Why your business needs a crisis management plan

10 May 2019


When an organisation finds itself facing a crisis, the way it responds can have a huge bearing on its reputation. As we’ve seen time and time again, the way senior management responds (or fails to respond) in crisis management situations can often be more damaging than the original causes of the crisis.

While no two crises are the same, there is one factor that remains pretty consistent. Time is of the essence. In the modern world of social media-driven communications, audiences can become aware of potentially sensitive issues at the click of a mouse and managers find themselves under the spotlight before the facts of a crisis are even clear.

It is in this knowledge that more and more organisations are investing time in developing formal crisis management plans; but what is the purpose of a crisis management plan and how should an organisation go about creating one?

What is the purpose of a crisis management plan?

One of the key elements in a crisis management plan is defining what constitutes a crisis. For some organisations, it is any situation that has the potential to impact negatively on their relationship with their audiences and result in an erosion of trust. A plan will often attribute a level of significance to a range of hypothetical situations and define criteria that determine when a difficult issue – such as poor financial results or an interruption in service – escalates into a crisis management scenario.

An effective crisis management plan will set out an organisation’s approach to the way it wants its employees to behave and communicate during a crisis. It will set out roles and responsibilities for everyone in the organisation, from front-line staff to senior management, and provide guidance on how decisions on both practical, and communications, responses should be reached and executed.

Crisis plans typically include a hierarchy of people who can speak to the media, as well as details of who will monitor and respond via the organisation’s social media feeds and when external support should be called in.

Given the importance of a swift and decisive response during a crisis situation, plans will often include target response times for different crisis management scenarios, along with guidance on the ‘owned’ channels that can be used to communicate during a crisis – from an internal noticeboard or intranet to a company website or YouTube channel.

A critical tool in the crisis management armoury is practice. A plan that sits on a shelf gathering dust isn’t worth the paper it’s written on – it needs to be constantly reviewed and rehearsed with staff, both old and new, on a regular basis. Spokespeople need a chance to practice too, ideally in mock interviews with lights, cameras, probing interviewers and a chance to review their performance in constructive playback sessions to hone their skills.

There are plenty of recent examples of crisis management failures – from Ryanair’s lacklustre response to an abusive passenger, caught on camera and shared more than 7million times, to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s infamous ‘no-show’ following the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Successes are less apparent, largely because the organisations in question haven’t been splashed over the pages of newspapers or ‘called out’ on social media.

The old adage “Failing to plan is planning to fail” is often attributed to former US president and Founding Father Benjamin Franklin but never has it been more appropriate than to modern-day crisis management. It is not always possible to put a price on an organisation’s reputation, but researchers can now point to the ‘commodity’ of social media followers and even scandal-induced collapses in share price as evidence of the importance of effective crisis management planning.

A crisis can strike an organisation at any time, with potentially disastrous consequences. Having a crisis management plan in place doesn’t mean you’ll come out smelling of roses, but it will give you a fighting chance of emerging with your reputation intact.

Freshwater has helped organisations large and small to communicate through crisis. Find out more about our crisis management expertise and how we can help you.