Remember that a crisis management team is designed to deal with unexpected events or sequences of events, occurrences, or emergencies that may have specific or wide ranging consequences. In some cases, there is nothing a crisis management team can do to prevent a crisis, such as a natural disaster. However, because no two crisis management plans are alike, team members should be aware of the most common weaknesses found in many plans.
While some weaknesses may be reduced or eliminated with experience, practice, and exposure, some may be identified only after a crisis has been dealt with and individuals can look back and determine which aspects of the crisis plan worked and which did not.
Nevertheless, knowing the basic reasons a crisis management plan may fail or hinder successful resolution of the situation will help crisis management team members avoid those situations whenever possible.
While it will be impossible to identify every potential weakness of a crisis plan, some weaknesses may be more obvious. Some of the most common include:
- Failure to adequately collect information or data and to plan around it. This aspect of crisis management planning includes determining potential hazards or crisis situations, analyzing them, and designing or creating a variety of responses. Information required may include company policy procedures, information regarding the organization, and regulatory rules and laws enacted by state or federal mandates.
- Failure to establish a command hierarchy or structure. For example, addressing an emergency or crisis in an elementary school requires approaches different from those taken in a nuclear power plant. Trying to fit a generic emergency response tactic to inappropriate scenarios is useless. Every entity should devise its own crisis response according to the facility, industry, population, and organizational structure. Likewise, a hospital evacuation plan will contain components that are different from those organized by a preschool, small business, shopping mall, or high rise building. Crisis management team members must focus on their specific company or organization as they devise their crisis response.
- Inability to clearly designate team or organizational responsibilities. Inability to provide clear procedures and information regarding an individual team member's specific duties, tasks, or functions in an emergency situation will create indecision, confusion, and an inability to perform at optimal levels. Identifying responsibilities and expectations is an important and vital aspect of team management and should be reviewed regularly to ensure that every team member knows exactly what are his or her job functions and responsibilities.
- Inability to effectively communicate with outside community members. Those members include emergency services, such as hospitals, police, and fire departments. An emergency plan should designate to where individuals should be evacuated. It should identify support organizations and make contact information available so they are alerted immediately and without question. Designating a specific individual and a backup individual to be responsible for contacting primary off site agencies in emergency situations helps streamline response time and effectiveness.
- Failure to consistently update and practice contingency plans. It's one thing to have a plan on paper, but if individuals, including the response team, have never practiced several potential scenarios, the plan may be worthless. It is one thing to devise crisis responses to meet regulatory requirements, but failing to practice them or put them into action is careless. Continued evaluation, updates of materials, exchange of materials, and contact numbers should be readily available and provided to all crisis management team members, along with supervisors, managers, and upper management personnel. All should practice elements in the plan on a regular basis to ensure compliance.
- Failure to make crisis information easily understandable, accessible, and implementable. Every individual on a crisis management team should be clear about his or her job duties and responsibilities. Materials should be easy to read and to use. In some cases, a quick reference guide during emergency situations should be readily available to all team members, department managers, and supervisors. Even more important is adequate training in the implementation of emergency or contingency plans.
Regular reports and meetings on crisis management preparedness can prevent confusion. Senior staff members, supervisors, and boards of directors should meet relatively often with crisis management teams to discuss preparedness for a wide range of scenarios.
Crisis management is more than cheap talk and empty promises. It means making decisions, having ongoing discussions, and including all levels of personnel whenever possible. Practice makes perfect. It is essential to have a contingency plan and ideas about responding to a variety of emergencies. Failing to practice such plans is foolhardy.
While the crisis management plan weaknesses listed above are certainly not all of the weaknesses found in many plans, they are the most common. Crisis management team members need to meet regularly to determine potential contingency plans, as well as potential outcomes or consequences if things do not go right.
It is not all doom and gloom. Proper preparation may help save not only human life but millions of dollars in revenue and the reputations of corporations who live by the Boy Scout motto, "Be prepared."
Contingency plans are designed to reduce the impact of a crisis or deal with various aspects of a crisis in an effort to ensure safety, reduce loss of revenue, deal with media, and maintain or improve media relations, loyalty, and public confidence.
A contingency plan not only ensures that specific departments or independent businesses, such as those found in a mall, are safe but that steps are taken to ensure safety throughout entire facilities, properties, or organizations where multiple departments or facets of the corporation or organization rely on others.
The basic definition of contingency planning requires involved organization and determination of the efficacy of potential decisions before a crisis occurs. All options need to be considered, solutions thought through, and the merits of a variety of reactions weighed and tested for effectiveness.
Plan A or Plan B?
When you take a trip or vacation, do you try to plan ahead? For example, what happens if your plane is delayed? Will you meet your connecting flight? Have you determined how you are going to get from your destination airport to a hotel, resort, or business meeting? Will you call a taxi, arrange pickup through a friend or relative, or use a shuttle service?
Contingency planning means determining a specific number of options that may be available in a variety of situations. Let us say you need to cross a mountain range for an important meeting in the middle of winter. You may have checked the weather, but are you absolutely certain the storm front that is not supposed to arrive for two days will not arrive early? Are you prepared to be caught out on the open road in the middle of a blizzard? Have you packed extra supplies in your car, such as blankets, food, and water? That is contingency planning. It is planning for the unexpected.
Plan for the worst and hope for the best. Many people go through life with this attitude, and while it may seem pessimistic to some, it is actually a fairly rational way of getting through life. Individuals who are always wary of potential problems are more often than not prepared to deal with them.
Most organizations follow some form of contingency planning, whether staging fire drills, devising emergency evacuation procedures, or deciding how to deal with enraged rogue employees. Many city departments have emergency alerts and evacuation plans in the event of a terrorist attack, natural disaster, biological warfare, chemical spill, or other situation.
A contingency plan has nothing to do with preventing a crisis. It is an action taken to react to events. Contingency plans enable individuals or organizations to reduce the negative impact of emergency crisis situations and help businesses or individuals return to normalcy as soon as possible.
The basic steps of a contingency plan include:
Organization (creating a planning team).
Determining the impact of a specific incident or problem.
Creating a plan.
Testing the plan.
Constantly updating the plan.
A well chosen contingency planning team will offer skills, insights, and advice from a variety of individuals in the business or organization, allowing each member to offer his or her own talents or experience to help deal with a wide variety of potential emergencies. One person can be designated as the public relations spokesperson, another can be tapped to deal with financial aspects, another with customer service, and others, with the safety of employees.
Determining the potential impact of a problem may require several brainstorming sessions with input from many individuals to determine the likelihood of the most probable scenarios in any given environment or industry. Brainstorming enables every individual of the team to offer input as to potential problems, solutions, and consequences of actions.
Questions such as these should be answered and tested whenever possible. The maintenance supervisor of a major hospital may swear that the generators will kick in, but what if they do not? What will happen to patients on life support systems? What about those who require a constant flow of oxygen? These are the types of questions that need to be answered, completely and in detail.
When it comes to choosing Plan A or Plan B, take the planning as far as possible. Determine the benefits and consequences of each plan. In some situations, more than one plan may be necessary to deal with crises or emergencies that cannot possibly be anticipated.
The key to contingency planning is to be prepared to act, regardless of the crisis or the emergency. Establish a crisis management team of decisive and authoritative individuals who are nevertheless able to bend according to circumstances.
The crisis management team or contingency planning team in large corporations or organizations should include, at the minimum:
Communications or public relations specialists.
Human Resource department heads.
Chief executive officers (CEOs).
Take from the examples of military, fire, law enforcement, or hospital departments some guidelines and ideas regarding simulations for the preparation of unexpected or unusual situations. A few such simulations may include:
Chemical or toxic waste spills or emergencies. Evacuation drills should begin immediately, and the designated contact person should inform the proper authorities.
Kidnapping. Prepare a variety of reactions to the possibility of a kidnapping, murder, or hostage situation.
Rogue employee threats. Consider what to do if an angry employee enters the workplace, armed and dangerous, threatening to shoot hostages.
A major power outage. All electricity and electronic communication is shut off in your hospital, school, or place of business. How do you contact authorities or call for help? How do you evacuate students, employees, or other personnel safely and effectively?