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Five Things You Can Do to Prepare Your Company for a Catastrophic Crisis

Posted on October 29, 2013 by Don MacPherson.

While business leaders don’t like to think about it, the list of crises that can hit a company is almost endless.

Ronald Thomas was vice president of HR/organizational development for Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia when Martha Stewart was indicted on charges including securities fraud and obstruction of justice in 2003. “Bad behavior in the executive suite. Bad products. Horrible responses to situations. Corporate behavior gone wild. The list goes on and on,” Thomas says.

That list of possible catastrophes includes outside crises — such as a major weather event or a terrorist attack — and planned, expected crises, such as a leadership transition. And the question shouldn’t be “what should we do if something happens?” Instead, company leaders should really be saying “Let’s make a plan for when something like this happens.”

Here are five things you can do to prepare your company for a catastrophic crisis.

1. Identify employees who have crisis-leadership skills.

  • Listening
  • Communication
  • Connectivity
  • Credibility
  • Decisiveness
  • Critical thinking
  • Situational awareness

2. Put your plan together.

Think of every possible crisis scenario: weather, terrorism, a mad gunman, corporate malfeasance, a company officer behaving badly. Then decide which employees, with their leadership skills, can help lead your team through the tough times.

Thomas’ advice: “Always keep in mind that your way may not be the best way. It is about the organization and not about you. Plan for the organization.”

3. Don’t expect you can keep it quiet.

Julie Kline, a consultant who manages corporate crises from a human resources standpoint at companies of all sizes, warns leadership teams to be realistic in crisis times. She sees leadership teams that “think they’re going to be able to control the message 100 percent or keep it quiet.” But, she cautions, the scandal always comes out. Planning for the worst means you won’t be caught off-guard.

4. Assign a point person for outside communication.

Put someone in charge of talking to the media and outside audiences. Shield your employees from curious reporters by appointing a clear media contact from the onset of the crisis.

5. Be open and honest with employees about what’s going on.

Employees will look to leaders for direction in a crisis. In many cases, simply not knowing what to do is a major factor.

At Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, Thomas says, he “was reminded every morning by the look in our employees’ eyes — uncertainty. ‘Why should I have to watch the news to find out what is going on in my own company?’ That was a comment that kept me and my team focused. We had to show that we were leaders.”

After holding quick focus groups with employees, the team honed a message to share with employees to address concerns. “We set up a road show to all departments and held Q&As,” he says.

Looking for more ideas on preparing your staff for a crisis? Learn more in our new white paper, Crisis Leadership.

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