Dealing with crises is sadly an experience that most senior managers will have to go through at some point in their careers. Whether it’s caused by hackers or hurricanes, faulty products or fraudulent behavior, senior teams cannot avoid all problems. But they can prevent issues that cause unnecessary harm to the workforce, the company’s reputation, its facilities, or its profitability.
Key to this is switching the outlook of all employees away from only addressing a crisis while it is in progress or, often, after it has occurred. Leading comms teams understand that the most effective form of crisis management is crisis prevention.
Three Steps to Preventing the Worst of a Crisis
Instead of taking a reactionary approach and working to limit damage after the event occurs, comms teams should gather input from employees to manage the risks that could lead to crises. They should also help create a collaborative culture to make employees and leaders alike accountable to the prevention plans they have created together. Three steps will help.
Move away from top-down: Communications’ efforts to promote corporate safety initiatives often fall flat because they force a series of “compliance steps” on employees through top-down policies, processes, and safety reminders. Comms teams should encourage employees to communicate openly to help senior leaders gain access to valuable information that would never emerge through traditional communication flows (see chart 1).
One health and safety manager at a large manufacturer in CEB’s networks, highlights the importance of employee dialogue: “Our leaders are moving away from a compliance kind of discussion, and instead asking employees questions. There’s a mindset change here-instead of telling employees to comply with an existing process, we ask them how that process could be improved…the point is that without asking for information, we may not uncover all the areas to focus on.”
Chart 1: The benefits of an integrated safety approach Source: CEB analysis
Alternatives to a formal crisis plan: Sensitize employees to risk and their role in managing crises. Make all of them aware that they are active participants in crisis prevention, not objects associated with a crisis plan.Identify and make use of relevant crisis experience.
Ask, who in the company has worked through a large-scale crisis with previous employers or in a previous function? Find those people and tap into their knowledge and experience. Use them as examples and advisers or, if possible, ask them to lead regular meetings.
Provide guidelines to employees on how to identify and escalate potential crises (who are the correct points of contact, when and how can they take action). In addition to providing resources to use during a crisis, outline steps to help them prevent crises by:
Reinforcing values and important behaviors by showcasing examples of positive prevention tactics.
Fostering a culture of transparency through open lines of communication with leadership.
Building awareness and understanding of policies and guidelines by making resources readily available to all employees.
Ask questions, don’t issue instructions: Every employee is a representative and crisis manager for your company whether you want them to be or not. Frontline employees also have the most experience with safety risks and the highest degree of personal risk, so ask them how to improve crisis prevention processes.
Opening the lines of communication for free and frequent discussions about crises will reinforce the idea of “prevention” as a culture and keep employees’ crisis-related knowledge up-to-date. Remember, if your planning is centered on what to do when a crisis occurs, it’s already too late. Focus on helping employees take an active part in making improvements before a crisis, as well as just asking them questions to understand processes.
Comms teams can also ask questions to diagnose the underlying problems that can turn issues into crises. Questions such as, “What prevents you from working safely?” This process will not only inform employees of proper protocol when it comes to crisis management, but also prevent the same issue from popping up again.