When it comes to crisis planning, Western Canada Marine Response Corporation (WCMRC) is a great example as it leaves nothing to chance. As the organization responsible for mitigating the impact of an oil spill on the West Coast, it needs to protect the environment and the economy while also ensuring the safety of responders and the public.
It's not surprising then that the organization's response plan totals 603 pages of intricate detail. Every step is laid out and linked to related actions so when the time comes, no-one needs to second guess their role.
Hundreds of hours went into preparing the plan, but before even one word was written, the planners had to work out what they were planning for. While WCMRC's purpose is clear – be prepared to respond to and mitigate the impact of a marine oil spill – it still needed to work through how scenarios were likely to play out and then plan for them.
While WCMRC is expected to have a plan that far exceeds the level of detail that most organizations require, the lesson for any organization is that planning based on specific scenarios is essential for a successful response.
The level of detail in the WCMRC plan shows it would be impossible to start planning for an oil spill response after the fact – and that's equally true for any organization. Trying to develop a response once a crisis has occurred makes it very difficult to get out in front of the issue and be seen in control. In most crises, speed of reaction – including effective communication with key stakeholders – is crucial to the outcome.
This is well illustrated throughout the WCMRC plan by frequent use of the word "immediately". What it means of course is that you need to take action right now, not after spending hours trying to work out how to respond.
One of the best ways for small and medium enterprises (SMEs) to start developing a crisis response and communications plan is to have a structured scenario mapping session. This allows key decision-makers to consider what could go wrong and how they would respond. While it may not be possible to cover every eventuality, identifying the more obvious potential crises and developing responses will create a mindset that will make it easier to effectively address any adverse event that may occur.
The scenario map is the backbone of the crisis response and communications plan. It itemizes the actions required to respond to a crisis and identifies the people responsible for those actions.
Choosing the team to participate in the scenario mapping session depends on the size of the organization. In a sole proprietorship or a business with only a few employees, it could be helpful to enlist the support of at least one outside advisor such as a mentor or a business continuity consultant from an organization like Small Business BC.
In a larger organization, the team should include the key managers in each of the functional areas of the business such as operations/manufacturing, distribution, sales/marketing/communications, finance and customer care. The objective is for each manager to identify the potential crises in their areas of responsibility, what the impact would be on their department and the organization as a whole, and what the response should be.
The following steps offer a guide to putting together an effective scenario-mapping session.
- Set aside enough time to do the job properly and without interruption. For most SMEs, a half-day (four hours) should be sufficient. If there are too many distractions in your own offices, take the session off site.
- Prepare and circulate a short briefing document so that all those who attend are aware of why it's happening and what they are expected to contribute.
- It may be helpful to bring in an external facilitator to moderate the session and keep it on track. This could be a crisis communications consultant or simply a discussion facilitator from an organization like the International Association of Business Communicators.
- Appoint a note-taker to record the ideas and a flip chart writer to make bullet points that capture the scenarios and keep the group focused on each one as it is discussed.
- Work through the scenarios one at a time. Avoid jumping around between scenarios because it will become confusing and could negatively impact the development of responses. Keep a flip chart "parking lot" for issues that you can get to later.
- In working through the scenarios, ask the following three questions: what could happen; how would it impact the organization (including likely reaction of staff, customers, media, suppliers, regulators, etc.); and what would we need to do and say to limit reputation damage and reassure stakeholders that we are on top of the situation.
- Don't avoid the really tough or sensitive scenarios such as the sudden death of a key executive. Remember, a crisis is not just an industrial accident or product deficiency – it's anything that could negatively impact the organization's reputation and ability to carry on its business.
- Identify areas where you will need help in building the scenarios into your crisis response and communications plan. For example, if you don't have an in-house media relations manager, you may need to bring in assistance to prepare news releases and deal with the media if a crisis occurs.
- Finally, make sure you have someone to manage the further development of the scenario map. Remember, the scenario mapping session is just one aspect of the planning process, so don't sit back and think that your work is done once it's over. Creating the map itself and integrating it into the overall crisis response and communications plan is the next step.
Chris Freimond, MBA, ABC, founded Chris Freimond Public Relations (www.cfpr.ca) in 2006. Prior to that he was general manager of the B.C. operations of a global public relations firm. He also worked for 20 years in southern Africa as a business and political journalist. He has an MBA from Royal Roads University with a specialty in Public Relations and Communications Management, and is an Accredited Business Communicator (ABC) with the International Association of Business Communicators. He is a former president of the B.C. chapter of IABC.