We must, of course, reflect on crisis operations when we operate under normal conditions. This helps us to set up and train the appropriate processes, tools and scenarios serenely. After all, “preparation is everything” – or almost everything. With about two decades of experience in crisis communication (including some failures), I would specify: Besides being prepared, we need the capability to perform, or in other words: we need to be ready.
What is this “crisis readiness”? In addition to the plans, it is this little extra in terms of awareness that is needed to manage a crisis in the best possible way. I share some observations here.
Process – discipline and improvisation
If you find yourself in a crisis, stick to your predefined processes, work instructions, checklists etc. Keeping them at hand – even if you think you know them by heart – will prevent you from committing unnecessary mistakes under the prevailing pressure. It is also a bad idea to start improving them now. You are in an extraordinary situation. Perfection is secondary and you don’t want to lose focus. This requires a lot of discipline and confidence in your preparatory work. But you can only be sure that your process needs to be adapted if you applied it before.
However, a crisis is never routine and brings its shares of surprises. If for any reason applying rigorously your process gets you into difficulties, you must instantly switch from process accuracy to improvisation. This seems paradoxical. But it is not. This is resilience. Your focus and discipline remain exactly the same; only the geometry changes. The human being, who is able to correct systemic flaws, moves centre stage. You are a professional and your best skills are paramount now.
Equipment – just use it
Similar principles obviously also apply to the use of equipment. Avoid changing or testing work tools and infrastructure when all your attention is needed to handle the crisis. You do not want to generate additional complications. Ideally, you should use the same instruments and facilities as in day-to-day business. If your risk assessment requires specific crisis or fall-back solutions, you should work with this equipment on a regular basis and not only when the crisis has hit you.
Content – rarely a surprise
Not every crisis occurs abruptly. Quite often, there are warning signs that give you the time to organise yourself. And even if a crisis should occur unexpectedly, the topic itself is rarely a surprise. Recognising potential problems as early and clearly as possible is a question of methodical risk and issue management.
For you as a communicator, this makes it possible to predefine the suitable reaction to specific scenarios, to prepare standard text modules as well as some questions and answers. This content then becomes part of your crisis management documentation.
Attitude – the mental part of training
The mantra of most crisis management specialists is: Training, training, training. And they are right. An organisation should regularly run crisis exercises practicing different scenarios in different settings. Each exercise is followed by a critical analysis to continuously improve process, equipment, content, and … personal attitude. You may call this “mental training”.
Part of this training is to acknowledge that an exercise is not reality. Crisis mode is an extraordinary mode. People can react differently than under ordinary circumstances, with behaviours ranging from hyperactivity to paralysis. But you, you have to get out there and perform.
There are several ways to achieve this aptitude. One efficient method is to reduce the threshold for declaring a crisis. Try to consider even supposedly unproblematic situations as potential crises. This gives you and your organisation more opportunities to learn in a realistic way and feel as much at ease with your plans as possible.
Managing a crisis and crisis communication is never routine. But you want to know that you and your organisation are not only prepared, but also ready to deal with a potential crisis.