Twenty plus years in the middle of incidents, from minor steps in poop to some of the largest security incidents and breaches, has taught me one thing: speed is (almost) everything in a crisis. Move too fast, without key information, and you can make things worse. Wait too long to respond, and more damage can be done.
Like a speeding car, in a crisis you can pound the gas, swerve and be safe. Or, depending on the conditions, you can pound the gas, spin out and wreck everything. The art of navigating a crisis is just like learning to drive. It's understanding when to brake and when to gas—doing both simultaneously results in disaster.
I have seen—and may have, um, written—encyclopedic crisis plans that look like government compliance manuals. Big binders that are outdated as soon as they are completed and that no human being can possible follow under duress. And I’ve been dropped into blank slate, where nothing exists, and as you all know, there’s little time for scratch baking when it’s all coming down.
Balancing “covering the bases” with flexibility is the hardest part of crisis planning and response. You can’t Magic-8-Ball every crisis scenario, but you need to sketch out enough thinking, head start materials, and guidance on what to do to move as fast as possible.
So, How Does This Actually Work?
We now deploy crisis planning as a “Fast Framework.” It’s a lightweight framework that gives you the critical information for crisis response. It covers a few critical scenarios vital in your industry and is enough to rapidly speed up your response, ensure you follow critical regulatory, ethical, legal and corporate requirements, and remind you what’s important when the noise and pressure become unbearable.
Here’s a look at some of the critical components of the fast framework.
Mission and Values. When it’s dark, your mission and values are the light. If you are wandering away from them, it better be because those have changed for the better, not merely applied situationally. These are page one of your crisis plan, and as important as legal parameters and contact lists.
Swat Team (Great Drivers and Fast Pit Crew). You need a small team of front line folks that have critical access, won’t engage in politics, and have the authority to act. This is a little different for every company, but no more than five to seven people. They are supported by a small pit crew—these are pros that have been to many races and can work fast. Again, small group (maybe 3-4 outside counselors from legal and communications). That’s it.
Checklists. When a crisis hits, you are going to whiteboard as a group exactly what needs to happen today, and repeat that process until the smoke clears. Checklists will be your best friend—they give simple reminders on what to do in the initial stages and the swat team can easily adapt them. (Tip: I literally make these a physical checklist where you cross them off. Better yet, turn them into electronic checklists, or maybe an airplane-emergency-card-like graphic.)
Parallel Processing. When a crisis hits, there are two workflows happening: looking backwards in time (what happened) and moving forward (what to do next). Far too often waiting for details on what happened cripples the response.
Both processes need to move simultaneously and checklists should drive a process that accelerates information gathering and approvals. This doesn’t mean reckless statements or responses, but you can be planning and moving on so much even without all the details. It’s the only possible way to (maybe) get ahead early on. It’s easy to adapt materials as elements change and opinions come in. And, by the way, you never learn everything up front. So stop dreaming that will happen.
Time on the Track. I used to always say that building a large, detailed crisis plan was a Murphy’s Law antidote—or at least greatly reduced the chances of sh$#2t happening. But here’s the thing. Pretend it happened. Test drive. Once a year, it’s good to invent a crisis and turn your team and advisors loose on it. A crisis hits a peer in your industry? Apply your plan as it unfolds. Would it have stood up? Take just 2-3 hours once a year around the table and apply it.
Technology. The instinct in a crisis is lockdown, and processes slow to a crawl as folks trade emails and paper. You know what makes you work faster? Technology. If it’s already in place. You need a framework for a web response page. Very good tracking systems in place that can be adapted in an hour to track. And approved and secured cloud/sharing technologies for real-time editing, etc. Set these up BEFORE and test them during an annual simulation. Build your crisis plan in them to ensure you are fluent. If you’re not fluent, they will just slow you down.
Statement Starts, Samples and Resources. For many years, I had pages and pages of scenarios for crisis planning, with different checklists, adaptations and canned statements. You need to simplify this dramatically. There just isn’t time and statements always have to tweaked and re-approved, and most of it ends up being outdated and worthless. (If you have serious pros working with you, they already have or can easily crank out key items quickly. You do have some ninjas, right? If not, call me.)
Instead think of this as a toolbox used to create the finish product. Yes, a few critical statements in key category, etc. But it should be the simple visual instructions (checklists) and components that let you easily Lego build (to an extent) your response.
You are already watching your industry and peers for trouble, right? (If you’re not, dope slap yourself and call me for an intervention.) Assign someone at your agency or internal team to create a simple Evernote/Box/Dropbox to store statements issued by other companies a page of links/resources to quickly review.
(Now, I know what you’re thinking, saving crisis stuff there is against policy. I’m not saying save corporate materials there. Just get in the habit of tagging and saving samples from other companies that are publicly available. A quick scan of these in the heat of battle can alert you to something you’ve missed or that may be coming. Just remember, engage in inspiration and eduction, not plagiarism.)
And finally, as you realized, this is all more complicated in real life. Every situation is a little different and fast relative depending on industries and events. But the message is to simplify what you can, and the only way to do that is with clear values, a good tool box, and an experienced (and practiced) team.