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Issue Date: June 2004

Practice, practice, practice!

June 2004

The media once asked Louis Armstrong, the famous jazz musician, how he got to play at Carnegie Hall. This was his reply: "Practice, man, practice!" The same holds true for companies who believe that they should plan for crises. Awake companies test their plans. Asleep companies rely on paper or IT created plans.

Without regular exercises to test crisis management plans, strategies become dormant and useless in the event of a real crisis. A false sense of security can exist in the company simply because 'we have a plan in writing'.
The experience gained from training crisis teams and testing the level of response establishes the company's reputation for being prepared and able to survive. It may be costly but the proof is there for the stakeholders. We care. We take precautions. We are prepared.
I am often asked to advise on the best method for testing crisis management response. As a consultant I like to offer my client various options, depending on their needs.
Obviously nothing beats realtime simulation, but it is not always practical due to many reasons, including the client not being psychologically ready (believe it or not). I therefore offer them a smorgasbord that includes the following type of exercises:
1. Notification and activation.
2. Tabletop.
3. Simulation.
Notification and activation exercises test the company's ability to receive information about a potential crisis, assess its impact to determine the response needed, and activate the crisis management and appropriate action teams.
A typical example of this type of exercise is a simple fire drill. For many managers this exercise may seem like a futile and simple exercise but in South Africa a recent event illustrated the importance of this exercise, when 22 fire-fighters died in an incident at South Africa's most popular wildlife park. They burnt to death in a freak incident. When the response teams tried to get hold of the CEO, his mobile phone was switched off.
This exercise can be as simple as a telephone call to the crisis response number and can end once the crisis management team assembles. This exercise tests the team's ability to respond to a crisis and should be substantiated periodically throughout the year. (Best of all it could be part of regular and mandatory safety training)
What would your team's response be like if notification takes place with no prior warning? I have seen people respond in companies... stating that it is just another drill, when it was actually for real.
The second approach involves tabletop exercises. Tabletop exercises are like any other scheduled training workshop. However the focus is on brainstorming not just training. A realistic (company specific) crisis scenario facilitates the discussion. These sessions start with the crisis management team, then flow to separate meetings of each representative's response teams. This allows action teams to discuss the ramifications of the scenario to their discipline within the business and discuss the actions they must accomplish during such a crisis.
Example: The PR manager meets with his team - this could include the marketing, communications and external PR staff. Inclusion depends on organisational type.
Afterwards, everyone gathers and during the post mortem analysis, ideas, strategies and lessons are recorded. Integration of all the plans is discussed and leadership communications, organisational structure, and roles and responsibilities are tested.
The beauty of such an exercise is that it allows a company to make mistakes in a simulated environment, reducing potential reputation and reality impact. Tabletop exercises reveal gaps, develop thinking capability and identify areas of weakness. Best of all it is done in a relatively risk free environment with little fallout.
Simulation training is the final and most effective tool for crisis management training. Extensive planning and organisation are required in order to conduct this training. I recently had the opportunity to meet someone who actually organised a simulated tanker running aground that involved nine countries. This event was so realistic that it even included a recovery phase that involved months of environmental cleanup. The cost of the exercise exceeded $50 million dollars.
Did I learn from this? You bet! Some of the lessons:
* Scenarios should be representing a real life crisis as far as possible. This is why I always work with a client on THEIR problems. My role - that of being the facilitator. As a facilitator I need to have a good understanding of the responses they can and should give during the exercise.
* Choose your facilitator with care. A crisis management consultant should be someone who understands the dynamics of corporate organisations such as politics, structures and culture including the perception related issues such as media relations and stakeholder communications. A crisis communication consultant tends to focus only on the communication and perception issues, whilst too subject specific consultants will focus on their specific disciplines.
* Training is the final step or key in developing a quality crisis management program. It is also the most important step. Many companies overlook training because of their false sense of security based on having a written plan and the expense of employee time for training. Crisis management, like any business process, must be evaluated completely to be effective.
In almost every instance of successful response to a crisis, management activities consist of sound operational procedures. Procedures that have been reality realtime tested. Well planned and practiced operations save lives, property, and other assets. More importantly, the company's reputation of sound business practices and survival during critical periods is dependent on these procedures during a crisis.
Perception is reality. Both internally and externally, the ability of the crisis management team to show leadership during a crucial time is essential. Trust and confidence in the team's abilities must be established and then proven.
Not being ready for a crisis when it actually happens is a foreboding thought. How well a company responds is dependent upon its preparation, and a crisis management team can go a long way in preparing a company to do battle in a hostile situation.
Let us turn this into a practical situation. Would you like to be on the receiving end in a critical situation, being treated by a paramedic that has all the theory but has done no practical training? Life is at stake, reputations are at stake!
Source: Deon Binneman is CEO and president of Repucomm, a reputational risk management, crisis management, communication & training consulting practice. E-mail: deonbin@icon.co.za


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