Ten Years Later – Are You Ready for a Crisis?

*Originally published in IMCA’s membership newsletter

In March 2002 I walked into conference workshop on behalf of an insurer to do a presentation on crisis response. It was the same conference and topic that I had presented the year before to about 40 people. This year there was 250 people. They moved me into a ballroom.

Once I got my nerves under control I asked myself what had changed? September 11, 2001, of course. The World Trade Center attacks had put crisis preparedness on everyone’s agenda.  There was a mass wake-up call that we had to be prepared for the unexpected.

Ten years later, I’m not sure we are. In talking to friends in the industry, it is surprising how many companies still define a crisis too narrowly, forget to make communications a cornerstone of the plan, or don’t update their plans to account for new developments like social media.

Even in insurance, an industry that is all about evaluating risk, it is too easy to get complacent. That’s big mistake.

Here is a quick checklist to see if you are really prepared:

Your crisis response plans take into account all types of crises.

The point of a crisis is that it often comes on quickly and unexpectedly. Two things we do know is that you can’t fully predict how a crisis will unfold and you can’t start planning once it happens. So a crisis response plan should cover any eventuality – even if you don’t think it will happen. That means terrorist attacks, natural disasters, medical emergencies (think H1N1), internal corruption, financial issues, employment issues and more.

Your plans include input from everyone who should be involved.

A planning team should include not just public relations and operations, but your lawyers, customer service, human resources, outside emergency management officials and more. You want everyone from every department involved in planning – and engaged in the response.

Communications is a cornerstone of the plan.

Too often a crisis plan hinges more on logistical, financial and legal issues and not on communicating with all your stakeholders – customers, community, shareholders, employees, partners, vendors, etc. In today’s world you are judged by how well you communicate. Be ready, do it well, and you can improve your image during the crisis.

Your media response and social media plans are solid.

You must have designated spokespeople and clear protocol to ensure your company is speaking with one voice, and one consistent and effective message. Get media training for all key players, taking into account all media. And make sure social media is integrated in your plan – how will you monitor and respond using social media?

You have a strong leader who can be your spokesperson and communicate effectively.

You need strong leadership in a crisis. Rudy Guiliani made his mark after September 11. Is your CEO the right one to communicate in a crisis? While he or she is the first and obvious choice, it may not be the best. Remember BP’s CEO Tony Hayward?

Your plan is updated annually and takes into account new developments.

There is nothing worse than creating a good plan and sticking it on the shelf to collect dust. Plans only work if there are frequent updates and practice. We used to estimate that you had to be able to communicate effectively within 24 hours of a crisis. Now, with social media, you must be able to act in an hour. That’s not a lot of time.

If you can’t check off everything in this list, then it’s probably a good idea to take a fresh look at your crisis response planning.  Remember, those first hours after a crisis are crucial to how your stakeholders will perceive your company’s image. Don’t skimp on the time and money in good planning – or you’ll be paying a lot more later to clean up the damage.

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