Activating a Crisis Management Plan

Crisis management can be effective only when it is practiced. However, a crisis does not have to involve an immediate situation that can be resolved in a matter of minutes or hours. In some cases, a crisis may slowly build up over a period of months or years, and dealing with such a crisis may take days, weeks, or months.

Crisis teams that stay up to date with their company's services, incidents, or potential problems will prevent or at least diminish the duration of such scenarios. However, unexpected situations or incidents may arise at any given time, no matter how carefully a crisis management team plans or prepares for an emergency.

The approach of a crisis management team to future issues may rely on the time tested Boy Scout motto: "Be prepared." The nature of potential problems depends on the type of environment and determines crisis planning and response.

The first step taken by any crisis management team should be contingency planning to avoid a potential crisis. For now, recognize and understand warning signs and take steps to contain and resolve situations before they become catastrophic.

A crisis management plan's first goal should be containment. This means preventing a situation from growing worse. A variety of steps may help resolve an incident. Steps may include:

  • Responding quickly and in a decisive manner.
  • Ensuring the safety and well being of human life.
  • Being available and, whenever possible, visible at a scene or location where a crisis is occurring.
  • Ensure that communications offer a free flow of information.

Remember for now that adequate action and resolution to a crisis should be included in planning for and responding to a crisis.

Resolution to a variety of crisis situations includes the ability to continually gather facts and information as a situation proceeds, the importance of communications, and documenting all actions taken by project management, crisis team members, and crisis managers to deal with the situation.

Planning how to respond to a potential crisis requires input from a variety of individuals, as well as practicing to put a plan into action. Some action plans may look great on paper, but when practiced in real life situations, they are ineffective, full of holes, and do not take into consideration various obstacles that may hinder prompt and effective resolution.

For this reason, it should be stressed that crisis team members, when considering scenarios, try to come up with several obstacles that may occur for each plan of action in order to explore and to be prepared for the unexpected when the time comes to actually deal with the crisis.

Incident Response

Containing a situation is the first order of business for a crisis management team. The team must act quickly and decisively, whether dealing with a national emergency, such as the case of tampering with bottles of nonprescription painkillers at Johnson & Johnson in the early 1980s, or situations like the chief executive officer concerned about rumors of embezzlement, or a disgruntled employee threatening to "get even" with management for a poor job evaluation.

In the Johnson & Johnson incident, the corporation reacted immediately to news that seven people had died after taking Tylenol tablets. It was discovered that some Tylenol capsules had been laced with cyanide, and Johnson & Johnson had literally millions of bottles of the painkiller on store shelves around the country.

Johnson & Johnson immediately recalled 22 million bottles of Tylenol and shelved the product until the corporation had time to develop tamper-proof containers and ensure public safety. This action cost Johnson & Johnson hundreds of millions of dollars but also saved the reputation of the company because it acted quickly and in the best interests of consumer safety. In the long run, customer loyalty made up for the lost revenue.

Johnson & Johnson put public safety ahead of revenues. Another important aspect of responding to a potentially threatening incident is to be publicly accessible to the media, corporate investors, board members, and other individuals to answer questions and to show concern and leadership capabilities.

Offering free flowing and accessible communications in such instances is also important in maintaining reputation and loyalty. Whether the crisis concerns a faulty product, a power outage, a case of embezzlement, or illegal acts by corporate members or employees, offering information to consumers and, when necessary, the media during all stages of a crisis goes a long way toward ensuring the public that the company's management is concerned about people first and money second.

Crisis team managers should designate spokespersons to deal with the media and always have the contact information for individuals who need to be consulted in the event of an emergency.

Information hot lines, e-mails, alerts, and other modes of communication are essential during any crisis. Today, with rampant cell phone and Internet use, including social networks such as MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter, there is no excuse for not offering information in today's society.

People today want transparency. Ensuring and reassuring the public in such incidents is important for repairing or maintaining the reputation of a company. When information is lacking, speculation and rumors abound.

Be willing to share all the bad news or risks regarding a crisis incident. Hiding the truth or doling out information little bits at a time defeats the purpose of providing and maintaining an open line of communication between a corporation or business and the public. More damage can be done to reputations by deleting important facts than by offering the truth.

What Not to Do

Interested in learning more? Why not take an online Crisis Management course?

In many situations, administrators, executives, supervisors, or managers see themselves as irreplaceable or indispensable in an organization. It is essential to place the responsibility of crisis management on more than one shoulder.

The special value of a crisis management team is that it does not rely on only one person to perform all the actions necessary to identify, contain, and resolve a crisis. Each team member should have certain functions and roles, with one person overseeing these actions but not preventing them from happening in the absence of one or the other.

In some situations, the death of a CEO may precipitate a crisis much like a domino effect because contingency plans, financial arrangements, and decision making processes rely heavily on that one individual. In an accidental death, for example, the company itself may falter because contingency plans have not been put into place in the event of an unexpected tragedy.

Another situation that often occurs is that crisis team managers are not only asked to deal with their normal duties but also provide decision making capabilities for a company or a corporation in an emergency. Such double duty doesn't offer those crisis team management members the ability to focus specifically on a crisis or emerging crisis. In these cases, job responsibilities and functions should be transferred to others so that the crisis management team can focus solely on a crisis.

Therefore, delegating job responsibilities and functions should be an important part of a crisis management team's action plan. Nothing should be more important than crisis resolution.

In addition, such incidents should precipitate a focus on the company to deal with the crisis at hand, much like Johnson & Johnson did during the Tylenol crisis. The company curtailed forward momentum regarding sales, research, and packaging until the crisis could be dealt with and a solution offered. This is an excellent example of how crisis management is not only developed but put into action.

Rules of Crisis Containment

To recap, there are four basic rules in crisis containment:

  • React quickly and decisively.
  • Give precedence to human safety and life.
  • Be available at the scene.
  • Communicate, communicate, and communicate!


Putting a crisis management or contingency plan into action requires understanding the psychology of human emotions and decision making processes.


Psychology of Crisis Management Decisions


Making crisis management decisions involves assembling data on an ongoing basis and making important decisions while at the same time maintaining open lines of communication. However, crisis management also means dealing with the psychology of a crisis or emergency situation.

Crisis response leaders also must be able to employ negotiation skills when working with employees, managers, and victims of disaster or trauma, as well as understand the basics of conflict management before, during, and after a crisis. Crisis management and emergency planning are growing fields in many industries, from schools to global corporations, and are an important aspect in ensuring public and environmental safety, plus a link between consumers and service providers or suppliers.

Assembling Data

It literally would be impossible for a crisis management team to identify, address, or resolve a potential crisis situation without data and information. Integrating knowledge by using a variety of multidisciplinary approaches to crisis management involves technology, social and political skills, and psychology.

A multidisciplinary crisis management approach must take into consideration factors involving human emotion and the ability to communicate, while at the same time maintaining the reputation and structure of an organization in the public eye.

Crisis management team members should never forget the psychology behind crisis management, which is to contain and control circumstances. In emergency or stressful situations, emotional needs must be met. Natural disasters or catastrophic man made events such as the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, require compassionate understanding and appropriate responses.

The practice of disaster psychology is becoming more widespread, thanks to growing incidents of workplace and school violence and the increase in violence during economic downturns. Special teams called Human Services Disaster Response Teams are basically designed to offer psychological first aid within the first two or three days following a crisis, emergency, or disaster.

Depending on the organization or the need for such, crisis management team members should also consider the implementation of such disaster psychology team members to help deal with the fallout, stress, or fears. This includes not only employees but the public at large in regard to the safety or effectiveness of corporate leadership following an environmental, natural, or manmade disaster or emergency.

The need to continually assess and compile information and data regarding an organization, business, school, or corporation involves the ability to encourage cooperation, transparency, honesty, and loyalty between management and low-level staff members.

All persons are responsible for enhancing the safety of those around them. The free flow of information from all departments or sectors of a business or corporation will help the crisis management team determine the potential for problems, as well as how to solve them.

Making Decisions

An individual or team of individuals responsible for making immediate decisions in a crisis must, by the very definition of the job, be strong willed and capable of functioning under pressure. Team members must be able to deal with a wide range of unexpected obstacles in resolving a crisis, and keep a cool head, a calm demeanor, and most importantly of all, have the ability to multitask.

The ability of an individual to offer advice and direction with authority is an essential part of the decision making process. There will be no time for debates, no compromises, and no time to deal with corporate hierarchy, approval, and so on. Crisis response team members should be granted the freedom to perform unconditionally and with direct authority when it comes to ensuring the safety of employees or other individuals.

Everyone from the lowest level to upper management should defer to decisions made by crisis management team members in emergency or crisis scenarios. This would even extend to emergency evacuation plans and crisis team practice sessions. Armchair quarterbacking has no place in this decision making process, which should be left to those who have diligently studied data, determined a variety of "what if" scenarios, contingency plans, and other methods of containing or controlling damage caused by an incident.

The crisis management team has the authority, responsibility, and duty to focus completely on threats or events. Members have direct management power and controlling responsibilities on behalf of any organization or business when it comes to life threatening situations, fiscal emergencies, threats, or any other endeavors that may threaten the stability and safety of an entity.

For this reason, a crisis team, and especially the crisis team manager, should have the authority to:

  • Act in the best interests of the entity.
  • Ensure safety.
  • Ensure his or her immediate and full authority; there should be no prerequisites, exceptions, or conditions attached to the job descriptions and functions of a crisis manager or management team.

Team members are just that, part of the team. Team members should act together in the best interests of the company or entity. They should not have specific or individual authority to perform certain actions on their own but, through the development of contingency planning and full disclosure of information, have the power to act as a team to implement actions to deal with a variety of circumstances.


Not only senior executives but administrators and corporate crisis managers should sign off on the authority granted to a crisis management team. Job descriptions, functions, and roles of a crisis team should be updated and approved every year to offer a show of reinforcement and upper management's support of a crisis management response team's program, contingency plans, and organization.

The authority to act is the most important aspect of developing a crisis management team in the first place. A crisis management team that must wait for final approval of any actions by corporate leaders, presidents, or board members will be hampered in its ability to react quickly and efficiently to an impending or ongoing crisis.


Delegating power or authority means finding individuals who are strong and capable enough of handling a variety of crisis situations. An individual, who understands basic human psychology and the importance of communication with a wide range of individuals, and has the ability to provide quiet and assured leadership, is one of the most valuable assets in an effective crisis management team.

While such team members provide the bulwark of crisis management decisions, an understanding that there can be a variety of potential responses to emergency situations will help the team and managers prepare for the worst, determine the appropriate emergency response for a given situation, and minimize losses, both financially and of human life.