Most companies fall into the “planning trap.” They make plans for everything, including planning meetings on how to plan. What’s often missing, however, is preparation. Plans emphasize objectives, as they should, but preparation is the key to actually achieving intended results.
Abraham Lincoln understood: “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” That’s preparation.
Businesses today need to spend more time sharpening the axe, preparing for actions that will make a difference. Nowhere is this more important than in a crisis.
Consider the scenario of an industrial accident. An employee is injured by materials falling from a storage shelf. It’s unlikely any plan would have prevented that, but proper preparation of the workspace might have. And after the accident, preparation will guide the company response to the employee’s immediate injury, to the press’s inquiry about the incident, and to the public’s understanding of the company as a safe place to work.
When I broach this idea to clients, the response is often: “You can’t plan for the unexpected.” Of course you can; in this litigious age you have to. And that preparation has to include communications with employees and the media. Here are three tips that will help.
- In every crisis, minutes count. When the press is on the phone for a reaction to an incident it’s too late to begin preparations. A “crisis team” of executives (not just the unlucky employee who answered the phone) should already be designated to handle the public’s inquiries.
- Training that team should have involved rehearsing various “What-do-we-do-if …” scenarios. Accidents happen, people get hurt, mistakes are made. It’s part of life, so don’t be surprised. Prepare for these rainy days by anticipating what might go wrong, speculating about your likely options and practicing your responses. Too busy for all that? Then you are the accident waiting to happen.
- Don’t stiff-arm the press and the public. How many times have you heard it said that the cover-up is more damaging than the crime? Tell the truth. If you don’t know something, say you don’t know but will find out. People probably already know that something happened. Now they want to know why and how it affects them. Help them understand.
Here’s a secret most companies learn the hard way: The more forthright you are early in a crisis, the less intense that crisis is likely to be. But smart forthrightness requires preparation.
Like Lincoln, Ben Franklin understood: “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”