ITL #430 Crisis preparedness: opening our eyes to failure

2 months, 2 weeks ago

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A crisis communication plan is only the start of being crisis prepared. Exercising should not be forgotten. By Amanda Coleman.



 

We go to the gym to put our bodies to the test, find out where we are weakest and focus on those areas to build our strength and get fitter. If we want to succeed, we don’t decide what we want our bodies to look like and then sit on the sofa eating cakes only to look in the mirror and wonder why there is no change. That may sound a bit odd, but it is what many organisations do with their crisis communication plans.

Exercising crisis communication plans is a fundamental step to being prepared for the moment that something happens and yet often it is an optional add-on that happens if there is time at some point in the future. The only test that a crisis communication plan may get is a brief mention in the organisation’s operational exercises. This means a major step to being crisis prepared is not taken. There is little chance to assess the plan, to challenge the elements that are outlined and to revise those initial thoughts.

Learning from the past months dealing with the covid-19 pandemic should already be helping people to update and revise those crisis communication plans. Nobody knows what may be around the corner, when or where the next crisis may emerge. This makes preparedness a fundamental part of PR and communication in this increasingly volatile world.

We have seen in recent months how those who were ready have been able to recover, bounce back and show greater levels of resilience than others who were caught by surprise. Being busy will not stand up as an excuse for failing to respond, review, and be ready for problems that emerge. So how can plans be tested efficiently and effectively?

Learning to stress test

Understanding why exercises need to be carried out is the first hurdle. There are three key reasons why it is done: to identify stress points, to conduct a gap analysis, and to be able to operate at speed when the worst happens. Stress points are those points within the plan where the proposed activity may come under pressure which could lead to a failure. This often can be the management of social media, prioritising internal communication or ensuring spokespeople are ready to go in front of the cameras. For many, resource management may not be the first point of possible failure but is a significant flaw in planning.

Next, because people who write the plans are generally close to the business, key areas of the response may be missed out. Such omissions can sometimes only be identified by bringing a fresh set of eyes to the planning. Finding the gaps is essential to being crisis ready.

Finally, if the plan has not been adequately communicated to those who will be using it then they will be unable to operate at speed when it is needed most. Undertaking an exercise to put the plan to the test will also help check awareness among the staff who must operate to the details within it. The most important thing to remember is this is not about blame and catching people out, it is about identifying how people can develop and things can be improved.

These three challenges to crisis planning mirror those that will be conducted to assess the organisation’s operational readiness. In high-risk organisations, exercising plans are a regular occurrence as many have legislative requirements to meet. For others, it is a relatively new concept. But regardless of where the business is, the only way to be truly crisis ready is to have tested the plans.

What does a crisis communication exercise look like?

There are four main ways that you can assess a crisis communication plan.

  1. Scenario discussion
  2. Tabletop review
  3. Virtual exercise
  4. Full real-time exercise

Scenario discussions are the simplest to arrange and the easiest to conduct. It just requires bringing key staff together and presenting them with a scenario which they need to discuss. Central to the discussion must be what decisions would be made at what point, and what actions would flow from those decisions. In just two hours you could have conducted a reasonable review of the existing crisis communication plan, as well as identifying where further training may be needed for staff who would be called on to put the plan into action.

Tabletop reviews require some more detailed work as they look at each aspect of the plan and considering whether it is fit for purpose and could work for a complete range of scenarios. In the work I do, this is where the risk management plan comes into play so you can assess against the most pressing risks for that business. Bringing together key staff with knowledge and experience in a range of roles, you can use them to help find the weak points and where actions may be unclear. Both scenario discussions and tabletop reviews can be conducted using existing resources and just putting aside some time. However, bringing independent oversight to the work is of great benefit.

If you have spent weeks or months finely tuning a plan it is difficult to look objectively at what you have done. We all know how easy it is to miss spelling mistakes and errors when we have been working on a document in detail for some time. Stepping back and seeing the big picture and being able to put documents under the microscope are easier without an attachment to them.

When it comes to more detailed exercises specialist support is often required. Having personally been subjected to many crisis planning exercises during my two decades in policing, I know how they work and what to expect. However, some communicators will need to be given detailed briefings and information about how exercises work before they can fully participate in a virtual experience using the latest technology. Even in these covid-19 regulated days you can develop a realistic scenario that puts people under pressure to make decisions as if they were really facing the crisis.

The final way to test is a full real-team exercise in which you bring people together and make it as near reality as possible. This is much easier when you can physically collaborate with people and all the key organisations are taking part. But these exercises can come at a cost which for many businesses would not be acceptable. With both these latter two tests you can see how people cope with the crisis, who thrives and who may need more help and support.

What next?

Crisis communication is about more than just having a plan. People need to know the details within it and what it means for them. They need to be able to put it into action at a moment’s notice.

But we also need to check that our thinking and planning can work when put to the test. At the core of this must be an ability to look objectively at our work and dissect it. It is not about blame. It is not about putting unnecessary pressure on people. And it is definitely not about being right.

Exercising our crisis communication plans is about being prepared, being ready and learning before we are in the heat of the crisis.

 


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The Author

Amanda Coleman

Amanda Coleman, Director of Amanda Coleman Communications Ltd, has spent over 20 years helping police and civic leaders respond to some of the UK’s biggest crisis incidents and sustained reputational attacks. She is author of Crisis Communication Strategies and former head of corporate communication for Greater Manchester Police.

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