The Best (and Most Practical) Tips to Improve Your Crisis Management Plan

Based on past and more recent events, it's time for all companies to revisit their crisis management plan.

Crisis Management Plan

Then – Hurricane Katrina, Superstorm Sandy, racial profiling accusations at Macy’s, food contamination at Chipotle, Charlottesville protests, civil disturbances at Berkeley, Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria. Now – United passenger being dragged down the aisle, later the death of a passenger’s dog forced into the overhead bin by a flight attendant, and Starbucks calling the police on two innocent black customers. The list goes on and on, and it never really stops.

As we all know, a major crisis can arise at any time. It can be natural or man-made, short-lived or having devastating consequences over an extended period, affecting one business or many, and permanently damaging the reputation of some. Just recently, 24/7 Wall Street included Oscar Munoz of United Airlines and Steve Ells of Chipotle on their list of the 20 worst CEOs of 2017, citing botched crisis communications as a principal factor in making the list.

It’s interesting to note that 24/7 Wall Street also included retail CEOs Terry Lundgren of Macy’s, Kosta Kartsotis of Fossil Group and Eddie Lampert of Sears in their worst CEOs list for failing to effectively manage another kind of crisis—the rapid decline of their companies’ worth.

Reactions to a crisis will vary based on the event, but well-thought-out crisis management and communications plans should be up to date, address different types of events, be specific and, at the same time, be easy to understand and implement. It’s time to review key components of effective plans.

Does Your Company Have a Crisis Management Plan?

Are roles explicitly defined, responsibilities clearly understood, and protocols outlined for effective crisis response? Who should be contacted, how do we reach them, and how soon should we notify them? Is your organization prepared to effectively manage a crisis situation?

The first step in establishing an effective crisis management plan is determining precisely how you will define what a crisis event is so that we can best respond when it actually occurs. A crisis in retail can be described as any disruption or potential disruption of normal retail operations that may require guidance, instruction or assistance from other business partners or outside agencies.

In the past, we have looked at immediate crisis communication do’s and don’ts from the front line. This post examines specific crisis management realities which, when understood, can serve as a basic road map for loss prevention professionals when they take on crisis leadership roles.

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Back to the question. Is your company prepared to manage a crisis that is severe in nature and extends days, weeks or even months—one that requires total company focus, attention, action, and reaction? Creating a comprehensive crisis management plan takes a great deal of thought, communication, organization and the talent of many contributors, both inside and outside of the company. Business continuity plans, a different subject, require the same.

If your company lacks a crisis management plan, or if your current plan is incomplete or outdated, the following checklist may help focus direction and content. It is not meant to be a complete list but one that sparks thought around some major components of an effective plan. Every business is different, so every final plan will be different.

Questions to Ask While Drafting Your Crisis Management Plan

  • Is there a leader identified who will serve as the head of the crisis management team?
  • Is that leader of a level where they can make major critical decisions (vice president or above)? Is there a backup identified for this individual?
  • Is there a specific group (both by name and position) identified to convene and serve as the crisis management team for a major incident?
  • Are there alternates identified to serve as backup to the crisis team in the event a primary team member is absent, or if the crisis event continues for a long period of time?
  • Are all critical functions represented on the crisis management team? Such functions could include but are not limited to: senior management, security/loss prevention, legal, facilities, operations, public affairs, human resources, investor relations, finance, marketing, internal communications, and others< depending on the type of business.
  • Is there a space or venue that is designated to serve as an emergency operations center to manage major incidents?
  • Does the designated emergency operations center have adequate communications equipment—phones, computers, televisions, satellite phones, two-way radios? Any others, depending on the type of business?
  • Are communications protocols in place, both internal and external? Who directs? Who communicates, when and in what form? Remember, normal communication devices may be down during a major event. What’s the backup plan?
  • Are internal and external contact numbers continually updated and available to the crisis team members?
  • Are regular crisis management drills and tabletop exercises held to assure that the crisis team is effective during a real event? Are different scenarios practiced for each drill?

Crisis Management Plan Guidelines to Include

1. Be sure you have all needed contact numbers and that they are current. Outdated contact information is often the Achilles heel of crisis response. Remember, depending on the crisis, electronic communication devices may not work. Keep a printed list of critical contact numbers.

2. Be sure your location has a detailed evacuation plan and diagram. The diagram should clearly define evacuation routes. The crisis plan should outline responsibilities and actions to be taken by the management and loss prevention teams. Specific marshaling locations should be designated away from the building for customers and employees. Periodic evacuation drills should be conducted.

3. Always remember “Victims first.” Whether on site or at corporate, first thoughts and actions during and immediately following a crisis situation should concentrate on those injured or negatively affected, including customers, employees, vendors, and/or families.

4. Witnesses are a critical element in the follow-up of any crisis situation. Take control and make every attempt to persuade witnesses to remain on site until their statements can be taken. Record names and numbers first just in case a potential witness leaves the scene.

5. Protect the scene from contamination. “As Seen on TV” crime or crisis scene evidence can easily be contaminated, compromised or destroyed. If possible, cordon off the scene and don’t allow access until authorities arrive.

6. Take notes if you can. Facts can be lost, forgotten, or exaggerated in the middle of a crisis situation.

7. Recognize that initial crisis communication information is often incorrect. When communicating or debriefing, be careful to state only the information you know to be a fact. Avoid speculation and opinion. If you don’t know, say so. It’s OK. And, refer to your notes.

8. Remember that in today’s world, every communication by you and your company’s associates is recorded or tracked in some fashion – cell phone calls, tweets, Facebook posts, etc. It goes without saying: conduct yourself professionally at all times.

Social Media and Crisis Communications

Social media has added overwhelming complexity to crisis communications. Multiple channels, user-level control of messaging and real-time delivery make things far tougher to manage than the press releases and conferences of old. The key is for companies to adapt and use social media effectively in their crisis communication strategies. Here are five crucial considerations for your crisis plan:

Remember communication basics.

  • Honesty, candor and openness
  • Collaborate with reliable resources
  • Show concern and empathy

Incorporate social media into crisis planning and response.

  • Use social media in drills
  • Train all authorized communicators in the effective use of social media

Social media doesn’t touch the masses.

  • Statistics show that only 23 percent of adults use Twitter
  • Only 2 percent of one’s Twitter followers see a tweet
  • Social media is a resource, not a mass communication tool

Companies must monitor social media and the Internet.

  • Resources are available to provide this service
  • Vet providers carefully, as some are more effective than others

Do what’s right for your company’s size and industry.

  • Most companies are not General Motors, nor do they have unlimited resources
  • When incorporating social media into crisis communication planning, carefully define the particular needs of the company
  • Keep it simple; don’t overcomplicate the process

Proper response and handling of a crisis scene are critical components of crisis management. It will make a big difference between an eventual positive or negative outcome. Obviously, a lot more information about crisis management is out there and available, but these guidelines should help to avoid a negative outcome that could seriously damage your brand’s business, brand, and reputation.

So, don’t wait. If you are in a position to do so, be sure your company’s crisis and communications plans are current, address best practice components and hold drills regularly. If you are not in a position to lead the effort, ask questions and learn all you can about the plans in place in your company. Learn what to do. Lives, facilities, and even a company’s continued viability could depend on it.

This article was originally published in 2016 and was updated June 26, 2018. 

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