3 simple steps to prepare for any crisis

No matter what perils your organization might face, being prepared doesn’t have to be overly complicated. Here’s how you can be ready.


What do the COVID-19 global pandemic, a volcanic eruption, the Washington Football Team, and a cybersecurity breach all have in common?  Crisis.

While some may have expected a punchline for the answer, the serious consequences of ineffective crisis preparation, plan execution and plan recovery for people and organizations has real world impact. Yet, time after time, a crisis has resulted in some of the most positive opportunities for change in world and American history. The moment when a crisis becomes an opportunity with positive outcomes, versus a risk with negative consequences, isn’t the product of random luck. True collaboration, effective communication and crisis planning are essential elements for maximizing positive crisis opportunity.

Here are the common elements of a crisis by definition and the keys to maximizing opportunity and minimizing risk before, during, and after a crisis:

First, a definition

A crisis is not always a disaster or an emergency. A crisis is broader than an emergency (an urgent action) or disaster (a calamitous event).

It’s important to define a crisis before examining fundamental keys to success. Dictionary definitions are a starting point and serve as a foundation to preparing for, operating within, and recovering from a crisis. Most formal definitions of a crisis include the words: turning point, crucial time, and decision:

“A crisis is an unstable or crucial time or state of affairs in which a decisive change is impending.”

The National Fire Protection Association’s definition:

“An issue, event, or series of events with potential for strategic implications that severely impacts or has the potential to severely impact an entity’s operations, brand, image, reputation, market share, ability to do business, or relationships with key stakeholders. A crisis might or might not be initiated or triggered by an incident and requires sustained input at a strategic level to minimize its impact on the entity.”

A definition used by many organizational reputation professionals:

An event or events that trigger a real, perceived, or possible threat to life, health and safety, the environment, facilities, the economy, or the organization’s credibility. The public and media will likely define it.

While there is science behind crisis planning, the execution of the plan is more of an art. It has been my experience, and validated by countless examinations following crisis events, that communication is the key factor before, during and after a crisis. And communication is not a one-way street.

Communication is the lever to activate collaboration.

If a person or group feels talked to instead of listened to, trust is not likely to result. However, true collaboration involves ensuring each stakeholder and partner has a voice—true input.

Effective communication builds trust. Ineffective communication erodes trust. Trust is fundamental to the ability to maximize opportunity and minimize risk in a crisis. Communication is equal parts internal to the organization and external to the organization.

So, the key to maximizing opportunity and minimizing risk before, during, and after a crisis?  Here are the three fundamental steps:

  1. Prepare for a likely crisis:
  2. Conduct an organizational risk assessment and develop a continuity of operation plan for every likely risk.
  3. Develop a collaborative crisis management plan that includes an internal and external crisis communication plan exercise. Ensure every person in the organization, along with external stakeholders and partners, understands and appreciates their role. Revise the plan continually to adapt for new risks.

Three steps to success. It doesn’t need to be more complicated than that. Each person within an organization has the ability now to maximize opportunity and minimize risk in the next crisis.

That’s the best opportunity for everyone.

John Born is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Online Master of Public Administration Program and Executive in Residence at Ohio University.


One Response to “3 simple steps to prepare for any crisis”

    Ronald N. Levy says:

    This crisis PR expert is exceptionally bright and right but in one respect may be too optimistic.

    He says to “ensure that every person in the organization understands and appreciates their role” in minimizing the risk of a crisis. But many people may not give a damn about the possibility of crisis nor want to play a role. We can see this from how many people don’t wear a mask to minimize risk of the coronavirus nor mask their feelings about racial minorities and people haughtily seen as moral deviants.

    So while we TRY to “ensure that every person in the organization” understands their possible role, we can be realistic in recognizing that even in the face of crisis, some people will be less interested in playing a role than in playing around.

    It can help crucially in planning to have either (a) retained a great PR firm, (b) invited a capabilities presentation from a few PR firms that seem to fit in with what we may need, or at least (c) have a recent O’Dwyer directory of PR firms marked up to show which PR firms can be called promptly because they seem to have a team and a philosophy that matches well with our management.

    It could also be a blessing, if you can get the money, to have six or eight of your executives from non-PR departments take a couple of PR Daily courses in crisis PR. This could help you assemble a team of knowledgeable people when people with PR knowledge may be needed for a crisis management committee.

    This focus on readiness fits in well with Professor Born’s First Rule of PR crisis wisdom: “PREPARE for a likely crisis.”

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