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Five rules for building a crisis management framework

If you lack a crisis plan, you're planning for chaos. Follow these rules to avoid that fate.

This year has required organizations to test their crisis management capabilities against multiple events. In the U.S., the impact from fires on the West Coast and hurricanes in the South added to the COVID-19 pandemic has forced virtually every company in the world to make adjustments. Beyond health and naturally occurring disturbances, there is a vast array of potential disruptions to business operations, including organizational (such as mergers and changes in leadership), economic, political, and, fitting for Cyber Security Month, technological.

For a company or organization, avoiding every disruption is unrealistic. That is why having a crisis management team in place is imperative in preparing for, pushing through, and resolving crisis events. In the course of my career, I've had the opportunity to lead the response to many events, and the one truth that continues to resonate is the importance of communication during a crisis. Having a predefined framework for crisis management enables organizations to focus on communication, response, and potential innovation opportunities.

With what we've experienced in 2020, now is the time to create a crisis management framework within your company. Or, if you already have a team in place, now may be the time to reflect and consider if there are opportunities for improving your crisis management framework. With that in mind, I will outline five areas to focus on as you consider an approach to your framework: leadership, organization, cadence, communication, and new opportunities.

Set and define leadership roles

Practice, practice, practice is the mantra of many people responsible for business continuity and crisis management, and I could not agree more. Crisis management leaders can be solely dedicated to that role, or as I have seen, can also be senior leaders that are trained in crisis management processes. Leadership structure will likely vary for each organization. Regardless, building your bench of potential crisis leaders starts with clearly defining the expectations of the role and then practicing within that role.

In my opinion, your crisis leader has many responsibilities, but first and foremost, they are responsible for facilitating communication during the event. The crisis leader will guide the crisis team meetings; provide ongoing communication to senior leadership; coordinate updates with corporate communications; and help prepare updates for the board. I've spent many hours working with my peers, finalizing just the right message for senior leadership. You know the drill: one person typing and two or three others wordsmithing as you go. Typing with spectators is one of the most challenging activities for me, but every word matters when providing context. Learning the appropriate context comes from repeated practice.

I highly recommend that your future crisis leaders participate during your current crisis response. At the beginning of this section, I noted the importance of building your leadership bench. One of the best examples I can share occurred in 2007. While leading a crisis response, I experienced a medical emergency requiring hospitalization. One of my peers immediately stepped in, and the response to the crisis continued without a hitch. Having a deep crisis leadership bench enables you to respond to a crisis within a crisis (as in my case) or manage longer term events.

Organize your team

I've worked with many organizations that have dedicated business continuity teams, and many of these companies have employees that specialize in crisis management. As is often the case, models vary by the size of the organization.

Regardless of the company's size, a crisis management team should pull members from within the entire organization. Beyond customer-facing business unit representation, your crisis response should include core membership, such as human resources, IT, legal, internal and external communications, audit, security, and facilities. In addition, have a dedicated scribe during each crisis meeting.

Communication responsibilities are an equal priority for members of your crisis management team. Each member should have the expectation of providing two-way communication, sharing the impact to their respective business units and the current state of the unit with the team.

When first responding to an event, I highly recommend that you include the entire crisis management team. Experience has taught me that large organizations are complex, and it is very difficult to know each of the potential impacts of an event. By including your entire crisis management team in the initial communication, you can be confident that you haven't overlooked a potential disruption. Crisis team members can opt out if the particular event does not affect their area of responsibility.

Set a cadence

The frequency of communications largely depends on the event and the maturity of the crisis response. At the beginning of an event, communication often dictates an assembly of the crisis management team on an hourly basis. This hourly format enables the team to quickly work through a predefined agenda and return to their respective teams to provide and receive updates. Through this format, the crisis leader can provide regular updates to key stakeholders, and those directly responding to the event can make progress.

I recommend a crisis meeting agenda that is highly structured with:

  • An opening from the crisis leader that provides the current status.

  • A roll call where each crisis team member provides their status (inclusive of service metrics) for their respective area.

Problem solving should be done outside of the crisis meeting. It is the responsibility of each of the participants to stay focused on the task at hand, which simply, is communicating.

As the response to the event matures and the workarounds (business continuity plans) are in place, the cadence of the meetings typically diminishes to match the progress of the resolution.

Communicate to the masses

Earlier, I spoke about the importance of context and the hours I've spent with peers collaborating on just the right wording or phrase to convey appropriate updates to key stakeholders. This same attention to detail is even more important when communicating to your customers, employees, and key vendors.

Before any mass communication regarding the crisis event is released, your crisis management team should take these steps:

  • Designate a person or team to act as a single point of reference for all communications.

  • Train your employees to direct any queries to the designated contact person or team. External media outlets may become aware of your event, and you will want your employees to direct the questions to the authoritative source.

  • Develop a communication plan for your website, call center, and relationship management team. This will keep your customers intimately aware of how to conduct business should the crisis impact your ability to provide services.

  • Build a script, quick reference material, and a list of frequently asked questions. With these resources, you can provide a consistent message and reassure your customers that you have a thorough plan to manage the disruption.

  • Take time to meet with your legal team, as many industries have requirements regarding communications when services are disrupted.

For key relationships and clients, establish proactive communications at a regular cadence. Of course, this proactive communication mandates that you have continually updated and reconciled the contact information for these key relationships.

Innovate

I believe there are opportunities with every crisis. The perfect time to review your plan and brainstorm on it may be at the start and end of your crisis. A crisis, like the current pandemic, may create new opportunities for you to help your customers during the event. At the conclusion of the event, you may find there are opportunities to improve future event responses.

Expect ideas from your crisis management team, but also look to your entire organization for new or better solutions. For instance, no one understands the impacts or sentiments of your customers better than the frontline relationship managers and your call center employees.

At a minimum, take time to create a feedback loop, and if time permits, exercise a hack-a-thon or move forward with an ideation process to discover new innovations that improve your client relationships and business model.

Communication keeps the organization going

I didn't get into the technology field because I absolutely loved public speaking, and I have found this particular skill is one of the most important competencies when challenges arise. It does not matter if it is the response to a crisis event or the need for cultural change; you can build credibility by delivering clear communications with transparency and context.

Having a well-defined crisis management framework enables you to focus on problem resolution while building your relationships. I would also share that practicing the process enables you to respond consistently, because you never know when the phone will ring. It could be during breakfast or dinner or while you're mowing the lawn or sleeping—you just don't know. I've enjoyed many breakfasts with a cross-functional team after working through the night.

As we approach the end of 2020, take a moment to look back at the crisis events that impacted your organizations. Are there opportunities to improve your crisis response, or are there possibly innovation ideas to be harvested?

I spend most of my time helping companies build their transformation strategy, and I have come to know many outstanding experts at HPE Pointnext Services. If you're looking at how to improve your crisis response, how to transition into new approaches for delivering solutions, or how to discover new innovative ideas, HPE Pointnext Services has the expertise to provide a new perspective and build an actionable strategy.

Crisis management: Lessons for leaders

  • A well-practiced crisis management plan will engender confidence before and during a crisis.

  • The crisis management team must be selected from across the company and kept in the loop.

  • By building and practicing a crisis management plan, you learn a lot about your company―and that it's best to learn before a crisis.

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From now to the future: A nine-step plan

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.