“When a sentence is made stronger, it usually becomes shorter,” William Strunk Jr. wrote in his diminutive masterwork on brevity, The Elements of Style.
That’s also true for crisis plans. The longer a crisis plan gets for the sake of “covering all the bases,” the less effective it becomes.
I’ve read a lot of crisis plans over the years. If I had to estimate, I’d say I’ve read several thousand of them, not counting the hundreds I’ve worked with companies to develop or improve. Whether that makes me an expert on the subject or not, I’ll leave for others to decide. I like to think of myself as an opinionated enthusiast.
I’ve seen plans that filled five giant ring binders, and ones that fit in a wallet with room to spare. The five-binder behemoth belonged to a large supermarket chain. The guy responsible for crisis management wheeled it around in a suitcase wherever he went. It covered all the bases alright, but it was pretty much useless in any situation where speed was of the essence. A crisis, for instance.
Plans like that aren’t usually much help in a crisis because they tend to sit on the shelf. If they see any use at all, it’s generally after a crisis subsides so someone can walk into the boss’s office, point to page 275, and say, “See? We thought of it.”
The best plans I’ve encountered, on the other hand, were so concise that everyone on the crisis team knew them by heart. They had no need to explain how to manage a crisis, because the team trained together on a regular basis to do so. If a company’s first-responders require a detailed instruction manual to guide their every move in the first hours of a crisis, they’re already falling behind at the very moment when they need to be gaining ground on the situation.
By far the most important thing these elegantly lean guides had going for them, however, was that they didn’t collect any dust. They were used regularly to manage real-life and simulated crises of every description. Which is the whole point of having a plan in the first place—the using, not just the having.
Here are five of the most common sources of counterproductive bloat to excise or relocate to streamline crisis decision-making:
Detailed scenario plans
An actual crisis rarely mirrors the precise set of circumstances concocted by the people who planned for it. Laying out detailed scenario plans dictating how the organization will respond to every possible turn of events is an exercise in futility and can lead to suboptimal decisions. A better approach is to create a series of decision frameworks to guide the crisis team through triaging the full array of situations they are likely to encounter, setting the correct level of response, establishing a preliminary game plan and taking initial action to communicate and gain control.
Plans focused on immediate, short-term actions tend to be overly prescriptive and limit thinking. A properly crafted decision framework focuses thinking by keeping the organization’s values, priorities and objectives in clear view, while still leaving the crisis team the autonomy and flexibility to do what they have been trained to do.
Anything that can be stored and accessed more easily in the cloud
The fully stocked arsenal of pre-approved messages, media statements and other materials that many consider to be the guts of a proper crisis plan is more essential than ever today. But forcing anxious executives to thumb through tab after tab of Mad Libs-style press release templates and pre-written FAQs while customers are threatening cancellation and media are taking up positions outside world headquarters only compounds their stress and frustration.
A secure, purpose-built, online crisis portal gives members of the crisis team instant access to the information and tools they need to perform their individual roles from anywhere in the world. Organizing response and escalation protocols, stakeholder materials, contact lists and other critical resources online enhances coordination, collaboration and data security while also reducing the risk of miscommunication by ensuring that everyone on the team is always working with the most up-to-date documents and information as messages and materials evolve.
Lectures on crisis theory
Nobody has time in the middle of a crisis to read lengthy disquisitions about the value of reputation, the demise of the 24-hour news cycle or why stonewalling reporters and ignoring social media are bad ideas. Anyone tasked with responding to a crisis who might actually benefit from such a primer has no time left to study. These and similar topics make excellent fodder for discussion during crisis training exercises, management retreats and similar kinds of events, which is where they belong.
To date, scholars have uncovered no evidence that Mark Twain ever posited that a lie is around the world before the truth gets its boots on or opined about the foolishness of arguing with someone who buys ink by the barrel. The old J.F.K. gem about the word for “crisis” in Chinese being spelled with two characters that represent “danger” and “opportunity” has also been thoroughly debunked. This is a shame, because the idea that inside every crisis is an opportunity to show what an organization is made of is otherwise spot-on.
Self-congratulatory lists of corporate awards, accomplishments and accolades and details of the organization’s philanthropic largesse and commitments to social justice, diversity and inclusion, climate change or similar issues have their time and place. Presenting such information in the middle of a crisis in hopes of deflecting attention and winning public favor is rarely helpful, and could very well lead to even greater damage. Use such mitigating evidence judiciously, if at all, in communication, but keep it safely tucked away for the future, where it can be put to more productive use in litigation.
In keeping with our theme, I apologize for writing such a long post. If I had more time, I would have written a shorter one. Mark Twain didn’t say that, either.
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