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The Five Stages of Crisis Management

When people talk about preparing for a crisis they are usually talking about the initial phases. They want to be able to spot the crisis happening and be ready to respond quickly to the situation. For communication professionals, this usually means having plans, processes and statements that are ready to go within the first hour. But there is a lot more to being really prepared for a crisis.

The last few years have been a game-changer for many people as they were suddenly confronted with a long-running crisis. There was no clear understanding of how things would develop and it was hard to decide what the next steps would be. Businesses and organizations have been forced to deal with a crisis that spanned many months, or even years. This brought with it some significant challenges for their communication. How can you keep people engaged and supportive of your response when it runs over years and may take many months to show results? How do you counter rumour, speculation and fake news when your crisis is continuing?

Crisis planning in the post-pandemic era requires a detailed approach to manage long-running situations, tackle misinformation and disinformation and handle the situation into recovery and beyond. Communication remains critical at each stage and will be the one part of the business that is still aware and concerned about what happened, even when everyone else has moved on.

Keeping this in mind, here are the five stages of managing a crisis and how to approach your crisis communication strategy:

Stage 1: Recognizing the Crisis

The most important first step is to acknowledge that the crisis is there. In some situations, this is obvious, but an early warning alert is needed to focus attention on what is developing. The key at this stage is speed, both in recognition and reacting. At this moment, one that is much talked about and written about, pre-prepared statements can be dusted off and used and the message can be made clear. It boils down to saying that you are aware of and actively dealing with it and that you will provide more information when you can.

Getting this stage right is important as it underpins what comes next.

Stage 2: Initial Response

In the first 24–48 hours after the crisis has happened there are a significant number of urgent actions to be completed. A structure that will help decision making and provide a flow of accurate information needs to be established. This includes a communication plan for employees, the public and stakeholders. At this point, most of the pre-testing and exercising will have concluded. What comes from the next three stages will, for many organizations, be uncharted waters.

Stage 3: Managing the Situation

The action and response will move into a more steady and less frantic stage after the first couple of days. At this point, the organization is looking to ensure the response is in place, the situation is being managed and that they are working towards a successful conclusion. For communicators, the challenge is to keep sharing communication that shows the situation is a top priority for the business and that action is being taken.

If there is no successful conclusion, this will be a serious test of how to maintain the narrative that has been developed. This phase needs to be seen as a journey that is developing from before the crisis until after the crisis. Keep explaining what is happening and ensure that the communication moves from broadcast to engagement.

Stage 4: Creating Flexibility in Pre-recovery

Before the recovery can start there is a moment when the crisis is still in place but coming to a conclusion. You have a foot in the crisis and a foot in developing the recovery plan. This is an incredibly delicate position where confidence can be won or lost. Move too quickly to recovery and you risk criticism and possibly being seen as uncaring to those affected by what has happened. Move too slowly and you will extend any potential damage by the crisis to your reputation.

Tread carefully here and remember the crisis can take a turn at any point and lead you back to Stage 3 rather than move forward. The key skill here is to be flexible and adaptable in your response and communication.

Stage 5: Time to Recover

This is a critical phase. It includes bringing the situation to a conclusion, starting to move forward and assessing the damage that may have been caused. It is a time that needs careful thought and planning and should not be left to chance. Organizations that emerge stronger from a crisis will have invested time in debriefing, assessing what needs to change and moving crisis communication and management into change communication and management.

What often happens is the business tries to rush back to ‘normal’, forgets the learning points from dealing with the crisis and communicators are put under significant pressure. Not only are they trying to assess the impact of the crisis and to develop recovery communication, but they will also be exhausted and will have potentially lost any additional support. This is why I think more work needs to be done in planning, training and exercising around this stage of the crisis.

So, how long will each of these phases take? The truth is, as long as they need to. This is not something that the business can dictate. The public mood and tone are critical factors at this point. If you don’t keep an eye on it, the crisis can become a reputational disaster. All the principles of crisis communication are still important at this late stage of the situation. At the heart of the response and communication, there should be keeping people at the centre of the activity and involving them in how the business can emerge from the crisis.

It is important that businesses and organizations ensure they are really crisis-ready from the start, when the situation emerges, and through to recovery and beyond. It is a long and, at some times, winding road requiring resilience and effective crisis response.

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