man burried under work

The problem with planning for a problem

October 23, 2018

Critical takeaways

  • A shelf of plans in ‘white binders’ gives a false sense of security and can be worthless.
  • A crisis plan is not a step-by-step guide for every possible eventuality but should lay out the basic procedures for managing a crisis and some standard steps to address crises by type. This generates valuable speed in the early stages of a crisis.
  • Crisis procedures, tools and techniques should be developed and embedded through simulations and drills.


At the conclusion of the meeting, the CEO asked, “So, when will we have a plan?

The CEO’s question came at the end of a hour and a half session considering crisis response and risk identification.  In this case, we were specifically discussing an active shooter scenario to determine if he and his organization were ready for that. Certainly his desire was admirable – to be ready in the event that this kind of crisis were to occur – but, in my opinion, the CEO was under the false impression that ‘a plan’ was going to prepare his organization for a crisis. A plan would have given him some peace of mind, but not much more than that.

Here at Kith, we’re not big believers in exhaustive crisis plans. In fact, we’ve written about ‘death by binders’: how white binders filled with plans sitting on the shelf of the communications team or the general counsel’s office are basically worthless.

Instead, we advocate a simple formula to explain how organizations can respond in a crisis and move forward.


equation for crisis success


This formula takes your mission and values and marries these up with a robust chain of command to give you the speed you need in a crisis.  Speed is a key requirement when you need to fill the vacuum that’s created following a critical moment or a crisis. The organizations that succeed are the ones that can fill that vacuum and continue to fill it with information through the conclusion of the crisis in order to meet the expectations of the stakeholders.

Organizations that cannot respond rapidly will fail.

However, this doesn’t mean that we are opposed to planning.  On the contrary, we believe that prior preparation significantly improves the chances of success.  In fact, we aren’t even opposed to creating planning documents. The difference is in what we think a plan should include: what does the CEO actually need?

(Hint, the color of your binder isn’t important.)

What’s in a plan?

I explained that we don’t think a plan is a step-by-step playbook for every possible scenario so what do we think a crisis plan should include?

At Kith, we think that a  plan should include three key elements: a risk framework to help you understand the situation, the chain of command and stakeholder maps.  I won’t try to explain the exact contents of each of these sections as these will differ between organizations but do I want to outline the intent of each section to help you decide what your crisis plan should cover.

Firstly, a critical step in a crisis is to understand the situation you are dealing with.  This can be difficult so we developed a framework that classifies risks as strategic, preventable or external. This framework allows you to categorize a risk using one of these three ‘buckets’ which will help you determine the best approach to take. In addition to providing a framework for categorizing the situation, the plan should also include some general responses and holding statements for each category of risk. Not for each potential risk but for each category of risk. These statements and responses should be aligned to, and consistent with, the values of the organization.

For example, a strategic risk is a situation where the risk is taken intentionally for superior economic benefit or to move the organization forward. If this results in a crisis situation, the initial response should be one of empathy around the public’s confusion, coupled with an explanation of your intention and why you took the risk. The actual words to use for this kind of scenario can be prepared in advance and included in the plan to ensure that you reflect your values and mission in your messaging. These kinds of pre-written guides (holding statements) can be developed for each type of risk which gives you a starting point to address the specific crisis situation you are facing.

This ensures that you are not only aligned technically to meet the operational needs of the situation, but also aligned strategically with the values of the organization. Moreover, these pre-prepared statements buy you valuable time and help you build the speed of response that’s so critical to success.

The next major component of these plans is to define the chain of command.  Who are the decision makers and who are the other individuals that need to be involved, such as subject matter experts? Thought needs to go into who is in this kitchen cabinet, or war council, that the CEO and the senior leadership team are really going to depend upon. But this needs to be done well in advance of something going wrong.  It’s too late to try to assemble this team from scratch when something has already happened.

Identifying this team beforehand isn’t hard and we believe that it’s primarily made up of a core of three key figures: the CEO, general counsel and external affairs / communications. These represent the core team. You would then also then bring in other functions – like HR or operations – and subject matter experts depending on the specific situation.

However, you need to do some extra work to turn this from a list into a team that’s ready to respond to a crisis.

Identify the individuals who will fill those roles plus alternates if the primary nominee isn’t available. Contact information needs to be compiled and included in this plan in addition to a simple way to contact and notify these key individuals.  You should also include key media, stakeholder and regulatory contacts in this list. These should be the folks that typically follow your organization and would respond or react to these types of issues.

Include the experts and third party validators who would help you manage and explain to the public the general risk categories you identified in the risk framework. Importantly, once you have identified members of the response team and the external contacts, ensure that they are aware of their role and remain engaged with them throughout the year.

This does not need to be an infinite list but again, you are aiming for speed. Having your key contacts identified will help accelerate your response in the first few vital minutes and hours of the crisis.

Lastly, you need to understand your stakeholders – those who matter most in a given situation. We’ve talked about stakeholder maps and the value that they have, and a simple way to think about them is as belong to one of three groups: communities, customers or critics. Categorizing people into one of these categories is a simple but efficient way to help you map out the decision makers and the stakeholders that matter most.

Again, knowing who you might need to engage with in advance will save valuable time in a crisis.

Bringing the plan to life

From our perspective, those three elements – a risk framework, chain of command and stakeholder mapping – are the basic components of what a good crisis plan should look like. This is something that is usable, actionable and flexible which also means that it’s fast, helping you with that speed of response which is so critical in a crisis.

But you have to ensure that the plan isn’t just a set of documents – another dreaded white binder sitting on a shelf.

Therefore, the final step is to exercise and test the plan to bring it to life.  Drills and simulations are the only way to really know if the document and tools you’ve created truly meets your needs.  Putting these to use in a realistic situation will help identify any gaps in the plan and to determine specific strategies to rectify these. Simulations also allow the team members who will be involved in the response to practice their individual and team skills and to become familiar with the plan’s contents.

So again, our problem isn’t with planning.  Far from it!

The problem is that the wrong kind of planning create a false sense of security. Having a white binder on the shelf is reassuring (and expensive). It shows that someone has thought about these things. But thinking about them in a vacuum is not efficient not effective.

So instead of trying to build a step-by-step plan to map out every step for each potential crisis situation, we advocate a flexible plan that is designed to facilitate a fast, speedy response to any crisis situation.

Think about your mission, your values and what you stand for. How will you communicate this in a crisis?  Then, who’s involved, what’s the chain of command, and how do we gather this group quickly and efficiently? Finally, who are our external stakeholders – those who matter most in this situation?

If your document covers these three key areas, then that’s the basis of a really good plan. That way, when the CEO asks, “When will we have a plan?” we’ll know it’s in place,  not when we finish our Word document, but once we’ve thought through these core critical issues. These same issues that make organizations fast and therefore more likely to succeed in a crisis.

Filed under: Blog


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.