Your Guide to Developing a Crisis Management Plan

crisis management plan

Unfortunately, crises can happen.

We’ve seen it in our lifetime. Pandemics, wars, severe events… But it’s not just worldwide events that impact businesses—even smaller-scale problems can have harrowing effects.

Disruptive events like data breaches, product recalls, and workplace issues (and the related PR nightmare) can devastate an unprepared organization.

It’s a matter of if, not when.

If the last few years have taught us anything, it’s that businesses need to be proactively prepared with crisis management messaging. When things go sideways (because they will), you need a crisis management plan to keep your people safe and your business moving forward.

The pandemic caught people off guard.

We can’t ignore the most recent crisis example. The COVID-19 pandemic affected all kinds of businesses around the world. Few organizations were prepared to address problems at that scale.

However, that’s not to say businesses weren’t facing smaller-scale crises on a daily basis before the pandemic. In 2019, 95% of PwC’s 2021 Global Crisis Survey respondents said they expected to experience a crisis in the next two years. Yet only 23% of US organizations had a dedicated crisis response team in place at the start of the pandemic. They were caught off guard and unprepared.

Now, business leaders are doing what they can to prepare their businesses for future disruptions. In fact, 75% of US organizations say they’re planning to increase their investment in building resilience.

Let’s dig into crisis management plans and how to build your own.

What is a crisis management plan?

A crisis management plan is a document that outlines how to respond to a situation that could negatively affect your organization’s profitability, reputation, or ability to operate.

So, what kind of crises are we talking about? Generally, you define what constitutes a crisis in your written plan.

It can be anything from a natural disaster to a security breach to a significant product defect. Here are some examples:

  • Natural disasters like hurricanes, and earthquakes
  • Serious climatic events like floods and snowstorms
  • Biologic risks like foodborne illnesses and pandemics
  • Accidental events like fires or hazardous spills
  • Intentional events like violence or robberies
  • Technological events, like cyberattacks

People under stress tend to make poor decisions that could unintentionally worsen a crisis. While it’s impossible to predict every outcome, having a basic plan to prevent safety issues, protect your brand reputation, and resume business is vital.

What makes a crisis response successful?

A successful crisis response plan:

  • Outlines a quick and appropriate response
  • Prepares crisis management messaging
  • Prioritizes the safety of employees and the public
  • Prevents further problems after the initial crisis
  • Minimizes operational disruptions
  • Facilitates a fast recovery back to reasonable work conditions

How to create your crisis response plan.

Follow these steps to build your own crisis response plan.

1. Gather a crisis team.

Creating these types of plans usually involves a few people from a crisis management team, but it’s best to have representatives from all affected departments.

Here are some departments to consider:

  • Business continuity team
  • Emergency management
  • Crisis management
  • Public relations
  • Customer-facing departments

2. Define what constitutes a crisis.

What kind of crisis will your plan cover? It’s not unusual to create multiple types of crisis management plans for different situations.

For example, tackling an intentional event like a fire will require a very different response than a viral video of someone on your team behaving badly.

Layout what your plan does and does not cover and what will trigger your crisis management plan of action.

3. Conduct a risk assessment.

Identify the risks your business is likely to face. If you work with a mostly remote workforce, you’re much more likely to deal with data breaches and cyberattacks than physical accidents. Only once you figure out your business’s weaknesses can you plan to address them.

4. Predict the business impacts.

Once you know the risks, you address how they will affect your business. Always put physical safety as your top priority, but also consider other problems, such as a damaged reputation, lost sales, and customer attrition.

5. Put together your contingency plans.

The bulk of your document is likely filled with your contingency planning. This is where you lay out what to do when business is disrupted, you lose power, there’s an accident, etc. Keep it simple with “If X, then Y” statements so that it’s clear and easy to follow.

6. Develop a communications strategy.

It’s important to protect your brand during a crisis to prevent long-term damage. You need both internal and public-facing communications strategies for times of crisis.

For internal communications, ensure there’s an easy way to connect with everyone instantly. SMS/text messaging is a great way to send out bulk messages without relying on internet services (which could be down in a crisis). Assign a point person to ensure there’s no miscommunication or misinformation.

For external communications, always set the record straight. Be upfront and honest, and correct misinformation immediately to temper rumors.

Remember: The key is to be excessively accessible.

One of our most important tips? Don’t turn off messaging. The last thing you want to do in the event of a public-facing crisis is cut-off communications. It’s as good as hiding from the problem. (Also, don’t deny a problem when there is one.)

In addition, if your team is flooded with more calls and messages than they can handle, bring in short-term hires, expand your team with temporary outsourcing, and add additional channels—like Apple Messages for Business and WhatsApp just to name a couple—for customers to contact customer service.

It’s also the time to lean into customer service automation. Program customer service chatbots with your business crisis messaging to help relieve the burden on your customer service agents.

Don’t forget to temper expectations.

While it may be the last thing on your mind, your teams may still worry about their metrics.

Will they be measured against their old numbers? Will they be penalized for not hitting their goals during a period of crisis?

From your sales team to your customer support center, performance will be on your employees’ minds.

While your answer may be obvious to you, ease their fears by making it clear that you expect performance to be down.

You’re giving employees permission to take care of themselves and their families first, knowing that their job won’t be in danger.

Lastly, in the event of a company-focused crisis like a social media blunder or viral PR nightmare, expect your customer service teams to bear the brunt of the criticism. Don’t forget to consider their mental health as part of your plan.

7. Put it all together.

Compile everything into a readily accessible document so that everyone knows their role and can react accordingly.

Here’s what you should include:

  • A list of your crises team members
  • The assessment process for what constitutes a crisis
  • Systems for monitoring a crisis
  • Spokesperson and their contact information
  • Emergency contacts
  • Emergency response process
    • Evacuation plan
    • Specific responses to different types of crises
  • Crisis management messaging
  • Customer messaging strategy
    • Social media, customer service, etc.

Even after completing your crisis management plan, treat it like a living document. Update it annually, or when team roles change, new technology is implemented, or you open a new location.

What makes a crisis management plan effective?

1. It’s concise. People in a crisis won’t have time to swipe through hundreds of pages to find what they need. They’re more likely to throw out the whole book. Instead, keep it short, scannable, and easy to follow.

2. Action-oriented. Your crisis plan isn’t the place to go over the company goals and why you thought the technology you purchased was better in line with your values. It needs easy-to-decipher statements about which actions to take. The simpler, the better.

3. Mobile-enabled. There’s no excuse for having a physical book for a crisis response plan. No one’s going back for a 10-pound binder when the office is no longer safe. And for that matter, spreadsheets and word documents aren’t great either. At the very least, have a PDF that’s mobile-enabled and searchable. The best option? Find a crisis management plan solution with the latest features for the best accessibility.

Work on long-term resilience solutions.

The COVID-19 pandemic taught the business world many things, chief among them the power of agility. Businesses that succeeded with limited impact on their bottom lines, reputations, and public safety were able to embrace technology and pivot their businesses accordingly.

Now, 69% of businesses are planning to increase their resilience in the near future as a result of the pandemic.

Here are some of the things you can do to ensure resiliency during any crisis:

  • Make adaptability/resiliency a core competency.
  • Adopt technology built for resilience (think cloud-based, future-forward organizations with impressive roadmaps and heavy R&D investments).
  • Involve the top leaders or your organization in the crisis planning process. That’ll ensure it gets the resources and attention it deserves.

Don’t fail to plan.

While one crisis is passing, the possibility of another is always on the horizon. Now that we know what to expect when the worst happens, we’ll all be better equipped to handle smaller problems as they arise.

The best way to prepare for the worst is to have a plan that your team knows inside and out and to use technologies that help get you through anything.

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