Crisis Management Plan on an office desk and papers.

The Complete Guide to Creating a Crisis Playbook (for Next Time)

10+ min read • Jun 11, 2020 • Jesse Sumrak

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a not-so-gentle wake-up call for unprepared businesses. Companies of all sizes, reputations, and global scales have taken a hit from government lockdowns and shelter-in-place orders. 

Businesses without a plan didn’t stand a chance: many that were caught off-guard went completely under, and some are still struggling just to survive (and will for months, and maybe even years). And even those businesses with well-developed contingency plans weren’t prepared for the unforeseen impacts of COVID-19.

Next time, though, you’ll be ready. 

Regardless of what happened, the past is in the past—it’s time to start planning for the future. COVID-19 has taught us some valuable lessons about how to prepare for the unexpected, and we’ll use those brutal teachings to prevent catastrophe when the next crisis strikes.

Whether your business escaped the coronavirus crisis unscathed, crawled out from its wreckage, or is about to open for the first time, this guide will walk you through all the steps to create a complete crisis playbook to protect your business from the next disaster.

Run Through a Post-Mortem

COVID-19 challenged every business in different ways—but even if you came out on top, a post-mortem is invaluable. Post-mortems are meetings to uncover lessons learned (both good and bad) from a project, event, or launch.

As soon as possible, gather the key players responsible for making decisions and executing tactics to have a post-mortem. Here are some of the questions to ask:

  • What happened?
  • What went well?
  • What went wrong?
  • What could have been prevented?
  • What could we do better next time?
  • Did our processes work?
  • Where were the bottlenecks?
  • What needs to change?

This session’s purpose isn’t to assign blame—it’s a meeting to discover holes in your business’s operations, figure out how to patch them, and prevent new leaks.

Take the opportunity to answer these questions and come up with solutions. And once you figure out what went wrong, dive deeper to find out why. After you have the why, discuss how to remedy the problem.

Document this discussion and its takeaways. You’ll use these post-mortem findings to create your updated—and upgraded—crisis playbook.

Establish Who Has the ‘D’

Decisions determine the fate of your business. Making good, timely choices doesn’t happen naturally—it requires clear roles and responsibilities. You need to decide now who has the “D.”

Businesses have come up with various models to clarify decision-making roles and assign responsibilities, and one of the most popular methods is called RAPID. RAPID stands for 5 primary roles: recommend, agree, perform, input, and decide (the D):

  • Recommend: People who propose a course of action or suggest alternatives.
  • Agree: Those who approve the recommendation(s) and sign off to move it forward.
  • Input: The individuals who’ll provide candid feedback on the proposed course of action. The Inputs should likely include a devil’s advocate to provide dissenting and contrasting views and consider both the best and worst outcomes.
  • Decide: The person responsible for examining the recommendation and listening to the input before making a final decision.
  • Perform: People responsible for executing the agreed-upon game plan once the Decide commits to action.

The end goal of RAPID: to unclog the decision-making process, creating improved coordination and faster response times. RAPID is just one model for making it happen. You may choose a different method entirely, but your goal should be the same—to eliminate bottlenecks and empower your business to make (and execute) informed decisions quicker. 

Don’t wait to form a Tiger Team when disaster is imminent or has already befallen your business. Be proactive and create your crisis management team now. This team should include key decision-makers from around the company: an executive team, a communications manager, human resources staff, etc.

If you’re using the RAPID method, assign roles and responsibilities to each member of your crisis management team. Clarified roles will help prevent any hiccups or speed bumps when you need to make decisions quickly.

Make a Plan A, B, C, and D

Your small business should already have a business plan (if it doesn’t, start with this step-by-step guide), but what happens when a wrench is thrown into it—like a global pandemic? Make sure you have a backup plan—and a backup plan for your backup plan. Even with all this preparation, you should still be ready to scrap all your ideas and start over again.

This planning is a lot of work, but it’s much better than trying to come up with solutions on the fly. Temporary fixes act a lot like Band-Aids—they cover up the problem, but they don’t mend anything. Planning gives you time to research, anticipate, and test your theories before putting them into action.

No, you won’t be able to anticipate everything—few businesses were fully prepared to have a worldwide pandemic shut down the global economy. However, you can make potential plans to respond to a variety of scenarios. The actual real-life situations might not match your use case precisely, but you’ll have already done the research to adapt your plans easily.

Remember to Make Pre-Crisis, During-Crisis, and Post-Crisis Plans

Pre-Crisis Plan

Pre-crisis planning is what you’re doing right now. It’s the process of making plans, having post-mortems, and clarifying roles and responsibilities.

During-Crisis Plan

These are the plans for how you’ll respond during the crisis. These will include your communications strategy, business alternatives, and emergency funding.

Post-Crisis Plan

Your post-crisis plans explain how you’ll recover once the crisis has passed. It details how you’ll rebuild your business and restore a sense of normalcy

Plan Your Communications Strategy

One of the most essential elements of your plans will be your communications strategy. This strategy details how you’ll communicate with different audiences, which channels you’ll use to do so, the frequency of your messaging, and who’ll be doing the sending.

Segmenting Your Audiences

During a crisis, there are numerous parties who need to stay informed, but they all require different information:

  • Employees: Your employees are your most valuable assets—you’ll need to make sure you keep them up-to-date and safe. Email is a powerful and reliable tool to communicate with your employees. You can also use messaging apps like Slack, Discord, or Microsoft Teams. Be honest and transparent with your team—don’t let them hear bad news from someone else. Let them know about changing processes, job security, safety protocols, and your plans of action.
  • Customers: Use your email list, phone recordings, and social media profiles to keep your customers informed. Make sure you update your online profiles (Facebook pages, Google My Business, website) for changed hours of operation, closures, and other pertinent information. If there’s going to be a delay in processing orders, let your customers know as soon as possible.
  • Shareholders: Plan for how you’re going to communicate with stakeholders, investors, shareholders, and the general public. You may choose to use a combination of channels: email, press releases, conference calls, etc. Be proactive—present the situation and your solutions before false or exaggerated rumors tell the story for you.
  • Partners: If your business operations are changing, you’ll need to let your suppliers and partners know. Determine how best to communicate with these parties to be transparent and honest without damaging your reputation and potential business in the future.
  • Community: In the case of COVID-19, it’s important to let your local community know what you’re doing to fight, prevent, or remedy this disaster. You may want to contact your local news media and post on social media to disseminate the information locally.

Sending the Right Message on the Right Channel

The channels you use will vary based on your audience, but here are a few of the most powerful mediums at your disposal:

  • Email: Email is a tried-and-true channel that’s secure, reliable, and fast. Studies show that 84% of people check their email at least once a day, and it’s the preferred method for consumers to receive interactions from businesses.
  • Social Media: Use social media channels to reach your followers and those who might not already be following your brand. Social media is the perfect medium for having conversations, so if you plan on some back-and-forth communications, make sure to utilize these platforms.
  • SMS: SMS (or text) boasts a 94% global average open rate. When you send a message, there’s an excellent chance your recipient will open and read it. If your message is urgent and your recipient must receive it, SMS is a great channel.
  • Mail: While most of the world is online, some members of your audience (typically from older demographics) may rely on mail. Use mail if you don’t have digital contact information for your recipient.
  • Phone Call: When you need to have back-and-forth conversations one-on-one or in a small group setting, phone calls are a quick, convenient, and accessible way to get the job done.
  • Video Call: Video calls are great for communicating with employees. Its visual element adds color and emotion to information that might be misinterpreted in written communication.

Don’t wait until a crisis arrives to establish these channels. Sign up for an email and SMS service provider. Create your social profiles. Claim your company in Google My Business. 

Start sending routine communications to your different audiences so they become familiar with the messages you send and the channels you use. For example, if customers have an issue with Wendy’s, a company that’s extremely active on Twitter, they know the quickest way to get a resolution is to send the fast-food joint a tweet—not an email.

Nail Your Goldilocks Sending Frequency

Not too much and not too little—you want to send just the right amount of messages to your community. Whether you’re communicating with employees or customers, getting your messaging frequency wrong can lead to confusion and irritation. Or worse—you might just be ignored.

For example, nearly everyone can relate to having received hundreds of COVID-19 emails from businesses near and far just a few days after the outbreak started. The first few emails probably were opened and read—but once the 10th and 20th started rolling through, they likely remained unopened or were sent straight to trash.

Plan for how you’ll communicate in different situations. If you and your industry are suffering a crisis, sending out weekly emails may be justifiable. However, if the whole world is experiencing a pandemic, frequent messaging could lead to communications fatigue.

Build a Flexible and Adaptable Business

COVID-19 has shown us that businesses need to be creative and flexible to deal with ever-changing conditions. Yoga studios are offering online classes, small restaurants are providing delivery and take-out, hairdressers have broadcast DIY hair-coloring classes to their buyers, and other businesses have gotten downright clever to keep their doors open. 

You’ll need to think outside the box to keep your doors open, but that’s easier said than done if the crisis has already arrived. Start planning now to make your business more adaptable to change.

Beyond just planning for how you’ll operate under the next quarantine or similar scenario, start implementing new practices now. Here are a few ideas for you to get started:

  • Remote Work: Remote policies aren’t just for dealing with pandemics—this trend has been spreading across the globe for the last decade. Start offering flexible work-from-home options so your workforce can become comfortable with these working conditions. Remote work provides a great hiring advantage, efficiency booster, and crisis-management solution—so take advantage of all it has to offer.
  • Digital Presence: Turns out that people love to shop from home. Online marketing isn’t just a crisis sales tool—it’s the future of business. COVID-19 proved why every business needs an online presence—if you don’t have one yet, check out our All-in-One Guide to Taking Your Business Online.
  • Working Capital: It’s hard to respond to change if you don’t have the cash to make it happen. For example, businesses hit by COVID-19 without working capital probably didn’t have money to invest in delivery vans, quality streaming equipment, or other alternative business solutions. Get the capital you need before you need it with a business credit card or line of credit.

Create a Sufficient Cash Cushion

Start building up your rainy-day fund now. It’s challenging to balance the need to invest in your business and save for the future, but COVID-19 has been a rude awakening for many businesses without a cash reserve.

On average, international airlines only had 2 months of capital to cover working expenses when COVID-19 hit. On the other hand, Apple had enough cash to cover 6 years of expenses. Now, we’re not saying you need to build a 6-year cash cushion—but you should save enough to comfortably survive a storm or slump, preferably more than 2 months’ worth.

Here are a few ideas to start building your rainy-day fund:

  • Use automatic deposits to add money to your savings account: Automating this process makes it easier to contribute month after month. Plus, the sooner you start saving, the sooner you’ll begin accruing interest.
  • Save your tax refunds: When you’re surprised with unexpected cash, immediately put it into your savings account.
  • Deposit your cash-back rewards straight into your cash cushion: It might not seem like much, but these small contributions can lead to huge savings over time.
  • Reallocate nonessential spending: Now’s a good time to look through your transactions and cut any recurring discretionary expenses. If you have to close your offices, you can probably pause your expensive office internet or cable package. Put those extra monthly savings into your rainy-day fund. 

You might not be able to save a substantial amount now—and that’s okay. Beginning to build healthy savings habits is the most critical step. Do what you can for now, and increase your contributions whenever opportunity permits.

It’s also not a bad idea to secure a line of credit. A line of credit is there if you need it, but you’re under no obligation to use it—which makes it a great emergency working-capital solution.

Those Who Fail to Plan, Plan to Fail

While the cliché might be painful, it’s also painfully true. If you don’t create a crisis playbook, you’re leaving the fate of your business to chance—and chance isn’t always so kind.

Take action now to future-proof your business. Hours now could save you time, money, and even lives later. 

It’s easy to think that a crisis can’t get worse than COVID-19, but the truth is, things can get a lot worse. Next time, you’ll be ready. With your personalized crisis playbook in hand, you’ll be prepared to respond to whatever the world throws at you. 

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Jesse Sumrak

Jesse Sumrak is a Social Media Manager for SendGrid, a leading digital communication platform. He's created and managed content for startups, growth-stage companies, and publicly-traded businesses. Jesse has spent almost a decade writing about small business and entrepreneurship topics, having built and sold his own post-apocalyptic fitness bootstrapped startup. When he's not dabbling in digital marketing, you'll find him ultrarunning in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Jesse studied Public Relations at Brigham Young University.