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How to Develop a Highly Effective Crisis Management Team

This week our guest writer, Jonathan Hemus, discusses why developing an excellent crisis management plan is only half the battle when it comes to successfully managing an incident. The crisis management team needs to have the knowledge, understanding, and confidence to apply it.

‘You can’t expect people to succeed without training: they must be confident of their own personal skill set and understand how they operate as part of a team.’ - Mark Wenham, former head of the Defence Media Operations Centre.

A crisis breaks. The team assembles. The carefully created crisis management plan is about to be put to the test. It contains everything the team needs to guide their crisis response: principles, guidelines, checklists, resources and templated materials.

Why is it that, all too often, plans are given only a cursory glance at the beginning of an incident or, worse, remain unopened on the table?

In the best-case scenario, it is because team members are so well trained and drilled on the plan they have developed ‘muscle memory’ and the plan is already embedded in their consciousness. This is the mark of a truly effective CMT.

Sadly, there is another less positive reason why teams fail to refer to their crisis management plan: they have never been trained on it or, in some cases, even read it.

As Mark Wenham says: ‘If you immerse someone in an intense pressure situation without training, they are almost guaranteed to fail.’

Having invested time to prepare a crisis management plan to support the business in its hour of need, you must ensure team members have the knowledge, understanding and confidence to apply it. That process begins with briefing, training and concludes with exercising.

How to Brief Your Crisis Management Team

Developing your crisis management plan is a critical first step in crisis management, but it is of limited value unless your people are familiar with it. A perfect plan is of no use unless it is embedded within the organisation.

Everyone, from your chief executive through to your call centre operators and the administrators logging actions and decisions, has an important role to play and they all need to know what is expected of them.

While circulating your plan to CMT members is a good start, it is insufficient to build the knowledge, understanding and confidence required to deploy it.

The process of building confidence in a plan truly begins with a structured team briefing workshop. During this session, team members should be walked through the plan and given a first opportunity to practice applying key elements of it through interactive exercises and discussion.

In addition to a briefing on plan structure, content and principles, they should be introduced to key processes: the aim is not to test them but to familiarise them with the plan.

By the end of the workshop your team members should understand:

  • The definition of a crisis for your business
  • Your objectives and principles for crisis management
  • How the CMT is activated
  • How the CMT is structured, its roles and responsibilities, candidates for key roles and their deputies
  • The standing agenda for CMT meetings
  • The importance of ‘strategic intent’ in a crisis, what it is and how to develop it
  • How to develop your crisis response plan
  • How situation updates, decisions and actions will be recorded
  • The structure and format for your stakeholder engagement plan
  • Actions to be completed in the first hour and by whom

At the end of the plan briefing (typically two to three hours in length) your team will have a much clearer understanding of what the crisis management plan contains and their role within it. Make sure there’s time for questions and check in with your colleagues a few days later to identify any issues arising.

A plan briefing is the critical first step in ensuring your crisis management plan will be executed effectively should the worst occur.

How to Train Your Crisis Management Team

It’s optimistic at best to expect people to successfully fulfil any new role without experience and training. To imagine they can do so in a crisis, when the stakes are high and pressure is intense, is foolhardy in the extreme.

Even if members of your team are naturally skilled in decision-making, communication, information management or situational awareness, crisis management is a team game and they need to understand how their contribution fits into the overall team effort.

The bottom line is that you will only succeed in protecting your business and its reputation if everyone involved in crisis response understands their role and responsibilities.

Each of the roles within your CMT requires different skills and capabilities: one size does not fit all when it comes to crisis management. Role-specific training is therefore the best way of giving CMT members the knowledge, skills and confidence to play their part in a successful response.

As Kim Green, a writer and pilot, observes:

‘If you’ve never handled a major emergency, it’s hard to know how you’ll fare when your first one hits. That’s why pilots are trained in crisis management. We’re taught to think through a range of potential mishaps, memorise checklists, and plot courses of action in advance. Executives can do the same.’

In addition to an in-depth briefing on the specific tasks associated with a person’s likely role on the team, consider capability-building in the following areas.

Crisis Management Team Leader

  • Strategy development
  • Decision-making
  • Meeting management
  • Listening skills
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Team management
  • Influencing skills
  • Communication skills
  • Delegation and empowerment

Crisis Management Coordinator

  • Project management
  • Planning skills
  • Influencing skills
  • Communication skills

Spokesperson

  • Communication skills
  • Understanding the media agenda
  • Effective interview preparation
  • Delivering key messages
  • Tone and body language
  • Dealing with challenging questions

Scenario Planner

  • Scenario planning techniques
  • Creative thinking

Administrator

  • Staying calm under pressure
  • Personal impact/communication skills
  • Active listening
  • Assertiveness

In addition to members of your CMT, consider training other staff members likely to be involved in crisis response. Pay particular attention to people in the frontline who may be approached by stakeholders for information about the crisis. They can include receptionists, call centre operators, security guards, salespeople and switchboard operators.

For these people, schedule a training workshop covering:

  • The value of your business’s reputation and your role in protecting it
  • What to do and who to call if you become aware of a potential incident
  • An introduction to the media
  • Dealing with media enquiries – tips, techniques and tools
  • Dealing with other stakeholders.

Role-specific training for team members ensures everyone is ready to play their part in protecting your business in the event of a crisis. Make sure that deputies are included in the training to ensure strength in depth.

Finally, never think that your training programme is complete. As Lidl’s Aoife Clarke says:

‘Crisis management is not a project with a start and end date. It’s something the business is fully invested in for the long term and we keep it in our mind all the time. We understand it’s not enough to do one crisis simulation and think “that’s it, we’re trained”.’

Make sure that new starters are inducted into your CMT and keep skills fresh with refresher training, for example by inviting a guest speaker to talk about their experiences of crisis management or running a ‘lunch and learn’ session to discuss a recent crisis from your sector.

Summary

Developing a crisis management plan is a critical first step in crisis management, but it means nothing unless people know that it exists and what it contains. Running a plan briefing gives your team members a foundation of understanding that underpins a successful crisis response.

Individuals expected to take on roles within your CMT must be briefed on what is expected of them, trained on their essential tasks and coached on the softer skills required in their role.

Providing this level of training significantly increases the likelihood of your plan being deployed effectively under pressure.

Questions

  1. Who needs to be briefed on your crisis management plan?
  2. In addition to being briefed, what additional training would team members benefit from to help them play their role more effectively?
  3. Who are the ‘frontliners’ in your organisation? What training do they require?


This article was first published on Continuity Central and has been written by Jonathan Hemus, Founder of Crisis Management Consultancy, Insignia.

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