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Sooner or later it will happen if you’re in business long enough: your organization will face a serious incident.

A fire, flood, shooting, cyberattack, explosion, sinkhole, scandal, fatal accident, pandemic, or public relations disaster will break out unexpectedly and threaten to engulf the organization.

How well the company gets through will depend in large part on whether it is sufficiently prepared.

In this article we’ll give you a feel for what it’s like to face a crisis at your workplace as a member of a crisis management (CM) team. We’ll also share some tips on how the CM team can put its preparations and training into effect to ensure the organization’s response to the incident is as effective as possible.

We’ll also look at how to document a crisis and crisis response and the difference between crisis leadership and crisis management.

The First 24 Hours

The first 24 hours is the critical period when it comes to responding effectively to a crisis. What can your organization’s crisis team do to help it “win” this critical period? Read on to learn the who, what, when, where, and why of how companies can successfully manage the first 24 hours of an emergency event.

Chaos Vs. Organized Chaos

The difference between the crisis response at an unprepared organization and at a prepared one is the difference between chaos and organized chaos.

The difference between chaos and organized chaos is like the difference between night and day.

Chaos

In a chaotic crisis response, people run around like chickens with their heads cut off. Emotion runs high and few people know what to do. If someone takes the right action at the right time it is by luck. Confusion reigns, and decisions are made and actions taken by whim. There is duplication and omission of effort. Many actions are taken that harm the organization or waste precious time and resources. Many actions that should be taken are completely overlooked. The people involved usually feel helpless, overwhelmed, and even ashamed because they know their coworkers and the organization are depending on them and they are doing a poor job of managing the event.

Organized Chaos

On the surface organized chaos looks somewhat like chaos. Even in organized chaos, confusion can exist during an incident and emotions can run high. However, if you look closer, there is a striking difference. In organized chaos, the people responsible for managing the event are all focused on doing meaningful tasks. If the situation is confused, people are actively trying to obtain information to clarify it. There is a general sense that everyone knows their responsibilities, has faith in their plan and each other, and is devoted to soldiering through and taking care of business. This may be the best you can hope for during a serious incident, but it is usually enough. It is often the difference between an organization that quickly works through and rebounds from a crisis versus one that is devastated and brutally embarrassed by one.

Crisis Management Priorities

Before we get into the details of managing a crisis event, it’s worth recalling what our main priorities are in doing so. In order of importance, they include the following:

  • Life Safety. Minimizing the impact on human life. Trying to get or keep everyone safe. Life safety takes precedence over all other concerns.
  • Incident Stabilization. Stabilizing the situation and preventing further damage.
  • Property Preservation. Preserving physical equipment, hardware, and the physical premises.
  • Business Restoration. Getting back to normal operations. Functionally restoring the business in terms of business processes and IT.

Other valid crisis management priorities include protecting the organization’s brand, image, finances, and shareholder value.

Execute Your Playbook

Our advice for how to successfully manage a crisis can be boiled down to three words: execute your playbook. In other words, follow the plan for which the CMT team has already prepared and trained. That’s all there is to it. It’s not rocket science. It’s following directions.

As stated previously, the heart of the CM plan is the tasks and responsibilities checklists prepared for each role on the crisis management team (team leader, human resources, finance, facilities, security, etc.).

Assuming that your team has previously put together quality checklists for each role, no one has to do a lot of deep thinking when it comes to managing the crisis. All they have to do is work through their checklists.

Obstacles to Executing Your Playbook

What can make executing your playbook hard is the high emotion and confusion of the situation, and the gaps where things happen that are seemingly not covered by the plan.

As the old boxer said, “My plan was perfect until the other guy threw his first punch.”

Like that boxer’s opponent, emergencies punch back.

Being good at managing a crisis comes down to being able to execute your playbook under pressure.

Lifecycle of a Crisis

The following is a general description of what the experience of a crisis at an organization is like, as experienced by members of the crisis management team.

Activating the Crisis Management Plan

Depending on the event, it may or may not be necessary to activate the crisis management team. Some emergencies are acute in the moment but don’t have a long-term impact (a prank bomb threat, for example). Others can pose a serious threat to the company’s survival.

Thinking about this issue can begin during the incident. Evaluate the potential length and scope of the event. Could it significantly disrupt your operations? Was anyone hurt? Will the media be coming?

As you learn what the situation is, consult the CM plan. The CM plan should include criteria outlining when the plan should be invoked. Have you met the criteria? Activate the CMT to help with assessment and planning.

Shifting into Crisis Mode

At the time a crisis strikes an organization, the leader and members of the CMT are likely scattered throughout the company’s facilities carrying out their everyday job responsibilities.

There are typically two paths by which the CMT leader and members come to put aside their ordinary responsibilities and shift into crisis management mode.

  • They can be contacted by someone else on the team and informed there is an incident and the crisis plan has been activated.
  • They can activate the plan after learning that a crisis is unfolding, perhaps in collaboration with a fellow team member.

Crisis management team staffers can learn about an incident at their company in many different ways, including:

  • Getting a phone call, text, or email about the incident from a fellow team member.
  • Being alerted about the event by a non-team member.
  • Hearing or seeing something in the media.
  • Learning about the incident on social media.
  • Hearing gunshots.
  • Witnessing an accident.
  • Experiencing network or connectivity problems.
  • Hearing the sirens of approaching first responders.
  • Feeling an earthquake.
  • Seeing smoke or fire at a company facility.
  • Hearing a fire alarm.

Regardless of how they find out about the incident, once the team member learns the crisis management plan has been activated (or activates it themselves), they should put aside their everyday duties and shift into crisis management mode.

In doing this, the first step is usually to report immediately to the command center, preferably while in possession of their own copy of the CM plan document.

Convening at the Command Center

In the earliest stages of an incident, the core members of the CMT usually gather at the command center, open their crisis management plan documents, and begin working through the checklists relevant to their role. Among the first tasks they will do is try to learn exactly what is going on and what the dangers to the organization are, keeping in mind the priorities of protecting life safety, stabilizing the incident, and preserving property.

Depending on the size and nature of the crisis, members of the extended team might also be asked to report to the command center.

At this time, there can be a great deal of confusion, uncertainty, and stress. Voices can be raised and tempers short. Alternately, things can seem routine at first and only gradually get worse or reveal unexpected losses and dangers.

Keep Calm and Carry On

It is very important at this time for the members of the CMT to demonstrate the proper degree of urgency. They should not be either frantic or complacent. They should remain situationally aware and focus on doing the tasks set forth on their checklists. In other words, “Keep Calm and Carry On,” as the British motivational posters put it during World War II.

The Brits of that era were masters of crisis management. In the Battle of Dunkirk in 1940, they rallied a flotilla of fishing boats and pleasure craft to pluck an Allied army of 300,000 off a French beach, preventing them from being captured by the Germans. Talk about keeping cool in a crisis.

A common example we see of people not being calm is when they overescalate a crisis to forestall accusations which they underreacted. Individuals insecure enough to do this should probably not be on the team. Good CMT members exercise good common sense and are confident in their judgment.

Modeling and encouraging the proper attitude are some of the main responsibilities of the crisis management team leader.

Different Zones of Activity

A serious incident at a good-size organization encompasses many layers and zones of activity. The members of the CMT will typically be physically situated in the command center. But through their contacts and information-gathering, they will be aware of activities taking place in many different locations.

This is especially true of the CMT leader, whose job includes synthesizing information coming in from all of the different team members and departments.

The following are some of the zones of activity that CMT members might experience or have responsibility for during an emergency:

  • command center
  • physical site of the emergency
  • facilities which are being evacuated
  • safe zones where people are being evacuated to
  • staging, triage, or treatment areas being used by first responders
  • locations where helicopters are landing
  • the location cordoned off by the police
  • places where the media are gathered
  • locations where news conferences are being held
  • computer networks and business processes being impacted by the event
  • virtual space in which financial transactions take place
  • social media where the crisis is blowing up

These can be located in one contiguous physical space or in different states or even different countries. Most of them are physical locations but some are virtual ones.

As you can see from this list, managing a serious crisis can be monumentally complicated. This is why having “winging it” as your crisis management strategy is so foolish.

Use the APIE Approach

We’ve already talked about the importance of crisis management team members’ working through their checklists and staying calm. Admittedly, these things are easier said than done, even for trained professionals.

One approach that can help is the APIE approach (pronounced ay-pie). The APIE method is a well-known framework for managing challenging situations. It formalizes a method that many people use naturally in ordinary circumstances, but which they often forget to use during an incident.

APIE stands for:

  • Assess the situation
  • Plan your response
  • Implement your response
  • Evaluate your performance

APIE can be used by CMT members while working through their checklists. It provides a further degree of organization to the process, structuring people’s thinking, taming their emotions, and increasing their effectiveness.

Watch for Fatigue

In going down the home stretch of managing the crisis, there are a few other things to remember. One is to watch for fatigue.

If the crisis is prolonged, the CM team members are going to get tired and become less effective. The responsibility for monitoring this falls primarily to the team leader.

Crisis situations create a lot of adrenaline, but they are also tiring.

Ideally, there will be primary and secondary alternates for all of the roles on the CMT. This is your bench. As people start to fade, the leader should pull people in from the bench and send the starters out to rest. This also goes for the leader him or herself.

Remember Your Values

Another important thing to keep in mind is, remember your values. Don’t lose sight of the core principles of the organization in the heat of the moment.

Stress can make people do funny things.

Beware of any short-term gains that might cause long-term regret.

Does your organization pride itself on being honest and transparent? Does it take care of its employees? Is it a good steward of the environment? You can hang on to those values even while responding effectively to a crisis. You can and you should. You’ll thank yourself in the morning.

Takeaways

  • In dealing with a crisis, the best you can hope is it might be to have “organized chaos” rather than “chaos.” This can make all the difference.
  • The best way to manage a crisis is for the people on the team to keep calm, remember the CM priorities (protect life safety, stabilize the incident, preserve property, recover the business), work through their checklists, and use the APIE approach (assess, plan, implement, evaluate).
  • In handling a crisis, it’s important to watch for fatigue, remember your values, keep good documentation, and practice crisis leadership as well as crisis management.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Michael Herrera & Richard Long

Michael Herrera is the CEO of MHA Consulting, a leading business continuity planning and information technology consulting firm. Herrera is the founder of BCMMetrics, which specializes in business continuity software designed to aid organizations in developing and executing business continuity programs. ... Richard Long is a senior advisory consultant and practice team leader for MHA Consulting, where he has successfully leads international and domestic disaster recovery, technology assessment, crisis management, and risk mitigation engagements.

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