Even before Covid-19, companies and organizations were gambling with their futures and the health and lives of employees if they did not take steps to ensure their crisis plans would work when needed — assuming, of course, that they had plans in place.
According to a 2019 survey conducted by CS&A International and PR News, about 62 percent of companies had crisis plans, though it was uncertain how many updated them on a regular basis. Almost 60% of the middle and senior managers surveyed said they never conducted a crisis exercise or were not sure how often their companies held exercises.
The Next Crisis
What effect has the coronavirus crisis had in convincing companies to prepare for the next crisis — or how to survive this ongoing national public health emergency?
Caroline Sapriel is managing partner of CS&A International, the risk, crisis, and business continuity management firm that conducted the survey with PR News. She believes that awareness about crisis preparedness has increased with Covid-19.
But increased awareness may not lead to increased readiness.
Sapriel said that those who were not ready for a crisis before may not be any more committed to being prepared now if they are impacted economically and struggling financially. “It’s the age old question of whether an organization sees crisis preparedness as an investment or as a cost…those who survive without or with little preparation are likely to continue to think it’s good enough and be complacent,” she said.
What could possibly go wrong if your company does not have a crisis plan or tests it on a regular basis? In a word, plenty. If your organization would rather be safe than sorry, there are three things it can do to help protect itself:
- Have contingency plans for different crisis scenarios
- Test the plans by holding drills and exercises
- Revise the plans to reflect lessons learned from the practice sessions
Here’s how three organizations are doing just that.
A Plan For Every Crisis
Project Hope knows all about crisis situations. According to its website, “From the Bahamas to Sierra Leone, Project HOPE teams are at work around the world, responding to crises, helping people overcome diseases, and empowering health workers with the training and tools they need to save more lives.”
When it comes to responding to a crisis, the global health and humanitarian organization does not take any chances — it has a different crisis plan for different scenarios. “We have templates for natural disasters, for [the] passing of colleagues, for kidnapping, etc. For responding to a humanitarian crisis, we have what we refer to as SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures),” said Rabih Torbay, president and CEO.
Practice Does Not Make Perfect
Rather than assume their plans will work, Project HOPE conducts drills and exercises to put them to the test. “…We have conducted a drill regarding kidnapping and crisis communications, as well as a 3-day humanitarian crisis response drill on our campus in partnership with Johns Hopkins and Humanitarian U that included many students,” Torbay said.
After every exercise Project HOPE applies what they learned to strengthen and improve their plans. He noted that, “Every time we do one of those exercises, we adjust the plan a bit based on what worked and didn’t work. What we learned is that those plans are good tools, but they are not the solution. They help remind you of what you should and should not do, based on best practices and experience. However, there are no two situations that are the same, and therefore, [there is] no perfect plan.”
Insuring Their Own Success
USAA is a financial services company whose 35,000 employees serve almost 13 million members of the US armed forces, veterans, and their families.
To test their plans and make sure personnel are ready to respond to various crises, USAA conducts annual tabletop, full-scale, and virtual exercises at their San Antonio, Texas headquarters and regional offices around the country. The crisis scenarios range from full-scale active shooter situations and anthrax attacks to the loss of data centers and fires at company facilities, according to Christian Bove, lead communications director for USAA.
In addition to planning and running their own drills, in July the company took part in Cyber Storm 2020 that was conducted by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. The three-day exercise brought together more than 1,000 participants from the public and private sectors to role play in a simulated response to a national cyber crisis that impacted the country’s infrastructure.
Bove said the exercise was an opportunity to cross-train with crisis management professionals from across the financial services industry and government agencies. “Anytime USAA has the ability to participate in crisis management exercises with other agencies and organizations, and we are able to learn best practices from each other, it benefits the industry and our members as a whole,” said Mickie Williams, assistant vice president of enterprise business continuation at USAA.
For companies and organizations that don’t have the expertise or internal resources to test their crisis management and communication plans, there are others they can turn to for assistance. One of them is The Social Simulator, Inc., which holds 150 exercises for clients around the world every year, according to company president Steph Gray.
In October 2019 The Social Simulator helped conduct a two-day drill for the City of Redmond, Washington. Participants included about 30 public information officers (PIOs) from government agencies in Redmond, Washington state, and Canada. The exercise sought to determine how the communication professionals would respond to a category 9.0 earthquake (AKA “The Big One”) that could hit the Pacific Northwest.
The drill, which utilized the company’s proprietary Social Simulator platform, placed special emphasis on effectively handling misinformation on social media and providing safety messages to local communities in the event of a natural disaster, Gray said. Teams posted messages, information, and updates about the earthquake on mock Twitter and Facebook pages and websites and monitored authentic-looking news feeds.
The exercise posed several challenges for the PIOs, including:
- How quickly and how well could they use social media to communicate with key audiences in the aftermath of the faux natural disaster?
- How would they share information, warnings, and messages with various government agencies?
- Who would take the lead to ensure information and updates were posted quickly on social media platforms?
- How would they work with journalists and news organizations in such a pressure-filled situation?
After the exercise, Gray said Redmond revised their public information process, made changes to their crisis management plan, and updated a memorandum of understanding with local government jurisdictions on how their PIOs would cooperate in the event of a major incident.
Learning from how others have prepared for a crisis is one thing. Applying those lessons is quite another. What steps have you taken — or should be taking — to protect your organization from the next disaster or emergency? Are those steps enough? Or will they be too little and too late?
Why find out the answers the hard way?