Ready or Not? Tips for Improving and Maintaining Crisis Management Programs

Target and Disney Stores share how they’re getting ready for disaster events to come

What should retailers be doing to prepare for the next disaster? Coming off a year of devastating weather events in which just one of the many hurricanes was estimated to have cost retailers $700 million, it’s not a surprise that the topic was in focus at the NRF Protect conference in June. “Crisis management programs could not be more important,” said Brett Abbott, senior corporate security manager at Target.

Brett Abbott

Target has undergone a several-year effort to modernize and upgrade its crisis management program, starting with an honest SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) and data collection. “It was an important exercise for refining our priorities and to understand where we were and what we wanted, and to gather information on our contact centers, our people, our distribution centers, everything,” said Abbott. “It’s important to understand the full scope of what you’re trying to protect.”

At this early process stage, Abbott identified several elements that helped to drive Target’s effort in the right direction.

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  • “Structure follows strategy, so start with what you’re trying to accomplish,” said Abbott.
  • Attract crisis management team members who bring a combination of experience and curiosity.
  • Remove emotion from planning and be willing to bring critics to the table.
  • Be accountable. “Put it all in a plan and share progress.”
  • Be prepared to be in ‘learning mode’ for a substantial period.
  • Progress in your crisis management preparedness by following a “maturity map” for and understand what the different states look like.

Abbott also suggested that crisis management teams should keep a narrow focus on significant events, and not be drawn into the more day-to-day events that could be classified as “crises.” “There was an idea that we would bring intrusion alarm management into crisis management, but we resisted because we wanted to stay true to the mission and not be distracted.”

To facilitate crisis response, Target employs a team that includes one expert in each corporate function. For these support members, training is “absolutely important,” said Abbott. To get it done, they build a 12-month learning calendar “to build their muscle memory so they don’t need to refer to a plan” and which focuses on making it easy for members to stay engaged. “We create opportunities to make it easy for team members because it is their second job,” he added.

Ultimately, Target’s effort to improve its readiness focused on upstream activities and post-event improvements. “We were pretty good with response, but we were needing to do more ahead of time: planning, education, team meetings, brown bag events, training calls, exercises,” said Abbott. “And after-action reviews that identify action items are critical to make improvements to the plan.”

Program Maintenance

Bryant McAnnally

Restructuring crisis management is a substantial undertaking, but program maintenance is also a challenge, noted Bryant McAnnally, CFI, manager of LP operations for Disney Store North America, in the same NRF Protect presentation titled “Preparing for the Next Disaster: An Outline for Impact Mitigation, Management, and Resiliency.” The company takes a Plan, Do, Check, Act approach to continuous improvement and works hard to ensure its plan “is a living element and not a document on the shelf,” McAnnally said.

“You need to keep it fresh and aligned with new business needs, such as BOPIS (buy online, pick up in store),” said McAnnally, a point echoed by Abbott. He said that new business models introduce new risk, so it’s important to get a seat at the table early in the process of those discussion to understand what the impact might be on crisis management and response. “It’s much easier than going backward,” said Abbott.

Another way to keep crisis management in focus is to expand opportunities for lesson-learning. “Review other people’s disasters for opportunities to improve your readiness,” advised McAnnally. You can almost always find an issue that your plan doesn’t cover, he suggested:

  • If banks are closed, have you planned to be able to extend financial assistance to store associates?
  • How confident are you in your ability to get help and materials when suppliers are inundated with requests? What do your contracts say?
  • Can you build better relationships with government agencies so that you are kept in the loop and more likely to be extended commendation?
  • Do you have satellite phones at stores in case of disruption in cell phone service?
  • Do you annually go to people and ask for them to update contact information?

“You want to drive a culture of preparedness by keeping the program evergreen,” said McAnnally. He said Disney Stores uses a variety of on-going activities to keep preparedness top of mind, including tabletop exercises, annual crisis fairs, awareness months and activities for stores, distributing checklists, wallet cards, and reminders. “We get great feedback from people that shows they understand we worry about them as people as well as the company.”

Finally, as crisis management programs mature, the challenge often shifts from getting information to utilizing and prioritizing it. Experts say that it’s important to ask about this question about the tool or system that your company uses to manage crisis incidents: How is relevant static information made available to the incident command center?

A retail organization is likely to have information in the emergency plan, and in related plans and databases, that can help individuals in the command center manage an event in progress. For example, in a warehouse fire, it is useful to have immediate access to the facility’s current inventory list and the schematic plans for it and adjacent buildings. But plans and records are also certain to contain information irrelevant to the crisis at hand. An important planning element, therefore, is the process by which appropriate information from planning documents—and only appropriate information—filters into the incident handling process.

A good incident management tool will allow a user to ‘create’ an incident and then pull relevant information into it, such as information from the HR database that relates to the specific crisis. Integration between the crisis management tool and other documents is extremely important because it allows crisis managers to draw from current files, lists, and updated information. An incident management tool that doesn’t draw directly from these other information sources at the time of the event would more than likely be working off a certain amount of outdated information.

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