OP-ED: Corporations must get serious about crisis planning

Why hasn't the rat-a-tat of crises over the past two years caused a mad scramble to dust off crisis plans, refine and test them, and finally get serious about crisis planning? September 11, anthrax, corporate scandals, the NYSE scandal, and a hundred other crises have not resulted in a great national "wake-up call." In the corporate world, there's been a repeated tapping of the snooze button.

Why hasn't the rat-a-tat of crises over the past two years caused a mad scramble to dust off crisis plans, refine and test them, and finally get serious about crisis planning? September 11, anthrax, corporate scandals, the NYSE scandal, and a hundred other crises have not resulted in a great national "wake-up call." In the corporate world, there's been a repeated tapping of the snooze button.

Ian Mitroff and Murat Alpasian of USC wrote in the Harvard Business Review in April that their 20 years of research reveals that between 75% and 95% of companies are not prepared to handle an unfamiliar crisis. Companies experiencing a catastrophic incident with no emergency-management plan are not just taking risks with their investors' money, their employees' livelihoods, and their reputations. They are also less likely to survive intact. Brit Weber and Rad Jones of Michigan State University recently told the Corporate Security Roundtable that of such unprepared companies, 43% will never reopen; 51% will fail within two years; and only 6% will survive. Certainly a lot of managers are spooked at the prospect of dealing with the unthinkable, or of asking questions about preparedness they don't necessarily want answered. Many just don't know where to start. In many ways, our profession hasn't provided the kind of practical guidance that helps break down internal barriers that stand in the way of crisis planning. So much PR literature tends to simplify crisis management into right and wrong (Tylenol good, Exxon Valdez bad; Challenger bad, Columbia good) without doing much to help our clients understand how decisions are made and communicated in a crisis. We have also tended to rely heavily on the expertise gained not from the hard work of analyzing and learning from decisions before or during crises, but from the easy expertise that comes from third-party retrospective analysis. What we understood as "crises" in the '80s tended to center on product and incident-related situations, to the discovery of more "smoldering" crises in the '90s, to the emergence of those crises at the turn of this century that were driven by truly evil behavior. For communicators, gaining acceptance of effective crisis planning and testing is a matter of serving up bite-size pieces - not treatises, formulas, products, or promises. No organization can be crisis-proofed overnight, or with the right software, or the latest product alone. The bite-size-pieces approach recognizes certain realities: There is no standard job description for "crisis manager." Whether communications professional, attorney, or product manager, the crisis manager is often a lone wolf who takes risks and sometimes meets much opposition. Expectations. What does the endpoint of successful "crisis management" look like for your organization? Forget what others have done for a moment. Get consensus on this question, and you'll go a long way toward getting interest and possibly buy-in on a plan to get there. Start with the basics. In some dark corner of most companies you'll find all sorts of disaster, contingency, recall, and emergency plans. Rarely are they unified under the umbrella of a larger crisis plan. There is almost always good information housed in these plans, no matter how old. You can begin the process of today's comprehensive crisis planning by building on existing plans, updating them, and seeking to relate them to one another as part of a single, multipart, corporate crisis plan. Media policy/training. Certainly we get our clients' attention by proposing to prepare them for the unfortunate - and unlikely - appearance of Mike Wallace in the lobby. Media-driven crises are the wild cards that roll out the welcome mat for communicators. But the bread and butter of crisis preparation in the media relations realm comprises basic tasks of shoring up media policies and ensuring that they work when things are in disarray. The crisis power centers are not the same in all companies. Whether it's called "crisis planning" or not, smart companies engage in contingency planning in some form. Your job, perhaps as the lone wolf, is to become schooled in those activities that are already in progress that fill in portions of the overall puzzle. The task for communicators is to take the snooze button out of management's reach and guide colleagues through the meaningful first steps toward planning, training, and testing. Discussion of practical steps, even the nitty-gritty ones, must be front and center in our publications, at our conferences, and in our team meetings. If you want evidence that corporate America is failing to take adequate steps to plan for risk, controversy, and crisis, you'll find it. Likewise, if you want pixie-dust solutions for getting companies into crisis-planning mode, there are plenty of suppliers. But the task at hand is not so glamorous or so easy. It's all about getting organizations into those first baby steps, and building momentum all the way to the point of true crisis preparedness.
  • Larry Kamer is US director of issues and crisis management at MS&L.

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