plan
Once the crisis plan is written, it’s important to schedule three types of training.
For the leaders of the crisis team, a markup session comes first, where the final draft of the plan is walked through, page-by-page, to see where it flows and where it may be unclear or have inconsistencies.
For managers and line employees, it’s important to introduce the crisis plan, what motivated the decision to put it together, and how it is designed to protect company value, operations, relationships, and reputation.  Articulate underlying values of the crisis plan, allowing future, detailed training on what individual roles will be in a crisis.
Very often, crisis planning also awakens an organization to its shortcomings in the area of media training.  Executives realize that whatever news media training they may have had in the past may be inadequate for the hot seat of crisis communications.
Step 8.  Test the Plan
One detailed analysis of the events of the World Trade Center catastrophe indicated that hundreds of lives were probably saved because of frequent safety drills conducted in the buildings.
Crises can be times of extreme emotion and intense pressure. Operations, reputations, and indeed lives are often at stake. An organization that settles for a “winging it” standard plays a very high-stakes game with shareholder dollars, corporate reputation, even lives.
If the crisis plan is the script of how the organization is to respond, the dress rehearsal is to be found in trainings, simulations, and drills.  Only in these controlled environments can the actors be made to feel the pressure of the real deal and will the plan’s shortcomings be revealed and remedied in time.
There are several categories of tests, each introducing escalating amounts of pressure, real-time decision-making, and resources.  These include:

  • Plan Walk-Throughs.  These are used to introduce the plan and enable managers to gain familiarity.  These may also include several “what-if” scenarios to illustrate how the plan should work.
  • Tabletop Exercises.  The crisis management team or subteams participate in roundtable discussions led by an outside moderator.  A scenario is developed in advance and introduced for the first time, with the moderator taking the participants through a chain of decisions and problems, and with an analysis of performance at the end of the exercise. 
  • Event Simulations.  Crisis responders gather in the crisis command center established as part of the crisis plan to respond to a mock incident. (These kinds of simulations often make the evening news, when local police or airports conduct them.) Generally, observers are attached to each member of the crisis team to evaluate his or her team’s activities and performance.  The simulation often lasts for several hours, has multiple incidents arising from the main scenario and includes a detailed analysis immediately at the end.
  • Full Deployment Drills.  These are most commonly conducted in the oil, chemical, energy, and airline industries.  In full deployment drills, an incident is simulated at a designated site, requiring responders and equipment to be deployed as they would in the event of a real oil spill or airline crash.  Realism dictates that these drills often go on for hours, or days, so that management teams get a true sense of fatigue and pressure as well as practicing shift changes and planning cycles.[5]  Accordingly, these kinds of drills require months of advance planning, scrupulous attention to detail and realism, and a significant budget.

Step 9.  Refine the Plan.
The plan needs to be seen as an organic document. It’s important that one member of the crisis team be specifically assigned to refine and update the plans.  It’s also crucial that the plan contain an expiration date, forcing the crisis team to revise it at least annually.
Feedback from trainings, combined with the detailed analysis of strengths and weaknesses arising from the schedule of simulations and drills, should be incorporated into the plan. 
Looking Forward
Beyond altering perceptions, the events of September 11 will likely result in new industry regulations concerning crisis planning and communication.  Forward-thinking companies are already seeking to avoid increased regulation by implementing best practices in the crisis management arena.  This nine-step methodology provides an important starting point for the realities of crisis planning in this new era of risk.

Larry Kamer is chairman of Kamer Consulting Group

[1]Badaracco, Joseph L. Jr, Defining Moments:  When Managers Must Choose Between Right and Right.  Boston:  Harvard Business School Press, 1997.


[2] Ibid, p. 64.

[3] Ibid., pp.107-121.  Badaracco does an excellent job of debunking some popular myths about Machiavelli.

[4] There is a very good discussion of the logic and roles of the ICS in Disaster Response:  Principles of Preparation and Coordination, by Erik Auf der Heide (St Louis:  C.V. Mosby, 1989) pp. 133-163.

[5] See “This is a Drill,” Reputation Management, May-June 1997, pp. 17-28.

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