Practice, Practice, Practice
Many professional sports franchises have a crisis plan. Very few of them ever practice them. Therein lies the problem facing our industry. We face potential crises every day, and we recognize the need to develop plans and create procedures. But we never think to ask ourselves, “What if this actually happened. What would we do? What would we say? How could we respond so quickly and effectively that we could actually mitigate the crisis through our actions?"
The Mighty Ducks of Anaheim took the bull by the horns and answered the “what if” question by actually simulating an earthquake at their rink – the Arrowhead Pond. What was discovered, during the exercise, was that there’s often no coordination between the team and the facility staff – save the sharing of an occasional evacuation map and/or emergency contact list. The Ducks learned how to bring these groups closer together to more completely prepare for a potential crisis. As a result, the team and facility will now be able to recover faster from a crisis, should one occur.
Because most sports franchises can’t answer the “what if” questions with much confidence, we’re witnessing a slow but steady transformation in the way organizations approach crisis relations. Historically, the industry has always looked at crisis in the rear view mirror. A crisis was something thought about only when it happened. It was an excuse to dust off the plan and guesstimate the best way to respond in the heat of the moment.
Today, senior executive teams are recognizing that we’re simply dealing with a different world. We’re facing new threats that our predecessors never could have dreamed of and we are under an intense 24x7 scrutiny from fans, media, and Wall Street. The bottom line is as important as the goal line, and a potential crisis can very easily disrupt the all-important flow of revenue.
As a result, teams are finally beginning to associate the word “preparedness” with crisis relations. A few have recognized the need to conduct mock drills so their management teams can get a feeling for what it’s like to experience the tornado of activity that comes along with a crisis event. Going through such an exercise enables teams to uncover gaps in the crisis response mechanism and determine potential vulnerabilities within the organization. Most importantly, it establishes a process for responding to all constituents during a crisis, which enables a management team to be organized and in control during the initial hours of response.
Here are a few suggestions that we feel are critical to getting the most out of a mock crisis drill.
Don’t do it yourself. You can’t take part in a mock exercise and effectively critique your abilities. If funds allow, bring in an independent third-party crisis consultant to manage the mock crisis and evaluate your response and provide honest feedback on how you and your management team performed.
Choose a mock crisis that could potentially hit your organization in the future. If you’re going to practice, it might as well be based on as much reality as possible.
- Make sure to factor in the needs of all constituent audiences during the mock crisis. Too often there are the “forgotten few” – one or two key audiences that an organization forgets to communicate with during a crisis. If you neglect them in the practice drills, chances are you’ll breeze right over them during the real thing.
Don’t go through the mock exercise unless the entire management team is involved. That doesn’t mean everyone has to be in the same room (chances are they won’t be when a real crisis hits). But they all need to be involved in the exercise on some level so the group can get a feeling for how to work as a team.
Set benchmarks and then grade the team against those goals. Management teams rarely set goals during a crisis response. That’s a mistake, which prevents the team from working toward an achievable goal and determining if the steps taken by the organization were successful. Set benchmarks throughout the mock drill, and constantly evaluate to gauge if the response is working in the team’s favor.
Identify gaps in the team’s response, uncover potential vulnerabilities, and offer recommendations for changes in procedure and company policies.
Whether you’re conducting a mock exercise or experiencing a real crisis, remember to be honest with yourself and others, be deliberate in your response and be fast to address the needs of your constituents. Some of the greatest failures in crisis relations have been a result of cover-ups and lengthy delays in responding to the crisis at hand.
Professional athletes are under pressure to perform every time they take the field, the court, or the ice. The same goes for the front office when a crisis hits. A failure to perform under such circumstances can lead a franchise to a loss much greater than any defeat on the playing field. And at end of the day, we’re all charged with running a business and making a profit for our owners. Crisis preparedness must be an integral part of that equation. Management needs to realize that while practice doesn’t make perfect, it goes a long way when a real crisis comes to town.
Ted Birkhahn is a partner at Peppercom, an award-winning, strategic communications firm headquartered in New York, with offices in San Francisco, Chicago, and London. For more information, visit www.peppercom.com.
Charles Harris is the director of publicity and community development for the Anaheim Mighty Ducks of the National Hockey League. For more information, visit www.mightyducks.com.