Crisis Plans Can't
Replace Trained People

© Copyright 1996, Wilson Group Communications, Inc

Companies today are taking crisis planning more seriously than ever before, and for good reasons.

They are finding that the public relations impact of even a seemingly minor fire, explosion or chemical spill can be potentially more devastating than the crisis itself. Each time a major crisis takes place, it seems the news media - and sometimes industry itself - issues a report card on how well the crisis was handled. Remember the Exxon Valdez, Perrier, Dow Corning and Sears?

But in their attempts to avert negative publicity and tarnished reputations, companies are finding out that even the best crisis plans are no substitute for trained, experienced people.

It's a fact of life that it still takes people to manage a crisis. No crisis plan to date has yet been able to think on its feet, make tough decisions or face reporters and television cameras in the midst of a controversy or disaster.

At their best, crisis plans are just one-half of an equation that has no value without a trained crisis team. Organizations that want to seriously prepare themselves for handling crisis situations should devote equal attention to both.

For starters, most corporate crisis plans - if they even exist - probably are in need of a serious overhaul. Too often, they are obligatory responses to a corporate mandate. Some look nice. Others even show signs of remarkable ingenuity. Overall though, most seem to be so comprehensive, bulky and overly detailed that they may be of little use to anyone during a real crisis.

All too often, crisis plans seem to be written by people who don't have a lot of experience in dealing with crisis situations. Their authors may be good writers, but they tend to deal with theories rather than reality. In theory, employees would report even a minor incident such as a small chemical spill to their supervisors. In reality, it just doesn't always work out that way.

Too often, crisis plan writers make a dangerous assumption that people will actually follow all those detailed steps in a plan and that things will happen the way they are supposed to.

In real life, the only things you should assume is that:

  1. When a crisis hits, most of the crisis team will either be on vacation, or on a business trip out of the country.
  2. Your designated spokesperson has a case of frazzled nerves or laryngitis.
  3. No one will be able to find the crisis plan, or even worse...
  4. No one knows you have a crisis plan.

Too often, crisis plans are engineered by well-intentioned people who try to remove much of the human tendency to make mistakes. But the fact is that people will make mistakes and no crisis plan - not even the perfect crisis plan - can change that.

At their very best, crisis plans are simply no substitute for people. Crisis plans are simply a resource or a guide. By themselves, they will never manage a crisis. It takes people to do that.

At its best, a crisis plan might include a pre-prepared statement that perfectly matches the situation you have to face in a crisis. But even a perfect crisis plan won't prepare you for delivering that statement.

The best place to start on building or expanding your organization's crisis management capabilities is to develop a program that can be used to both train - and test - those individuals who would be essential in dealing with a real crisis. If you already have a crisis plan, it should be tested right along with those in the crisis team.

If the program is comprehensive and includes realistic situations involving news media confrontations, you should be able to determine where you need to make adjustments in your crisis plan as well as test the skills of individual crisis team members.

Some suggestions:

  • If you have a crisis plan and you can find it, thoroughly review it from the perspective of someone who has never read it before and is using it for the first time during a major crisis.
  • Does it identify team members and list their responsibilities?
  • Does it tell you how to select team members?
  • Does it provide for backup spokespersons at each location where you do business?
  • Does it mandate professional training for crisis team members on a regular basis?
  • Does it include "standby" media statements for emergency use?
  • If it has a media contact section, when was the last time it was updated?
  • Has the plan (and team) ever been tested in a crisis or simulated crisis?

The key to drafting a solid crisis plan is to remember how and when it will be used and by what kind of people. To be effective, it must be "user-friendly."

In a real crisis, few people will have the time to read through detailed instructions on dealing with the news media and others.

In essence, you want to prepare a plan that would help prepare a crisis team before the crisis, yet assume no one will read it until a crisis.

Some pointers:

  • Organize your crisis team first. Then, let the team (which will ultimately use the crisis plan) help play a major role in drafting or rewriting your plan.
  • Make sure it includes a "fail-safe" notification system. No plan is worth much if it doesn't provide a mechanism for bringing the right people together fast.

Divide the plan into sections, based on their immediate importance during a real crisis and then clearly mark which sections are background and which sections can be used during a real crisis. People won't care about your corporate philosophy while they are trying to figure out how to answer reporters' questions.

Design is important. Use an easy-to-read type, easy-to-understand headlines, flow-charts and fill-in-the-blanks lists of every kind imaginable.

In an emergency, you'll find it's difficult to go overboard on indexes, sub-indexes and index tabs. People don't have time to search through an 80-page document to see if the plan has a prepared statement that might work in an ongoing emergency.

Finally, you'll have to be satisfied that even the best plan will fall far short of perfection. The best crisis management programs realize that and combine crisis planning with crisis training.

NOTE: This article is copyrighted by Wilson Group Communications, Inc., and may not be published without the express permission of The Wilson Group. For information on this article, contact The Wilson Group via email: or call 614-461-1333.