How to keep your head during a crisis

Tuesday 15 September 2020
In a recent CMI webinar, David McLaughlin outlined the essential steps you must take in order to effectively manage a crisis. Here are the highlights
Organised notebook and tea beside a laptop

Management is the critical element of crisis management, according to David McLaughlin, ChMC assessment manager for CMI. In his webinar Hope for the best, plan for the worst, he outlined best practice throughout a crisis, from pre-planning to post-crisis assessment.

Plenty of time should be put into the preparation stage, he advises. Time should be spent identifying potential crises, analysing how likely they are to occur and how best to manage them if they do happen. “When a crisis occurs, we need to have a plan. We need to monitor it and make sure that it's still relevant as time goes on.”

Do a PESTLE analysis

Pestle stands for Political, Economic, Social, Technological, Legal and Environmental analysis. This is a really useful tool for identifying the potential impacts of a crisis, and how to deal with them. This is a document that you will refer to when the crisis actually occurs, McLaughlin says. (CMI members can access free checklists and templates for ‘Pestle Analysis’ at CMI’s ManagementDirect.)

Run through your scenarios

The emergency services will create scenarios and run mock-ups to ensure they’re well prepared should a major incident occur – for example, they will simulate a plane crash, practise their responses and identify where they can make improvements. “There's nothing to stop us doing that in terms of business,” says McLaughlin.

“We can run a scenario – say we've got a breakdown in production – how do we deal with this? Who would we need to inform? Who would we need to contact and bring in? We need to bring in other people who are affected by this, in order that we can work through the crisis together. If you're going to do that in real life, do it in a practice scenario.”

Involving the real stakeholders in a practice scenario will also help build confidence among your suppliers and customers. “If you have massive amounts of confidence in your own organisation, you can deal with what's likely to come up.”

Know your communication channels

There is no such thing as over-communicating in a crisis, says McLaughlin. It’s important not to leave any gaps in what you’re communicating – be open, honest and keep in contact.

“If you leave gaps, people will fill in the gaps themselves. And if people fill in a gap, it's never going to be a positive stance. That's not how humans work by and large.”

You need to know who your priority stakeholders are: who needs to know about the situation first? Who needs to know next? Who can wait to hear about it?

Have an exit strategy

We also need to think about how we're going to get out of the crisis once we’re in it. This needs to be a part of the preparation stage, McLaughlin emphasises. Once you’re in the crisis, you won’t have time to work out your exit strategy. “We'll go into panic mode if we're not careful, and we'll just hunker down. We'll focus on very small things and won’t see a way out.”

The key again is: Don't panic. Don't panic, whatever you do. If you go into panic mode, go into basic fight-and-flight mode survival mode; you won't be able to act appropriately, you will just run around like a headless chicken, and it will make things worse.

When the crisis hits – refer to the plan

Once a crisis occurs, remember your plan. Contact the people that you've identified as being your external counsel, and bring the people in who can put the plan into action. Bring them in at the appropriate times, says McLaughlin, and communicate when and how they’ll be needed. If you’ve kept your plan up-to-date, you should be able to stick to it.

“By doing this, we've got a solid base from which we can manage our way through the crisis and into a position where we can see light at the end of the tunnel,” he says.

Look on the bright side

No matter how terrible a crisis might seem, there’s always an opportunity, says McLaughlin. For example, he cites the current pandemic, in which people have identified ways in which we have reduced carbon emissions and could bed in more sustainability measures in the long term. ”While it's a terrible, terrible thing to be in, at least as you can see some positive signs.”

Do an ethical test

After you’ve gathered feedback from stakeholders, you are ready to respond to the crisis. Before you do that, run a simple ethical test, says McLaughlin.

Ask yourself the following questions: would you want your friends and family to know about the way you're responding to this? Does it feel like you're doing the right things? If this turned up on the front page of the newspaper tomorrow, how would you feel? “If you can answer all of those positively, you know you're doing the right things.”

Post-crisis: don’t play the blame game

Once we're at the end of the crisis, we look at the consequences. Look at what went well and what didn’t. Be honest about how effective your plan was; did you really deal with the crisis, or push it somewhere else?

It’s also an opportunity to look at why the crisis happened, and how to prevent it from happening again. But it’s crucial that this doesn’t become about apportioning blame, says McLaughlin. You may need to let people go, or people might need to resign. There may even be criminal or legal implications as well. But putting the blame on one person discourages a real response that will genuinely ensure that it doesn’t happen again.

Be open and honest

As an organisation, your reputation will depend on how honest you are. You need to be clear and transparent with customers, stakeholders and suppliers, and the general public.

“Go back to your potential crisis list. Think about what else could happen as a result. Are there things that we didn't anticipate when we put this list together? Make sure that your planning process is up to date. Refresh everything you've done, review what happened, and update your plans as appropriate.”

Essential steps of crisis management:

  • Preparation
  • Honest assessments of what might happen
  • Honesty about what is happening and what you’re going to do about it
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate
  • Honest assessments of what actually happened

Did you know we have hundreds of resources centred on crisis management available on ManagementDirect? Access is exclusive for CMI Members – find out more about our membership benefits.

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