A human approach to crisis management

24 January 2019
Author: Graham MacKay

Managing crises is becoming an important part of an NGO’s work. Examples just in the last year have gone from the comical - two nuns going on a gambling spree in Las Vegas - to the very serious – sexual abuse among aid workers - to being the day job where your business is responding to emergencies. 

All these need to be effectively and sensitively managed so that the crisis does not get worse for those most closely affected while not evolving into a reputational risk. 

Planning for the unexpected

To deal with all these, many charities and NGOs develop crisis management plans and procedures. Despite having the same core components, there are many ways to present this: from a Harvard Business School-recommended 10-step approach to a 40-page document detailing the analysis and steps that an organisation needs to take. At their core, nearly all of these contain three main components: 

  • A crisis management plan
  • Clearly defined leadership
  • Learning and testing

A frequently quoted problem with crisis management plans is that even the ones that are perfectly written can just end up on a shelf somewhere. A few years ago, I took part in a simulation exercise to test a crisis management plan that I helped put together. As we got into the exercise and were ploughing our way through the problems, the instructors had to stop and ask why we weren’t using the plan. 

This was embarrassing of course, but it points to a problem that even the best crisis management plans need to be stress-tested for management (or more often non-management) by humans. A more frequent problem may be to cut corners or interpret the crisis plan in such a way to avoid some of its unwelcome implications. 

The key players who will have to implement a crisis management plan are people with emotions, egos, and delicate authority who each have their own interpretation and own point of view. Organisations need to recognise this in their approach and plan for crisis management. 

Crisis management does demand a change in behaviour, perhaps from a more collaborative approach to one that is more directive. It means some people that were in positions of authority find that authority taken away. It also demands a high degree of objectivity to be successful. But there will be subjective interpretations of the plan, and these will need to be managed. 

Who is the plan really for?

But all this needs to start with the original point of the crisis response. The best place to start is to look at the definition of a crisis. The British Standard BS11200:2014 defines it as: "An abnormal and unstable situation that threatens the organisation’s strategic objectives, reputation or viability."

But these words miss out the key ingredient, which is any reference to people - importantly those most affected by the crisis. Crisis management is about more than preserving the organisation. And focusing on self-preservation can often make things worse, leading to additional reputational damage. 

The classic example of this approach is the CEO of BP during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, who said he wanted his life back. The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was the largest marine oil spill by a petroleum company. In this statement, he made a disaster about him and whether his welfare was being sufficiently supported. 

There are probably two lessons from this – firstly don’t make it about the people managing the crisis but secondly, we need to consider the welfare and support of those leading the crisis response. For charities this would normally be a role for trustees. 

Given that crisis management needs clear, empowered chains of command and strong directive leadership, trustees cannot get involved in the operational response. Inevitably trustees will be working from a point of low information and context. However, trustees have a very useful role to play if they approach this by considering the human side. 

After making sure there is an adequate crisis management plan in place, what would be their role in the event of crisis? Firstly, they should check whether the plan is being followed. Secondly, ask who or what the main focus or point of the response is. And thirdly, they should ensure that the welfare of the person leading the response is taken care of. 

There is, of course, much more to successful crisis management. But worrying about the human side, especially those most affected by the crisis, is a good place to start. 

About the author

Graham MacKay
Bond

Graham MacKay is Bond’s chief operating officer.