Lessons in Preparedness From Harvey, Irma and Maria

This week marked the first time in modern meteorological history that three Category 4 hurricanes hit American territories in a single year, and hurricane season still has months left.

In business, as in life, it’s human nature to want to put off planning for things that can go wrong. But as many have found out this year, not planning for a crisis can be perilous.

It’s difficult to understand why so many companies continue to be caught unawares when a crisis hits. According to a survey by the Canadian Investor Relations Institute (CIRI) and Fleishman-Hillard, many companies are mindful of the potential damage crises can cause to their sales, reputation and shareholder value, yet few have  effective crisis management plans in place to deal with negative scenarios.

Crises come in all shapes and sizes—from a major data breach to the death of an executive. Regardless of the scenarios, how a company communicates during a crisis can affect how the company is perceived by customers, the media and Wall Street. 

In addition to better preparing your company, crisis planning can also help executives anticipate and head off crises before the storm clouds gather.

Crisis planning should be conducted at the highest levels of the organization, and should include stakeholders from operations, sales/marketing, IT, human resources, communications, logistics, among other areas.

There are several steps to crisis planning:

  1. Identifying potential crises. As a group, stakeholders verbalize and discuss potential problems that could sideline the business. This exercise shouldn’t include every possible scenario, but should include those that are likely and harmful.
  2. Naming affected constituents. For each potential crises, the group should note who could be harmed and how. Every potential audience should be noted, including employees, shareholders, customers, the community, etc.
  3. Drafting positioning messages. When possible, a position statement on each of the crises should be written. For example, if a company vehicle is involved in a deadly accident, there should be verbiage drafted and ready that describes how drivers are trained, company policies for drivers, and the company’s safety record. Trying to draft these statements while the crisis is unfolding often can take too long to address the immediate needs of the media.
  4. Creating a crisis workflow. When a crisis happens, a workflow that assigns pre-planned activities to specific individuals will ensure that the crisis is managed proactively rather than reactively. This workflow should trigger actions by stakeholders throughout the company so everyone is working in tandem under the direction of one leader.
  5. Developing policies and procedures for communicating with constituents. Crises can evolve very quickly, which increases the chances of misinformation in the media. To ensure that the most up-to-date information is disseminated to head off speculation, policies should be developed that empower only certain people to speak with the media, and prohibit others from doing so. A solid plan will have a mobile press office ready to go.

Once the plan is developed, it’s a good idea to do mock drills so stakeholders in the company can envision how the plan will unfold in a real crisis, and can identify and fix weaknesses in the plan.

Finally, the crisis plan should be reviewed and updated regularly, at least once a year.

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