Train hard and fight easy

A well-structured crisis plan plus realistic rehearsal will help you fight the 'fires at your feet'.

The past few years have highlighted how vulnerable organisations are to crisis.

Recently, Steelhenge carried out its own analysis of the lessons identified. Certain key areas came up again and again, meriting consideration as you prepare for what many say is now the inevitable, in our high risk, highly interdependent world.

Teams responding to a crisis need support and a good set of crisis procedures is a great start. It gives those critical checklists needed to help staff working under immense pressure.

One key area that teams consistently struggle to manage is the 'strategic' element of the crisis response.

The temptation is to dive into the detail, get operational and derive comfort from dealing in the familiar. There will be 'fires at your feet' and they will need fighting, but at the same time the executive team has a crucial role to play in watching the horizon, looking ahead while those around them plan and deliver on their decisions.

This is where conceptual thinking models work well; simply derived approaches designed to capture the core elements of the thinking that a strategic crisis team should be doing.

Few senior executives know well, or in some cases have even read, their organisation's crisis plans. What they need is a simple, well-structured key activity process to keep them on track.

Even the most well prepared organisation can be overwhelmed by the complexity of managing the information that pours in during a crisis.

An army battle HQ's aim is to get inside the response loop or decision cycle of the enemy. Likewise for a company in crisis. The aim is to gain control of the situation by getting ahead in the decision/action cycle.

Understanding the situation is critical - building up good 'situational awareness' - and information is the key. Quality information supports good communication.

Too often the message may not reflect reality, demonstrating a disconnection of the crisis managers and communicators.

Co-ordination of the comms and management teams is central to success here, and driven by good, well prepared plans on both sides that support and drive the integration of the facts with the messages, making them relevant and timely.

A crisis centre is often a noisy, tense and scratchy location where no-one is actually listening to anyone else, let alone listening to the noise beyond, from the staff, the public and the media at large.

Listening is one of the greatest skills a crisis leader can have: hearing what is being said; what is behind the words; picking up on nuance and trend; hearing the silence or the cacophony, or hearing it growing. Too often crisis teams fail to really listen to what is around them and miss the mood, the swing of views or simply the scale of noise.

Imagine an untrained Premier League team - survival would be very brief and sympathy scant. Staying at the top of your game needs practice and the same applies in crisis management.

The crisis environment is uncertain, complex, pressured and risky. Why would any team not want to rehearse doing something they have perhaps never done, particularly when the stakes could be their very survival?

Rehearsals need to be credible and as realistic as possible, simulating the complexity of the crisis arena through speed, pressure, uncertainty and decisions that could affect survival. As the mantra goes, 'train hard, fight easy', so rehearse and rehearse again.

Dominic Cockram is managing director at Steelhenge Consulting.


Corporate activists have occupied the reception of one of your biggest clients. Who do you call first?

You should follow the key contact point procedures in your crisis plan. This ensures that a co-ordinated call chain is enacted and no-one is left out of the loop of the activation process.

What is the best way to keep employees informed during a crisis?

Regular internal updates via secure internal channels are key to keeping staff both informed and on side in a crisis. Explaining what is known, what is being done and by whom allows them to feel that the situation is being addressed.

From PRWeek's Crisis supplement, June 2012

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