Many organisations boast a crisis management plan, writes Benjamin Haslem, but make the critical error of failing to test it until the proverbial hits the fan.

Some of the world’s largest organisations, managed by highly-talented individuals, often fail to respond adequately to crises, resulting in lasting reputational damage with long-term impacts on bottom lines.

One of the major reasons for such failures can be a simple lack of preparedness, and most importantly, practice.

Few professionals understand this more than aircraft pilots.

They are trained to learn, and follow, strict checklists when faced with an emergency and anticipate what lies ahead. 

Airline pilots practice emergency situations repeatedly, their trainers throwing a myriad of life-threatening scenarios at them in the aircraft simulator so when faced with a real emergency they can deal with it in an almost routine fashion. 

The same applies to any CEO and his or her executive team. If you want to survive a crisis, not only do you need a carefully-crafted crisis management plan (your checklist) you need to practise, practise, practise. 

Just as an airline pilot spends many hours each year in the simulator, so should a business or organisation regularly (one to two times each year) undertake a crisis management simulation exercise.

US pilot Kim Green has written about the similarities between flying a plane and running a major company. 

“When it’s just you and your craft at 5,000 feet, what matters most is experience, especially when the weather turns inclement or the engine goes quiet,” Green writes. 

“You can be a whiz at aerodynamics and know your equipment like an engineer, but it’s how you react when everything goes wrong that shows what kind of pilot you really are.

“Business leaders face down everything from PR headaches to financial crises, and sometimes even threats to health and human life within their organizations. 

“You can bring your a-game to the boardroom and know your industry inside and out, but if you’ve never handled a major emergency, it’s hard to know how well you’ll fare when your first one hits.

“That’s why pilots are trained in crisis management. We’re taught to think through a range of potential mishaps, memorize checklists, and plot courses of action in advance.
“Executives can do the same. You can never foresee every crisis, but if you plan for the worst, you’ll be ready for action-and you won’t be stuck winging it.”

A crisis simulation allows a company’s executive team to put its crisis management plan into action without anyone getting hurt.

If designed and implemented properly, a crisis simulation will: 
•    Leave your team feeling confident it can deal with a real-life crisis, 
•    Uncover any deficiencies in your crisis management plan that should be remedied; 
•    Equip members of your Crisis Management Team (CMT) with a better understanding of their responsibilities and allow them to practise the collection, analysis and distribution of information in a timely manner;
•    Test communication flows; and
•    Provide a competitive advantage for your company or organisation.  

Denis Smith, Professor of Management at the University of Liverpool, argues many organizations fail to see the benefits that simulating crisis events and the real-time testing of crisis plans can have upon the way they manage on a day-to-day basis.

“To be effective, the whole process of contingency planning should challenge, and ultimately shape, the way in which organizations deal with the day-to-day processes that allow crises to be incubated,” Prof Smith says.

“Simulations can, therefore, also serve as a useful audit mechanism for organizations as well as  a validation tool for contingency plans and organizational crisis teams.”

The ideal crisis simulation involves two teams sitting in separate rooms. 

The first (the CMT) consists of the people who would be called upon to deal with a real-life crisis. For example: the CEO, COO, communications manager, HR manager, ICT specialist and a lawyer.

The second (the Inject Team) rolls out the simulation, which consists of the facilitator and deputy (think of them as the movie directors) and role players, who will act as employees, family members, journalists, regulators, social media users and other key stakeholders.

The CMT will be presented with an event or scenario – say an explosion at a factory. The ‘factory manager’ will follow the company’s crisis plan and telephone the COO with news of the calamity and the simulation is off and running.

The CMT will need to carry out actions as if in real life. Prepare and disseminate media statements; develop or adapt key messages; communicate with employees, families of the deceased and injured, regulators, politicians and then manage social media speculation and/or attacks.

Eventually, the CEO or nominated company spokesperson will front a mock press conference where role players will ask the tough questions.

The Inject Team will follow a master events list or running sheet, which sets out what will occur and when. 

Role players will read from scripts; news ‘articles’ will be produced and presented to the CMT, forcing them to consider whether they should react to the content, emails will pour in from various stakeholders, responses will need to be prioritised.

Updates will come in from the scene of the accident, key stakeholders (trade unions, local governments, media commentators) will weigh in, forcing the CMT into making decisions – say something or ignore.

All of these inputs are driven from the Inject Room with the aim to make the crisis team know, think, say or do something.

The Inject Team will react to the CMT’s responses and adjust its inputs accordingly. But it should also try and anticipate what the CMT will do and be a step in front.

The scenario must be realistic and engage all of the CMT. If what you present is too farfetched participants will not engage. 

A good crisis simulation must present the CMT with challenges that are both operational and reputational.  It must illicit responses that both fix the problem and communicate about it.

There must be a reason for each input, an objective attached to it and they need to pose a challenge to the CMT.

There are various reasons for each input:
•    Some should force a decision to be taken;
•    Some should create a dilemma – there’s more than one answer but we need a decision and we need it now;
•    Some will put the team’s information gathering skills under pressure;
•    Others will shift the centre of the focus of the crisis – where it was all about injuries, now it’s about allegations from unions that their safety concerns were ignored (when in fact none was ever raised). 

At the conclusion of the simulation, time needs to be set aside for participants to discuss their experiences and share what they have learned.

It is important to act on what was learned and make changes to your crisis management plan, if required.

You can have the best-laid crisis management plan but if your organisation never implements the plan until an actual event you are courting disaster.

Experiencing the high-pressure atmosphere of a full-scale crisis is very rare, so it is not surprising that even the most experienced executives lack the skills required to manage a crisis.

An organisation can possess a highly-experienced communications manager well-versed in crisis communications, but that counts for little when it is the CEO or other senior executives who must make crucial decisions during a crisis – often with scant information and very little time.

To increase the likelihood that an organisation can come through a crisis relatively unscathed it is recommended the personnel who would manage such an event regularly undertake crisis management simulation exercises. 

The legendary Prussian Field Marshal, Helmuth von Moltke, argued that military strategy is a system of options, since only the beginning of the military operation can be planned.
He said the main task of military leaders is the extensive preparation for all possible outcomes. Two of his famous dictums remain useful for business continuity and crisis managers today: “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy” and “war is a matter of expedients.” 

Crisis simulations prepare you for managing the unexpected; to make decisions under pressure with the best information available and to regain the initiative.

(Contact Wells Haslem to discuss your crisis management needs)