It’s 11.30pm, you are just drifting off after another long day at the office – and then the phone rings. It’s your chief executive – your building is up in flames, or flooded, or your servers have been hacked or… you know what to do right? You are the trusted source of advice for the board, you are the one who always has the right answer aren’t you?
There is no dark art to good crisis management
Crisis management (or business continuity, or emergency planning) is often seen as a complex and specialist skill, and as such is often put in the ‘too difficult’ box by many organisations. This could not be further from the truth. Good crisis management is about leadership, defensible decision making, problem solving and good communications – qualities that every successful organisation will use on a day-to-day basis. And yet, so many organisations leave themselves open to the risk of significant disruption, substantial financial losses and potentially failure by not creating the environment where crises and other disruptions can be dealt with like any other risk to business success.
You might ask what this has got to do with you. The answer is simple. Trust. You are seen as a trusted source of advice, providing the checks and balances to keep the business on the right path, foreseeing and tackling the challenges that every organisation faces. So you are perfectly placed to champion the need to build the confidence and competence required to tackle emergency situations alongside any other risk to success.
Understand the risks that could disrupt your organisation
It can seem quite daunting to try and quantify the sorts of risks that could disrupt your organisation. Cyber attacks, terrorism, reputational risks, disease outbreaks, severe weather, flooding could all potentially impact your business. So where do you start? The best approach is to worry less about the cause of a crisis, and think instead of the potential consequences – supply chain problems, key staff absences, data loss, negative media coverage, damage to assets, cashflow issues etc, feel more familiar and manageable in terms of issues. There is a wealth of freely available information to help you quantify these risks for your business – for example, the UK government publishes a National Risk Register which explores the impacts of potential emergencies that could occur.
The most important thing is to identify what these disruptions would mean for your organisation in practice – the ‘so what?’ question. For example, if your main office building lost power for a week – would this mean that you would be unable to operate at all for that period (with the knock-on impact on profits or delivery) or would it simply mean that your staff would all have to work at home? Answering the ‘so what?’ question helps to identify practical measures to build resilience to disruptions – keeping the lights on, staff safe, and customers happy.
Build capability to foresee and tackle emergencies when they occur
Armed with the knowledge of the impact that different crises could have on your organisation, you can then identify what you might need to respond to them when they occur. Do you need to be able to move staff to another site, be able to call a board meeting at 3am, have backup data storage capacity? This will depend on what your business needs to operate.
However, all organisations need a mechanism to help senior leadership teams understand what is happening during an emergency, make well-informed decisions and communicate effectively internally and externally. This is not about reinventing the wheel or creating a totally new administrative structure – it is about making your existing processes resilient to disruption. Can the board meet virtually? Do senior managers know how to report issues that might be affecting their part of the business? Can your communications teams deploy the right message to the right audience? And, most importantly, are foreseeable risks recognised in the same way as legal, compliance or programme delivery risks?
Rehearse your response to realistic scenarios
The most valuable time spent on preparing for a crisis is rehearsing. Exercising your organisation’s response will help build confidence and reduce the fear of the unknown that crisis situations can create. Again, this does not have to be a complex process – even just talking through the steps you would take in certain situations is beneficial. The key is to do this regularly, with everyone that might have a role in your organisation’s response, and to base these conversations on realistic scenarios that you have identified could affect you. Practice makes perfect!
Embed a resilient culture
In 1969, the New York Times quoted Henry Kissinger as saying ‘there cannot be a crisis next week, my schedule is already full’ – and it is fair to say that most of us probably feel like this a lot of the time. But the reality is that crises do occur, are often foreseeable, and can have devastating impacts on an organisation’s operations, reputation and profits. Taking the time to build the confidence and competence of your teams will reduce the impact of disruptions when they occur.
Rob Doran is the director of Black Dog Crisis Management, specialists in strategic crisis management for the public and private sector. For more info: