Follow these 8 steps to prepare for a crisis

Your response to a disaster starts long before the first flare-up. It must begin with a change in mindset among everyone in your organization. Preserving your reputation is vital. Here’s how.


Crisis preparedness is important, but is it essential?

Preparing for an event that may occur is easy to put aside when teams are busy with what’s relevant now. Unfortunately, the experience of managing a real-life crisis prompts many organizations to finally begin preparing for the next potential disaster.

Developing the gold standard for crisis readiness is more than a robust plan or even sporadic trainings and simulations. It begins with a mindset change—companywide—toward realizing that reputation is a crucial asset and a key consideration in every decision. How, though do you shift mindsets and take the essential steps needed for effective crisis management?

Dr. John Kotter developed a helpful roadmap. In his 1995 book “Leading Change,” Kotter introduced his eight-step methodology for organizational change. It’s an ideal framework for making a cultural shift to become more resilient.

Below are the eight steps for positive change, paired with guidance on how to apply each toward your reputation-management and crisis preparedness efforts:

1. Establish a sense of urgency.
Many change initiatives fail because the organization lacks interest or actively resists the change process. Establishing an urgent need for change is less about developing a highly analytical business case and more about using compelling and dramatic evidence that opens employees’ eyes to see problems and solutions.

Organizations can start by sharing alarming statistics such as low customer satisfaction rates, brutal customer service testimonials and lagging safety performance. Seeing new, tangible evidence will be more likely to resonate with employees on an emotional level. In addition, facilitating an open dialogue about proposed changes can get employees engaged early in the discussion and build a stronger sense of urgency.

2. Form a guiding coalition.
Next, develop the right team to lead the crisis preparedness change-making process. For reputation management, that’s probably most of the corporate communications team. However, it may be necessary to form a broader reputation management team (RMT) that includes emergency responders, operations, other subject matter experts and key leaders. The RMT will be responsible for ensuring crisis preparedness through careful planning and training, and then leading response efforts when a crisis does arise—whether it’s an emergency hazard or a corporate reputation threat. It must have the expertise, skills and authority to spearhead both preparedness and response.

3. Create a vision.
A long-term vision will serve as an ongoing reminder of why crisis preparedness is important. When employees understand the mission and purpose, the directives they’re given will make more sense.

The vision should integrate with the organization’s overarching mission, vision and values, and with each employee’s contribution to realizing that future.

4. Communicate the vision.
Start with a clarion call from senior leaders that includes the need for change; then reinforce the message with compelling evidence and a clear vision for the organization.

Leaders should communicate clear action steps, along with their expectations for the role each employee will play in taking those steps. For example, the organization migth decide to add a new goal or metric to each employee’s annual performance review criteria. Employees may also be asked to participate in training and simulations to test their crisis response efforts against organization-wide practices and protocols.

Empower managers to communicate this vision to their own teams as often as possible to reinforce the importance of making reputation a part of the consideration set in every decision. Managers should look for opportunities to tie any communications, requests or activities back to this broader vision.

5. Empower others to act on the vision.
Remove barriers or obstacles that hinder significant change. Establish structures, policies and protocols to respond quickly and effectively to a threat or crisis.

The RMT, along with a third-party crisis management expert, should invest time and resources in assessing whether the organization has the appropriate resources, chains of command, alerts and notifications protocols and monitoring systems to manage a threat or crisis. Look for any gaps that must be addressed with additional resources, a more robust structure or clearer guidance that will enable all employees to act swiftly when a problem or crisis emerges.

6. Plan for and create short-term wins.
Engage employees through continual assessment and postmortems of real-life scenarios. Also, recognize short-term successes. Encourage employees to share examples of how they used updated systems to respond to a problem. Not only will sharing build excitement and confidence, but it will also provide opportunities to evaluate crisis response structures and uncover areas that need improvement.

In addition, managers should identify immediate activities for their teams to pursue. For example, departments could facilitate a brainstorm session about obstacles that work against the goal of becoming more prepared for threats. Some teams might be asked to participate in a crisis workshop or crisis-specific media training to build on their capabilities. This level of early engagement is crucial in developing confidence in the change effort.

7. Consolidate improvements.
True cultural change doesn’t happen overnight. It must be embedded deeply in every employee so it is passed on to new employees and subsequent generations. Achieving this level of adoption will require continuous commitment and reinforcement. Continue with waves of changes until the vision becomes a reality. As markets, industries and organizations evolve, so too must their efforts to stay prepared for a crisis and protect the organization’s reputation.

Organizations successfully do this in many ways, including:

  • Monthly or quarterly RMT meetings to brainstorm and develop scenario plans for specific threats.
  • Continuing education through industry groups to stay up to date on best practices for managing risks, trends, etc.
  • Crisis and media training with communicators to ensure communication protocols are aligned.
  • Crisis simulations to identify any gaps in processes and practices for responding to crises.
  • Crisis postmortems to evaluate response efforts and identify areas for improvement.
  • Annual or biannual review of the crisis reputation management playbook to ensure it remains current as the organization evolves.

8. Institutionalize new approaches.
A part of making sure a culture gets passed on to new employees is institutionalizing changes throughout the organization, so they are part of the organization’s foundational mission, values and day-to-day work. Leaders must continue to support the change, even when new leaders join the organization. All employees must feel a shared accountability for making sure that the change efforts are passed on and built upon.

Organizations can do this in these ways:

  • Talk about progress every chance you get. This includes sharing and repeating success stories or crises that were prevented because response protocols were activated.
  • In the longer term, look for ways (safety metrics, negative news articles, etc.) to quantify the progress the organization has made to anticipate, mitigate or respond to a threat or crisis.
  • Include change values when hiring and training new staff.
  • Ensure that leaders regularly and publicly recognize and acknowledge the importance of the RMT and the work it is doing.
  • Reinforce the new culture through ongoing training and assessments.

Each step is important, but it’s essential to act quickly. Most organizations do not have the luxury of time to carry out the steps sequentially. Focus on each throughout the change process.

Creating real and sustained change does take time. However, with careful planning, a strong foundation and an organization-wide commitment, implementing a culture of crisis resiliency can be much easier and more successful in the long run.

Katherine Mackey is a crisis specialist with Ketchum South. A version of this post first appeared on the Ketchum Blog.

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