The Crisis Plan Drill

Most organizations need a crisis plan that is more than a paper tiger but has been put to the test to make sure it works as an effective crisis response.Too many organizations don't have a crisis plan. Many that do haven't tested their plans with trial by fire.

A crisis plan must be much more than a notebook on the shelf. It must be a living document that reflects real-life circumstances and behaviors. It isn’t really a plan until it is pressure-tested.

The crisis plan drill makes the phone tree, key message drafting, press release writing, employee communications and coordination with emergency responders come to life. The drill will help you know whether your plan is paper-thin or tried-and-true.

If you have a scenario-based crisis plan — that is, a plan built around crises that you are likely to encounter — your drill should be an enactment of one of those scenarios. For a restaurant, it could be a crisis related to food adulteration. For a manufacturer, it could be a major industrial spill. For a professional service firm, it could be a case involving negligence or misfeasance.

The drill tests processes, advance planning and human performance. Did your plan to inform employees work? Were you able to collect accurate information and crush it on deadline into a final press release? Were your media-trained spokespersons able to sharpen your key message and deliver it effectively? 

It seems obvious enough that crisis preparedness extends beyond a written plan to a plan that has been put to the test. Yet far too many organizations seem content, if not relieved, just to have something down on paper to use when a crisis erupts. But it is far better to find out the cracks in your crisis plan during a drill than a real crisis.

Effective crisis plans have some basic components — phone trees of key people in an organization, a website-in-waiting with pre-packaged background information, photos and video and protocols for how to field media calls and communicate with employees. 

But where the rubber hits the road is how people actually perform in a crisis. How do executives respond to partial information or to quickly evolving circumstances? Can they reckon with constant media inquiries or to pressure from affected workers, impacted neighbors or concerned stakeholders? Does the plan put the reputation of the organization first as opposed to the egos of executives? Is somebody monitoring social media?

Crisis plan drills are opportunities for true organizational cross-discipline collaboration. Operations, legal, human resources, risk managers, sales and communications need to cooperate to ensure the crisis plan is viable and won't make a bad situation even worse.

If your organization — whether corporate, nonprofit or public — doesn't have a scenario-based crisis plan, prepare one. Then test it with a fire drill. You will discover holes and oversights. But better to discover them in the privacy and quiet of a drill than under the bright lights and smoke of an actual crisis.