The Crisis Leadership Role in Emergency Preparations

Crisis response requires solid crisis leadership, but it also requires personnel who are willing to be led.

Crisis Management Plan, Crisis Leadership

Many crisis events are, by their nature, impossible to predict. However, the impact they have on retailers can be dramatically curtailed if the organization is prepared and crisis leadership is adequately prepared to manage the resultant disruption.

To be a crisis-prepared retailer, Walgreens relies on, well, preparation. Dave Colen, director of corporate investigations and standards at Walgreens, is a big believer in the blue-sky principle, noting that the time to strategize for a hurricane is when the weather is clear, not after clouds have already formed. He credits regular blue-sky meetings, which bring together crisis team representatives from corporate communications, supply chain, safety, and other departments, as helping Walgreens align the different resilience disciplines, which was the number-one obstacle to preparedness cited by crisis leadership in the 2016 Crisis Management Insights Survey by Regester Larkin. “It’s when things are good that it’s time to sit down and talk about things.”

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Crisis team communication is also a critical part of 7-Eleven’s success. Byron Smith, corporate asset protection manager for 7-Eleven, says it helps the company avoid the second-most frequently cited obstacle to crisis preparedness—a lack of clarity of roles and responsibilities, which was cited as problematic by 47 percent of crisis managers. The 7-Eleven team holds scheduled meetings quarterly, and whenever events occur they immediately convene via a conference call as they did after the recent shooting of police officers in Dallas.

To gain a complete picture of how a crisis event will be managed, organizations must identify the functional roles and responsibilities of external agencies, external organizations, and internal departments and individuals for each stage—preparation, mitigation, response, and recovery. Lines of authority must also be established and identified. Tabletop exercises are an excellent way to highlight the responsibilities of different crisis management team members, and Smith says they play an important role in keeping 7-Eleven ready to manage a full range of crisis events.

To Smith, a more significant challenge than confusion at corporate over roles has been pushing crisis preparedness principles down to the store associate level. “I think it’s always difficult when trying to deliver a message about crisis preparedness to have that message not only resonate, but also stick with the individual,” he said.

Typically, crisis planners are of two minds on the subject, explained Colen. One school of thought is to tell employees what they need to know when the emergency is imminent, so the information is fresh.

“But I’m a fan of the second school of thought,” said Colen, “which is to socialize the information early and often.” He believes that frequent reminders of emergency information are more likely to sink in and also convey a message to workers that the company takes crisis events seriously and instill confidence that it has taken the necessary planning steps to keep them safe.

Strong Crisis Leadership and Informed Employees

Crisis response requires solid crisis leadership, but it also requires personnel who are willing to be led. That element depends on whether a company has spent time before a major disaster providing crisis information, training, drilling, and establishing trust. Workers need to sense that the company is ready to handle the event and has their interests at heart, which is not something that a retailer can build once the storm is already on the radar.

A deep well of credibility and goodwill is something that is critical for retailers to tap into. “If you don’t talk about it until the crisis is happening, workers aren’t going to be comfortable that you can handle it,” and may fail to check in, call for instructions, or simply stay home, said Colen. “There is a greater likelihood that they will go to work if you’ve been talking about it all the time for weeks and not just the day before.”

Reminders of emergency preparations don’t need to be long to convey concern, said Colen. Starting a month or so out from an identified event, Walgreens store managers typically will disseminate relevant information during normal five-minute operational meetings with store personnel.

Short but regular education sessions are a good way to provide information, answer questions, identify needs, and address concerns. These mini-training sessions on emergency topics can also be delivered as a short aside during other general employee training. In this way, stores can limit the amount of time that emergency planning takes individuals away from their business activities. In this type of session, managers can socialize contingency plan information such as:

  • Individual roles and responsibilities,
  • Information about threats, hazards, and protective actions,
  • Notification, warning, and communications procedures,
  • Emergency response procedures, and
  • Evacuation, shelter, and accountability procedures.

7-Eleven is committed to raising its staff’s level of awareness of emergency procedures. At its new campus headquarters located in Irving, TX, workstations are outfitted with emergency information cards. A quick reference guide, with information such as the location of emergency evacuation rally points, is as close as the back of their access/ID cards, hanging from their lanyards.

In order to assist franchisees, 7-Eleven has published an 8×11″ emergency reference flip chart for use by store employees, which walks them through how to handle a bomb threat, a refrigeration failure, evacuation, and other emergencies. “This will give our franchisees and employees a go-to resource chart to address just about any risk or event and it fits nicely with our ‘My 7-Eleven’ safety education program,” said Smith.

Long ago, the company relied on the traditional emergency preparedness binder and then moved emergency procedures and instructions to the company Intranet, but recently decided that asking store associates to conduct online information searches was unnecessarily complicated. With the upcoming switch to a simple flip-chart reference, “It’s like we’ve come full circle,” said Smith.

Early Preparation

Walgreens begins taking preparatory actions as soon as a potential event is identified. The general assessment form guides field managers to collect all relevant information and is customizable, giving the company flexibility in its readiness activities.

Colen suggested that retailers should have a comprehensive list of actions that may be necessary in order to help a store location prepare for disaster, which is not something that can be pieced together at the last minute. For example, “You have to make sure all cameras are operational, or put repair orders in, and that they’re pointing at the right things.”

In the event of a planned protest, a crisis leadership team needs to maintain contact with local police, assess whether any particular vulnerability may cause stores or neighboring businesses to be the target of protesters, and assess how practical it will be to operate normally during the protest, as well as accounting for direct physical threat and planning to maintain full communications with employees in areas targeted by protesters.

There are also far-flung issues to consider, Colen suggested. “What about 24-hour stores that haven’t closed for years? Do they even know where the keys are? How to power down? Or set the alarm?”

Coordination is just as vital, he said. For example, if a weather emergency is forcing a store to close but will also shut down public transportation, “You want to close the store several hours in advance; you don’t want your employees to be stuck.” And employee absences resulting from disruption in local transportation systems can have a far-reaching impact and need to be accounted for during emergency preparations.

The Role of Senior Management

The role of senior management is a critical—and often tricky—component of crisis readiness. As with security, it can be difficult to demonstrate a direct connection between preparedness activities and their value, especially when management spends money to prepare for a potential crisis that doesn’t materialize.

Managing the perception of risk can also be complicated, especially in a 24-hour news cycle environment. “The media can be a friend and an enemy,” said Colen. “We find out about threats from the media, but executives are getting the same information, which means we can find ourselves playing catch-up, trying to provide some context about upcoming events.

It’s also true that an event’s recency can play tricks on risk perception. Because recent disaster events are easier to recall, those types of events seem more numerous or dangerous to casual observers. While an event’s occurrence might indicate an increase in its probability potential, it may not. In that case, there is greater risk from letting the fact that it just happened alter a rational risk approach.

Crisis leadership must ensure that disaster planning does not place undue attention on a recent event to the detriment of planning for more probable events that are less fresh in the company’s consciousness.

For more about Walgreens’ five-step approach to crisis preparedness, lessons learned, and the use of technology in crisis management, check out the full article (“Crisis Management: What Walgreens, 7-Eleven, and Other Crisis-Prepared Retailers Have in Common“), which was originally published in 2016. This excerpt was updated March 26, 2018.

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