Let start discussion of crisis management by sharing an old joke: The outgoing CEO was getting ready to leave and as he did so, he left three envelopes on the desk in the executive office for the new person.
The first envelope said: “To be opened at the first crisis.”
The second envelope was to be opened at the second crisis, and so forth.
The first crisis occurs and the new CEO opens the envelope. Inside was a card that said: “Blame the previous administration.”
At the second crisis, she opened the second envelope. The card said: “Fire someone.”
Inevitably, the third crisis comes along and the CEO opens the third envelope. The card said: “Get three envelopes ready.”
Crises Will Occur
Despite our best efforts, crises will occur. Some may be small and manageable and call for a minimum amount of attention. Others may be more serious and threatening to the organization, its management, or employees or the population served by that organization. No matter what the range and scope of the crisis, the most important issue is how that crisis is managed. How do you do that? In short, have a plan.
Before getting into the discussion of a crisis plan, it might be helpful to understand just what constitutes a crisis. The simple definition of a crisis is an upset in a steady state. A crisis can be triggered by a single traumatic event or series of events. Some crises occur as a result of some internal issue. Others are imposed upon the organization by outside influences, such as funding cuts, changes in regulations, new legislation, etc.
Even if the event appears to be troubling, however, by definition, a crisis does not actually occur until it is perceived by those involved to be such. One person’s crisis is another person’s speed bump.
The typical reaction to a crisis is to call upon past reliable approaches to manage the problem and find a solution. If those prove to be effective, fine — move on and get back to work. When those old reliable approaches don’t work, it may be time to go into crisis mode and implement your plan.
The Crisis Plan
A crisis plan has several components. My suggestions here are just that and are meant as guidelines. The specifics of your plan must be applicable to your organization and, even more so, adaptable to the nature of the crisis. Keeping that in mind, here are some suggestions for a crisis management plan:
Designate a Point Person
In many cases, this is the CEO, but that role could be delegated to someone within the organization. Either way, it is important that someone be “in charge.”
Organize a Crisis Management Team
The members of the team will depend on the nature of the crisis and could range from management staff, direct service staff, members of the board of directors, and even consumers and community stakeholders. The team should be led by the organization’s point person.
Decide who needs to be informed of the situation and do so as soon as possible. The last thing you want is for your board chair to hear about the problem from a third party or read about it in the local newspaper.
Enlist the help of your board chair and officers to navigate the full board through the crisis.
Assign a Spokesperson
Crisis management includes controlling the message both internally and externally and having someone designated to present clear and consistent information to all parties is crucial.
Have Regular Updates
It doesn’t take long for anxiety levels to go through the roof and for rumors to start floating through the office and the community. Keeping staff informed will help to maintain a sense that things are under control. If appropriate, the community, usually through local media, should also be appraised of the situation with regular progress reports.
Business as Usual
Except for any specific department or program that might be directly involved in the situation, try to keep everything running as business as usual. The less disruption that the crisis might create, the more manageable it will be.
A quick fix will at least stop the bleeding. Assess what has to be addressed right now and what can be done in the short term to alleviate the immediate stress. Long term solutions will come over time and may actually become more evident as a result of addressing the short term needs.
Figure out What Happened
Once the crisis is resolved have open discussions about what happened; how it was dealt with; what worked and what didn’t work. Accordingly, Make any changes or revisions to your crisis plan.
Figure out What Should Be Done
Most importantly hold discussions on what can or should be done, changed, improved upon, etc. to avoid any future crises.
Above All, Be Well Prepared
It would be naive to think that your organization will never experience a crisis of some sort, but hopefully these suggestions will help you get through it with minimum of damage. The best way to successfully manage a crisis is to be well prepared.