Leadership: It’s the connective tissue that enables companies to react swiftly and responsibly to otherwise crippling events brought on by unexpected crises. The empowerment begins at the top with the executive suite fully engaged and committed to an established crisis protocol. At the top of the list is a clearly defined chain of command with triggers that can be seamlessly executed, in real time, to address the situation at hand.
We hear too often that CEOs delegate responsibility for crisis management to subordinates, including legal, operations, HR and public relations staff. CEOs who delegate rationalize that their subordinates are strong leaders who can handle crises without them. But, as history has shown time and again, there is a direct relationship between how quickly a CEO takes ownership of a crisis and preservation of the organization’s reputation.
This lack of leadership is a common thread running through recent crises, including the recent crashes of two 737 airliners, the evacuation of a cruise ship stranded at sea and large-scale data breaches. In each instance, the top executives of the responsible organizations have largely avoided speaking on behalf of their companies.
These examples suggest that whatever crisis management plans were in place failed to do their job of protecting the reputations of those respective organizations. Equally possible is that their leaders simply failed to play their part in managing the crises by speaking up and taking swift corrective actions.
While most organizations have some form of crisis plan in place, the roles and responsibilities spelled out formally on paper cannot overcome the reluctance of the chief executive officer to stand up and assert leadership.
This failure becomes acute when lives are at stake and delays in responding can make the difference between an orderly recovery and certain disaster. CEOs are responsible for ensuring everyone’s safety at all times while keeping a company’s brand and reputation intact – and, ultimately, avoiding a crippling financial blow to the bottom line.
The fundamentals of a well-thought-out crisis management plan should include the following elements:
- Executive-level commitment to set the plan in motion
- Clearly defined parameters for declaring a crisis
- Protocols to determine what actions will be taken and when
- An up-to-date chain of command
- Empowerment of key functional areas to make swift decisions and deploy resources to mitigate further damage
- Professional training of staff at all levels
- Scheduled practice drills at least once each year
CEOs must involve themselves from the beginning by contributing ideas to the planning process, reviewing all iterations of the crisis plan and participating in drills and tabletop exercises.
Anything less means the organization is rolling the dice by not being adequately prepared. A company’s reputation and customer trust are fragile. In a matter of seconds, decades of goodwill can go up in smoke because of a poorly managed crisis. Establishing crisis management protocols is the most effective way to mitigate damage and return to business as usual.
David Trumble is principal of Integrated Crisis Management Solutions, an organization composed of security operatives and communications professionals offering risk assessments, streamlined emergency protocols, management training, customer/media relations and recovery programs.
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