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PREPARING AND FINE-TUNING YOUR CRISIS PLAN:
By Larry Kamer
Here’s a sobering fact: most
corporations in the U.S. – even now -- do not have adequate crisis plans.
Who says so? Their own Chief Executives!
Perhaps it’s time to ask yourself
two questions about your own organization’ s current state of preparedness
to respond to crisis:
If the answer to either of these is “no,” then ask this: How lucky do I feel?
Many companies know that it’s time
to remedy the inadequacies in the state of crisis readiness that may exist in
their organizations, but many simply don’t know where or how to start what
might seem like a daunting task.
This paper sets out a straightforward
methodology that works. It’s been tested by experience. It’s
adaptable to a variety of industries and corporate cultures. Its
processes are comprehensive, but can be severed into more bite-size pieces to
allow for budgetary realities or other commitments of staff. Most
importantly, like a good diet or exercise program, it allows you to start
today and see results fairly quickly if you commit to it.
DEFINITION AND EXPECTATIONS
The concept of “crisis” has been
defined in a dozen ways, but from a management perspective, a crisis must be
seen as a turning point in an organization’s history. Crises are
events that can cause death or injury; significant damage to the environment;
massive interruptions to operations; significant financial reversals; or
long-term or permanent reputational damage. Most crises can be
anticipated, most have happened to someone else at another time, and almost
all of them can be planned for. Finally, crises are about values:
they serve as windows into corporate values and competence through which
stakeholders often look to make judgments about what a company is really made
Certainly September 11th 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 11th 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 the post-9/11 world 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
THE CRISIS PLANNING
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 bio-terrorism crisis readiness plan. A Bay Area
transit system as 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
This planning model is based on
values. Crises thrust an organization’s values into the realm of public
scrutiny. This must be recognized early in the crisis planning process.
Here are the 9 steps we use in crisis
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 – Human Resources – 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.
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
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.”  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.”  This is especially true in crisis, as any manager who
has been there can attest. Decisions to offer refunds, talk to the
press, issue a warning, or take out an ad explaining oneself are rarely
Machiavelli teaches us that weak
leaders and fragile organizations accomplish little in this world, because
they are preoccupied with survival . 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
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? These are the risks.
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. 
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.
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
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
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
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,
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:
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.
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.
 Badaracco, Joseph L.
Jr, Defining Moments: When Managers Must Choose Between Right and Right.
Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1997.
 Ibid, p. 64.
 Ibid. pp.107-121.
Badaracco does an excellent job of debunking some popular myths about
 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.
 “For Many on
September 11th Survival Was No Accident,” USA Today, December 19th 2001,
 Larry Kamer, “Crisis
Planning’s Most Important Implement: The Drill,” Communications
World, January 1998.
 For a detailed
discussion of these, and how to conduct them, see Tracy Knippenburg Gillis,
Emergency Exercise Handbook (Tulsa: Pennwell Publishing, 1996).
 See “This is a Drill,” Reputation Management, May-June 1997, pp. 17-28.
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