Plan for the Worst-Case Scenario

Boy, didn't see that one coming.

Boy, didn’t see that one coming.

There are 20 seconds left on a ticking clock, and you have no timeouts. Your starting quarterback is knocked out of the game, and the backup needs to move the ball another 20 yards to get within field goal range to force the game into overtime. As the offensive coordinator, it’s your job to call in the next play, so you quickly look down at your playbook – you got nothing. The head coach yells at you to get the play in. You can think of a few plays but nothing you can call in without running it by the coach (who, incidentally, is now preoccupied with the owner, who’s come down from his suite to yell at him). The crowd gets louder, the clock ticks down and chaos ensues. There’s nothing you can do because you didn’t anticipate running the offense with the backup quarterback, no time outs and a chance to tie … or was there?

As busy as organizations are, taking precious time and resources to plan for a worst case scenario often slips to the bottom of a long list of communication needs. Given a choice between working on projects with obvious ROI and planning for an eventuality that may or may not happen, most managers will choose the effort that gets the most bang for the buck. It’s a confounding little irony in our business – few managers want to devote time to a crisis plan until they’re facing a crisis, then they’re all ears and eyes – they look at you for the play as the chaos closes in and you got nothing.

This is Part Deux of a Deux-Part post (sorry) discussing how you can go about ensuring you have some semblance of a plan in place for a bad day. For a refresher on how we got here (and context on my kickass football analogy), take a few moments to review Part One.

Your plan can be two pages or 20; a guiding document or a prescriptive one. This depends on your time, resources and the nature of your operations.  If, in your preparation, you ID’d three likely scenarios, then plan for each. Not every bad day plan needs to be fleshed out completely – one may be more prescriptive than the other two – and that’s fine. The point being that something is soooo much better than nothing when the clock is ticking.

To that end, each plan should, at the very least:

1. Define the potential crisis
A brief paragraph or two summarizing the risk and potential impact of the bad day scenario. Cite real-world examples from your research. Regardless of how robust you intend to make your plan in writing, keep this one concise and clear. This section serves two purposes; one is justification for the plan and two is incentive for leadership to buy-in.

2. Establish goals and objectives
With conventional communication or PR campaign plans, the goals and objectives are tied to how communication efforts support organizational goals and objectives. In crisis, your ultimate goal is to protect the organizational goals you’ve worked so hard to support. In our experience, any organization’s success is contingent on the support and understanding of the people it serves (costumers, public, stakeholders) and the people who serve it (employees and their families, suppliers, partners). During crisis, that support and understanding is threatened. So, for me, the goals in crisis planning are always tantamount to these:

  • Maintain the support and understanding of key external stakeholders
  • Maintain the support and understanding of key internal stakeholders
  • Maintain credibility and working relationships with members of media

3. Outline the strategy, tactics and messaging
You’ve defined the goals, now spell out what you’ll say, what you’ll do and how you’ll do it. Everything you say and do should align with your goals. You won’t have every detail perfect in advance, but you’ll have a good idea. You won’t know how the thing exploded but you’ll know how you would talk about it and what you would do if it did.

4. Identify the key players
Who, inside and outside the organization, needs to play a key role and who will be a significant player? Define their responsibilities and/or roles. This could include members of the trade media, civic leaders, managers, spokespersons, building security, local first responders, the boss, etc.

5. Establish authority for release of information
I always recommend this be clearly laid out beforehand. A critical element of crisis response and crisis communications is timeliness. You’re ahead of the game now that you have a playbook, but you need to assign authority for calling in the plays – a crisis is not the time to decide who can say what and when.

6. Get buy in
The last step in the plan is to get buy in from leadership and socialize it with the key players identified in the plan. Have the plan formally endorsed by leadership so there are no surprises when it is put into play. You might even want to include trigger points or define the conditions for launch. The point here is you want to minimize and, ideally, eliminate time routing and vetting the plan in the midst of crisis.  You can use trigger points I suggest here or it can be an agreement that you will seek verbal approval to execute the plan without rerouting. Whatever works for you.

Photo: Public Domain image by U.S. Air Force A1C Ericka Engblom. Original image at http://goo.gl/6WQ2es. The image has not been altered.

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