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Crisis management training: How to prepare and empower employees

With crisis management training, organizations can develop the agility to recover from crises with as little disruption as possible.
Crisis management training
Credit: Blake Cale; Felipe Esquivel Reed / Wikimedia Commons

Crises are an ever-present threat that can tarnish an organization’s reputation and have dire financial consequences. With a plan in place for crisis management training, however, organizations can develop the agility and resilience to recover from a crisis with as little disruption or downtime as possible. 

When asked to identify the types of crises their companies faced in the past three years, C-suite executives have cited online and social media attacks, supply chain issues or disruption, talent shortage, issues related to diversity and inclusion, and activism by shareholders, customers, or other organizations. As for the impact these crises could have on their organizations, their top concerns included leadership changes, strikes, and cybersecurity.

Similarly, HubSpot identified the following potential business crises as particularly troubling for organizations today:

  • Financial crisis, typically caused by a significant drop in demand for an organization’s products or services
  • Personnel crisis caused by the unethical or unlawful misconduct of an employee or an individual associated with the organization
  • Organizational crisis, in which an organization significantly wrongs consumers or its own employees through deliberate exploitation, withholding information, or abusing managerial powers
  • Technological crisis – when system outages occur, which is of particular concern for ecommerce sites and SAAS providers
  • Confrontation crisis, which can occur internally or with external parties, and can result in mass resignations or public boycotts
  • Workplace violence crisis, when a current or former employee deliberately causes physical harm to other employees
  • Crisis of malevolence, which includes cybersecurity threats, spreading false information, product sabotage, and other crimes intended to harm an organization

An event in any of these categories can do a great deal of damage to an organization. Fortunately, crisis management training can develop the capabilities needed to maintain business continuity with regard to mission-critical functions, both during and following a crisis. 

5 best practices for crisis management training

All employees can benefit from learning how to react when a crisis hits. However, an Edelman study reported that 60% of C-suite executives say their teams lack the skills to manage the troubling issues that businesses encounter today. 

The most urgent need for training on crisis management exists within senior leadership, in particular, with those responsible for assessing risks and developing a plan. In fact, the Edelman study cited earlier found crisis management to be the fastest growing area of responsibility for CMOs and CCOs. 

To start preparing leaders and their teams, here are some of the most important topics to include in crisis management training. 

Risk assessment and management

Training for crisis management must begin with an understanding of modern risk assessment. Some of the crises that now have the greatest potential to harm organizations were unheard of in the pre-Internet world, and new ones can emerge with little warning, as we saw with the COVID-19 pandemic. Some are so slow to develop, such as climate change, that they’re not seen as an imminent threat requiring an immediate response. 

Whatever form it may take, one inescapable truth about risk is that we can’t avoid it. However, we can manage it. Stanley McChrystal, a retired U.S. Army General and co-author of Risk: A User’s Guide, likens effective risk management to a healthy human immune system. 

In his Big Think+ class, McChrystal positions risk management as a way to overcome vulnerabilities through a process of risk detection and assessment, response, and learning from the experience. More in the video below. 

Developing a crisis management plan

Organizations can benefit from creating a set of crisis scenarios, one for each risk identified as both likely to occur and impossible to prevent. Then, a set of response protocols is developed — for example, protocols for system restoration, facility lockdown, evacuation, police or fire response, calling in external professionals, responding to media inquiries, and so on. These response protocols are matched to each scenario, to be activated by the crisis management team when needed. 

Crisis management training can assist in the development of a crisis management plan. It can also help leaders define the conditions under which the response protocols will be activated and the mechanism for alerting the crisis management team. Additionally, a crisis management plan should specify procedures for post-crisis recovery to minimize the operational, reputational, and business consequences of a crisis.

Establishing a crisis management team

There are no hard and fast rules regarding the composition of a crisis management team, but most organizations include these as essential roles:

  • A team leader with overall responsibility for controlling and directing the crisis response, including decisions about releasing information to the media and allocating funds to the crisis response effort
  • A field response team leader for the onsite supervision of the response to incidents occurring at another location, if applicable
  • A crisis coordinator, who serves as a liaison and point of contact when a field response, the involvement of emergency services, or law enforcement are required
  • An HR representative to advise the crisis management team on personnel issues related to the crisis
  • A financial representative to track and document expenses incurred as a result of the crisis
  • A legal representative to minimize the organization’s legal exposure and liability 

Crisis management training can help leaders define these roles, and those assigned to the team may need additional training specific to their role.

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Ethical considerations in crisis management

Even organizations that normally act in accordance with their core values can lose sight of them in a heated crisis response atmosphere. Crisis management training needs to emphasize the ethical problems that can arise when an organization does what is expedient, face-saving, or cost-effective rather than what is right. 

For example, knowingly withholding information about a crisis to avoid reputational damage may not be ethical. Additionally, when a crisis negatively impacts customers, shareholders, employees, or the public, it’s appropriate to apologize and share what is being done to rectify the situation. 

Trust-building behaviors

Trust plays a key role in organizational resilience. In fact, the study from Edelman found that trusted organizations rebound from a crisis three times faster than less trusted ones. Key trust-building behaviors that the C-suite can learn to exercise include: 

  • Mobilizing employees as advocates and ambassadors in times of crisis
  • Demonstrating a deep understanding of cultural/local context and nuances
  • Consistent messaging across all internal and external stakeholder groups
  • Being accessible to media and journalists
  • Demonstrating their organization’s positive impact on society

These are all excellent topics to discuss in crisis management training for those in leadership positions.

Final thoughts

Crisis management training can bring about a heightened awareness of an organization’s known vulnerabilities. Employees also become more sensitive to the possibility of crises and more proactive about acting upon the initial signs of an emerging vulnerability. 

Additionally, organizations that hold post-crisis sessions can identify ways to improve their crisis management plan. In this sense, those that make it through a crisis may experience unexpected future benefits. As the Chinese proverb says, “A crisis is an opportunity riding a dangerous wind.”

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