Procedures have a terrible reputation amongst communicators for stifling creativity and limiting the freedom needed to respond to a crisis. We’ll often say that we can’t plan something as complex and instinctual as a crisis in advance.
In many ways, I agree.
My dislike of shelves of binders is long-held and well-documented. Trying to map each step of a crisis in advance is a fool’s errand: there are too many unknowns that you’ll need to deal with as they arise. Plus, giving people anything that looks like a checklist can make them think that the problem’s solved once they’ve checked every box. (Spoiler: it won’t be).
However, you can plan lots of things in advance, and where you can do this sensibly, you’ll be saving yourself time in a crisis and generating the speed you need, particularly in the early stages.
For example, you know you’ll need to issue a holding statement. You’ll also need a way to make decisions and share these with the organization. You have to be able to communicate with those who matter most in that particular situation.
Procedures buy you time
So even though I’m against shelves full of binders, I like having procedures for recurring activities because these give me two significant advantages, both associated with speed.
First, I know that anything collaborative takes time. Holding statements are a great example. No matter how fast I can write something, I need to get the subject matter experts to check that my language is accurate. Then I need legal to approve the wording before getting it out the door. These additional steps are vital to ensure we don’t make things worse with an inaccurate statement, but they slow everything down. However, if I’ve thought about the risks we might face, I can draft holding statements for the most likely and get these agreed upon in advance. Pre-prepared statements save valuable hours in the early stage of a crisis and allow us to start telling our story as early as possible.
Second, I know that critical thinking and planning are much harder in the Crucible of Crisis: the additional pressure, stress, and uncertainty make everything more complicated. If I try to work out who matters most in this kind of situation, I’m more likely to overlook someone or struggle to get the information I need. It’s also hard to know who to contact and how we’ll get in touch with them. This friction is going to eat up valuable time.
However, if I can do this planning in advance, I’ll know that the list of potential stakeholders I’ll pull out in a crisis is thorough and robust. I’ll also have a straightforward process for contacting those who matter most in that particular situation.
Getting the right balance
These examples illustrate the ideal balance you want with a procedure. It should explain how to do something once you have made a decision, but it doesn’t tell you what the decision should be. The stakeholder register doesn’t say who matters most for each situation; it just provides a list to consider. A holding statement library doesn’t tell you that you have to issue a holding statement; it simply provides a tool to use if you decide that’s the best course of action.
Clearly, not everything lends itself to pre-planning. Decisions need to be taken in the moment, so you’re not trying to plan everything to the nth degree. However, having a set of procedures to delve into will allow you to put plans into action much more quickly once you decide what’s best. It’s like having a bag of crisis tools ready to use: you simply need to pick the right one for the job.
This gives you the ideal balance of flexibility and speed. Remembering that speed alone isn’t the intent – we want speed and direction. A good set of procedures will help you get there.