iron chain

How Your Chain of Command Generates Speed

March 22, 2022

You’ve probably seen the Abbott and Costello sketch ‘Who’s on First?‘ (and if not, you’re missing out) where the team’s names – Who is on First base, What is on Second, Why is in the Outfield – make for a lot of confusion and a great skit. But take a moment and think back to the last time you were called into a room as a crisis was breaking.

Now ask yourself: was it very different?

Sadly, in many cases, there’s an equal amount of confusion, not because of people’s names, but because it’s not clear who should be doing what. There’s no clear chain of command – who’s in charge and what the reporting structures look like – nor is there always certainty over who should be in the room.

This confusion immediately bogs down your response: you don’t have the right decision-makers in the room, nor do you have someone who can break ties or issue directions. The result is a discussion without outcomes, a shaky start, and valuable time lost.

Often, this confusion occurs even though the organization has established a chain of command and defined roles and responsibilities. The problem is that no one has looked at the plan that explains these relationships. 

In other instances, there is no chain of command or clearly defined roles, and people fall back on the organization’s day-to-day or ‘peacetime’ structure. The problem there is that crisis responsibilities and skills can differ from usual work: day-to-day marketing or P.R. is not the same as crisis communications.

So if you want to be fast (and trust me, you do), you need a clear chain of command.

Establishing a chain of command

Here are five steps you can take immediately to establish a robust, functional chain of command, so you don’t have to repeat the ‘Who’s On First’ skit the next time a crisis hits. (Even if you think you have a chain of command in place, check it against these five points to ensure it won’t let you down.)

  1. Identify the roles you need to fill in a crisis.
  2. Start with day-to-day roles as long as skill sets overlap but focus on matching roles to skills 
  3. Identify roles by job title, not the incumbent (the chain of command should be personality neutral)
  4. Draw clear lines of responsibility from the leader down. Where there are several roles at a similar level, have someone above them to break ties and make the final decision.
  5. Ensure you can put a name to each position so you know who should be contacted when you need to assemble your team. If at all possible, identify an alternate for each role. (This supports Mobilization and builds redundancy – other essential elements that help you build speed.)

Follow these five steps, and you’ll have a clear, well-understood chain of command showing who reports to whom in the event of a crisis and how teams and departments interact. This certainty will avoid any in-the-moment confusion, ensure that you have the right people, in the right roles, knowing what they’re individually responsible for and who’s in charge.


Photo by Miltiadis Fragkidis on Unsplash

Part of our Components of Speed Series – read more

5 elements of speed

Filed under: Blog | Crisis Confidence


Bill is a reputation management, crisis communications and professional development expert, keynote speaker, Wall Street Journal Risk & Compliance panelist, and best-selling author of Critical Moments: The New Mindset of Reputation Management. He has more than 25 years of global experience managing high-stakes crises, issues management, and media relations challenges for both Fortune 500 companies and winning global political campaigns.