How to Create a Crisis Management Plan: A Step-by-Step Guide
In this post, we explore what crisis management is and how to develop an effective plan to mitigate risks to your people and business continuity.
Every business has experienced a crisis of one kind or another. A survey of more than 2,000 senior executives spanning 43 countries found that 69% of organizations have experienced a crisis within the last five years. For some, it may have been a public relations or brand reputation issue stemming from a flawed product or unexpected service disruption. For others, it may have involved a natural disaster, workplace injury, or another emergency that impacted employee safety.
Regardless of the reason, organizations around the world regularly experience crises that have a huge effect on their people and everyday operations. These events, no matter the circumstances, put organizations’ business continuity, emergency preparedness, and crisis communication capabilities under a microscope. Those organizations that navigate crises effectively can, and often do, emerge more resilient. Conversely, those that fail to meet the moment often experience devastating and lasting consequences.
So what exactly constitutes a crisis for your business? And, more importantly, what can your organization do to effectively prepare for and respond to a crisis?
In this article, we’ll answer these two critical questions, explain how you can create an effective crisis management plan, and explore the important role communication plays in keeping your people safe and your business running smoothly before, during, and after a crisis.
What Is a Crisis Management Plan?
A crisis management plan is a document that outlines how a business will navigate through emergency situations from start to finish. It contains the different risk management strategies you might use, as well as the step-by-step action plans you might deploy in response to the crisis.
Like other emergency management plans, a crisis management plan is meant to mitigate any potential risks from a crisis, especially those that threaten the success and health of a company by tarnishing its reputation, damaging its business operations, negatively impacting its finances, or harming its employees.
Steven Kuhr, a crisis and emergency management leader with decades of experience spanning public service and private sector roles, explained why these plans can be so effective at helping organizations prepare to navigate a crisis on an episode of The Employee Safety Podcast. He said, “The crisis management plan itself has a number of components, like incident recognition, situational awareness, and social intelligence to help understand risks. If we’re not talking about those things, we’re not understanding what the threats to our organization are.”
Types of Crises: What to Prepare For
From IT outages to outbreaks of COVID-19—both internal and external factors can lead to a business crisis. The resulting damage depends on the severity of the crisis itself as well as your organization’s level of preparedness.
Given the unique characteristics of different industries, it’s difficult to narrow down the list of potential crises that could strike businesses at large. The best way to know which specific crises you may face on a given day is to conduct a threat assessment to determine your business’s vulnerabilities. You can also do a business impact analysis to better understand the short- and long-term effects that are likely.
We can, however, consider some common scenarios any business might encounter that can escalate to a crisis incident.
For public companies, a financial crisis may involve reporting quarterly results that are significantly below market expectations. A sizable “miss” may result in a crisis of confidence amongst investors or employees losing faith in the company’s strategy or leaders. For other organizations, a financial crisis may involve an inability to raise capital, regulatory fines, or other unexpected expenses that impact financial metrics.
A personnel crisis can be isolated to a specific individual or involve a large group of employees, as in the case of a work stoppage. Often, personnel crises involve an employee being implicated in a criminal event, HR complaints, or unethical behavior which requires the organization to take formal disciplinary action, such as suspension or termination, until the matter is resolved.
An organization’s reputation is vital to its ability to recruit and retain talent, attract new customers, and win market share. For that reason, the adage “all press is good press” is frowned upon by most business leaders and crisis management teams. A PR crisis can truly be anything—a high-visibility oil spill or product recall, unflattering media coverage stemming from a spokesperson being taken out of context, or customer complaints about decision-making during a pandemic. Each scenario requires a different approach and crisis management strategy, which is why a well-developed crisis communication plan is a must.
A technology crisis is any scenario in which a critical part of your organization’s infrastructure goes offline. This may include unplanned outages with a key service provider or disruptions caused by severe weather, natural disasters, human error, or even a cyberattack, where digital infrastructure is compromised. The potential impact of these disruptions will vary widely, but there is likely going to be trouble with internal communications if critical systems are down.
Workplace injuries and accidents
In its annual Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries Summary for 2020, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that a worker died every 111 minutes from a work-related injury. Common causes for workplace injuries include lifting heavy objects, general fatigue and overexertion, dehydration, industrial accidents, and incidents involving hazardous materials. Each of these has the potential for creating a crisis for environmental, health, and safety teams and/or human resources—particularly in instances where the impacted employee feels that the employer was at fault.
Tragically, workplace violence remains a major issue and concern for employers in virtually every industry. According to Injury Facts, workplace assault resulted in 20,050 injuries and 392 fatalities in 2020 alone. Beyond the obvious threat to employee safety, crises involving workplace violence—which may include criminal acts, conflicts between colleagues, or even incidents where an employee is threatened while at work—can cause significant reputational damage to the business and lasting concerns from employees and job candidates.
The 4 Phases of Crisis Management
For many organizations, crisis management begins once an incident has been reported and key stakeholders convene to determine the appropriate response. However, organizations that are best equipped to navigate a crisis begin planning long before the crisis takes place.
To organize your efforts, organize your plan based on the four key stages of a crisis: pre-crisis, latent crisis, acute crisis, and post-crisis. The goal of any crisis management strategy is to get from phase one to phase four as quickly as possible, so let’s examine how to do so.
Phase #1: Pre-crisis
Think of this as your crisis management planning phase. Spend this time thinking through all the potential crisis scenarios that could occur—both self-inflicted and as a result of external forces—and examine how you’d respond. Try to fit each scenario into a corresponding crisis type or category. Create a crisis management communication playbook and templates for each category and determine who within your organization is most likely to be impacted if the crisis strikes to help prioritize who should be notified and in what order.
Additionally, in the pre-crisis phase, you’ll want to build your crisis team. Designate a crisis manager for each scenario, and ensure each team member’s contact information is up to date. Consider which individuals from relevant business groups (e.g., business continuity, disaster recovery, HR, PR, etc.) should be involved and their respective roles and responsibilities.
Phase #2: Latent crisis
You’ve identified the early signs of a crisis beginning to unfold, and it’s time to put your crisis communication plan into action. In this phase, you need to focus on preventing the crisis from expanding in size, and you need to begin engaging stakeholders as quickly as possible. Remember that you may not have all the answers as the situation unfolds but you can set the expectation that you will update stakeholders as more information becomes available. Be as proactive as possible in the latent phase to get ahead of the crisis.
Phase #3: Acute crisis
If you successfully contained the crisis during the latent phase, then you don’t need to worry about the acute phase. The acute phase occurs when the crisis continues to develop. Most often, containing a crisis is out of your control, as in the case of a natural disaster or other unforeseen external events. In the acute crisis phase, react to new information as quickly as possible, and keep stakeholders aware of your response with up-to-date messaging. Think through all the various communication channels you can use to disseminate information and leverage a mass notification system to ensure all team members are constantly informed. Lastly, be sure to set up a monitoring system to make sure you consistently receive updates on the situation at hand.
Phase #4: Post-crisis
When a crisis passes or subsides, your crisis management work is just getting started. Even if there is no additional information to immediately share, it’s important to remain in contact with your employees, customers, and other impacted stakeholders to demonstrate you are being proactive—particularly during crises that impact their safety. Again, make sure you have a reliable, two-way communication system in place that allows you to get the word out quickly when a crisis occurs.
Finally, work with your crisis management team to review and analyze how your crisis management plan played out during a real emergency. How did your crisis communications perform? Did your audiences have any lingering questions or concerns that you neglected to answer? Integrate any lessons you learn into your crisis management process for future planning.
Now, let’s dive into the crisis management plan itself and how to create one for your business.
How to Create a Crisis Management Plan in 7 Steps
Every organization has a duty of care to protect the well-being of its employees in and out of the office. In the event of a crisis, your people are counting on you to keep them safe from potential threats. And your ability to do so is only as strong as your crisis management plan. No matter the size or severity of a crisis, an effective plan will help you recover quickly and safely. Here is how to create a crisis management plan.
1. Schedule time to develop your plan
It may sound silly, but choosing to have a plan is a critical first step that not every business takes. While it’s likely most organizations have contemplated how they would respond to a crisis, a survey of communication leaders found that less than half (45%) have a documented crisis response plan.
2. Identify all potential threats to your business
Business crises will vary depending on your organization’s industry, size, and location. While there may be obvious threats to your company (e.g., hurricanes for coastal businesses, a tornado for organizations in the Midwest, and winter storms for those in the Northeast), it’s important to envision worst-case scenarios so your team can plan to meet even the most unexpected challenges that could harm your people and set your business back (e.g., active shooters or even new government regulations). The best way to do this is to perform a threat assessment.
3. Determine the impact and severity of those threats on your business
After identifying all possible threats to your company, outline exactly how those threats will impact your business at every level of operations. Determine which employees will be affected, what damage and expenses your business will incur, and what the long-term effects of each threat will be.
4. Formulate a response plan for each scenario
Once you’ve mapped out the severity of each threat, you can start planning your response. Identify the steps your organization will need to take to mitigate risks and come out on top. Also take into consideration who you’ll need to coordinate with outside of your organization, including first responders like EMTs and police.
5. Identify and train stakeholders
Different crises will require input from different people on your team. Assign responsibilities to stakeholders for every crisis and train them accordingly so they are well-versed in your crisis game plan. As a best practice, you should also conduct rehearsals periodically to identify knowledge gaps and opportunities for improvement. Consider cross-training staff on multiple crisis response roles to ensure sufficient coverage in the event one or more of your colleagues is unable to perform his or her normal duties.
6. Develop recovery plans
Once stakeholders know their role in solving a crisis and you’ve built out your emergency response plans, you can develop a recovery plan with less room for error. Developing resolutions and contingency plans for even the most unlikely of crises can save you valuable time and money down the road.
7. Revisit and update your plans regularly
Finally, it’s not enough to create a plan and lock it in place. Fulfilling duty of care obligations and successfully getting out of a crisis means having the most up-to-date solutions and management plans. Revisiting your crisis management and business continuity plans every couple of months can help you avoid blind spots, address gaps, and ensure the most accurate information is reflected.
Benefits of a crisis management plan template
Creating a crisis management plan can be complicated with how many different steps and resources you need to keep track of—from your business threat and vulnerability assessment to your travel risk management information in case of a crisis situation away from home. But when you use a crisis management plan template to build our your plan, you don’t have to worry about skipping steps or missing important information. A template can offer step-by-step guidance on what to do, and what information you need to have. Download a free crisis management plan template and get started on your own plan today.
The Role of Communication in Crisis Management
Communication can make or break your organization’s ability to overcome a crisis. From a “big picture” perspective, there are three themes that drive the need for an effective communication strategy during challenging times.
Duty of care
You have a legal and ethical duty to communicate with your employees during a crisis should it impact their safety or well-being. You also have a legal obligation to communicate the dangers and risks associated with performing functions within your business (i.e., informing employees of flooding in their area and making sure they are not putting themselves at risk by driving to the office). Not only does this keep your people safe, but it also shows them you care, which creates a stronger company culture and can boost employee morale.
Controlling the narrative
With technology at our fingertips, expectations for organizations are at an all-time high. Fifteen to twenty years ago, there was no iPhone, no social media, and no way to pull up information about an incident on-demand 24/7/365. Today, people expect to know what is happening in real-time. And if you don’t communicate what is happening to your employees, they will likely turn to social media or speak with their colleagues to figure out what is going on—meaning your organization loses control of the narrative.
If you can’t communicate, you can’t recover
Ensuring the rapid flow of accurate information is even more critical during a crisis. Rarely does everything go according to plan during an emergency, which is why crisis response leaders need the ability to communicate information out and receive feedback back from employees. Having a simple and reliable way to follow up with employees during critical events, as well as reaching the crisis response team, is your best way to ensure your business can weather any emergency.
Studies show that during a crisis, information is as important to people as food or water. Not only can accurate information mean the difference between life and death, but it can also provide reassurance that response and recovery are truly underway.
“We want to make sure that we’re able to communicate effectively. So if we activated the crisis management team, if there was something going on, we would start sending out alerts. This is all part of the written crisis management plan, and part of the crisis management team includes having a duty officer, somebody responsible for monitoring the situation and sending out information.” —Steven Kuhr
How AlertMedia Can Help
Regardless of size, every organization will experience a crisis at some point. But with an effective crisis management plan and a modern emergency communication solution, leaders can influence positive outcomes and prevent these incidents from escalating. While not every crisis will threaten the safety of your people, they all pose risks to your operations and reputation.
During any type of crisis, you need a reliable emergency notification system at hand. AlertMedia allows you to go a step further and communicate with your people via multiple channels like text, mobile app, phone calls, email, and even business communication platforms like Slack—all at the same time. Taking a proactive approach to communication during a crisis can help de-escalate threats, ensure employee safety, and keep your business up and running no matter what obstacles are thrown your way.