Build a (Mostly) Fail-Safe Emergency Plan For Your Team

Last Updated Jan 27, 2011 9:52 AM EST

If the last year hasn't convinced you that your team needs a plan to stay in touch and keep your work on track, nothing will. We've had oil spills, volcanoes, snow storms in Atlanta, flooding in the Australian desert; pretty much everything but (in the words of Bill Murray) human sacrifice, cats and dogs living together and mass hysteria. So you need a plan--what should go into it?

I went for advice to someone who knows all too well the challenges of handling crises. Neil Chapman has 25+ years experience dealing with crises and difficult public affairs issues around the globe. Until last year he worked for BP. He founded Alpha Voice Communications consultancy to focus on crisis communications readiness, presentation training and issues management.


Can you tell us how having an emergency plan helped you at BP?


Emergency plans are required throughout the energy industry, and are regularly tested against potential incidents by the company and regulators. The difference with the Deepwater Horizon incident was the sheer complexity and scale of the event. But the plans, drills and training that people undergo regularly formed the framework for the response so they knew what to do and how to go about it. Some industries insist on having a plan in place-- but pretty much all businesses should have one whether it's mandated or not.

What are the specific components of an emergency communication plan for remote teams (especially little things we might not think of)?
It comes down to linkage - as with any remote team - and using technologies to connect them as much as possible. That's where Facebook, blogs, websites and social media can play an increasingly important role. But one of the 'little things' that can turn into a major one if not followed, is the concept of Information Discipline. The more extended a response becomes, in terms of time, location and people, the more important it is that everyone has access to the same information, and that it is either shared or there is a location, likely virtual, where they can go to in order to retrieve it.


How do you keep it top of mind and fresh so people can respond when things come out of the blue?
There are various levels of learning:

  • Tabletops, where responders discuss a scenario and talk through their actions and the issues. These should be a regular feature of any organisation facing an emergency or crisis
  • Drills, where responders - sometimes hundreds of them - act out what they would do in an emergency, in real time and with varying degrees of actuality. For communicators it is particularly important to try to replicate the pressure of dealing with audiences 'hungry' for information - media, communities, politicians - as closely as possible.
  • Hotwashes - where responders get together after an incident to share learnings, identifying what worked well or needs improving. BP has been very quick to issue reports so that others can learn from the Deepwater Horizon incident.
Organizations are wise to take the time to learn lessons from how others handled incidents. It's much cheaper!

Neil leaves us with an ominous thought: "Crises can seem remote, or something that happens to others...so there is a danger response training does not receive sufficient attention because it might not happen. However, apart from the fact such a position smacks of complacency, organizations should realize that crisis response skills are a great investment for being more effective in day to day business".

Listen to a full interview with Neil Chapman on the Cranky Middle Manager Show podcast

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photo by flickr user Marshall Astor CC 2.0