Nobody likes to imagine the worst happening, and no business wants to think that it might have to face a crisis. Thankfully, most businesses will never have to deal with a major accident or other critical incident, but they do happen, and inevitably occur without warning at the worst possible time.

It is easy to understand why a business might want to take the "it will never happen to us" approach. There is comfort in optimism. However, once a critical incident has happened it is already too late to think about how you are going to deal with it. There is a reason that the old military adage 'proper preparation and planning prevents poor performance' has stood the test of time. There really is no substitute for preparing in advance.

In this article we draw on our Health and Safety team's experience in critical incident response and major accident investigations across a range of sectors to suggest some of the key elements that every business should include in its crisis management preparations.

  • Have a clear, concise plan – There is an understandable temptation to prepare a lengthy plan which considers every possible scenario and sets out detailed protocols and procedures for multiple permutations of each, but this will be even more unhelpful than no plan at all. Your crisis management plan will only ever be used in the most stressful and challenging of circumstances, and a cumbersome document which is difficult to navigate will only exacerbate the difficulties. The best crisis management plans are surprisingly succinct, making clear what the key roles are, who will assume them and what they key actions are in the first 24 hours after an incident. They are a user-friendly guide for your teams, not a textbook.
  • Have well-defined teams – In the immediate aftermath of an incident, irrespective of its nature, your business will have three priorities (i) business continuity, (ii) PR and communications, and (iii) incident investigation. Each must have a separate team focussed on it. The team responsible for keeping the business running cannot be distracted by contact from the media, and those who are trying to understand the root cause of the incident cannot be involved in making public statements in case they inadvertently share information that should not yet be in the public domain.
  • Rehearse the plan –Make sure that those who are to play a key role in any crisis management are aware of the plan and the part that they are to play. Training the teams in advance on what is required of them should the worst happen will ensure a smooth delivery of the plan, with each key player knowing and feeling comfortable with their role.
  • Give the media a single point of contact – Any critical incident attracts immediate media attention. You need to retain as much control as possible over the external message. The best way to do that is to have a single point of contact for all media inquiries. That avoids the risk of two well-intentioned but contradictory statements or, worse still, a comment being made by someone who does not have the most up to date information.
  • Identify your spokesperson – In the immediate aftermath of an incident your employees, stakeholders, the media, and the wider public will expect you to make a statement. Saying nothing is not an option. However, a clumsy public statement is worse than none at all. Your spokesperson should be senior enough to demonstrate that the incident is being taken seriously, but comfortable enough with the media to cope with the barrage of questions. That will not always be your CEO. Identify the right person in advance, and make sure they receive media training.
  • Don’t be caught out by social media – In the modern world you will rarely be the first to know about an incident affecting your business. Photographs and video footage of incidents will be on social media within minutes. Plan how you are going to monitor social media – it can be a useful source of information. What about your own social media channels? Will they be suspended, or have the ability for staff to post or comment restricted? Do you have a policy about what your staff can and cannot say on social media about an ongoing incident? All of these issues must be considered in advance.
  • Involve your lawyers and insurers – Whilst you are managing the media, keeping the business going and investigating what happened, you don’t want to have to think about whether anything you are doing is exposing you to liability, or inadvertently giving the investigating authorities documents they are not entitled to. Get your lawyers, whether internal or external, involved early and let them deal with those concerns. Finally, don’t forget your insurers. Particularly when it comes to public statements, approval from your insurers is critical. You don’t want to run the risk of cover being declined at the worst possible time.

You would be correct to think that none of these measures are complicated. They are not - indeed most of them are common sense. However, uncomplicated, common-sense steps become incredibly challenging in the face of a crisis which has the potential to cause serious damage to your business, or injury to your people. Every business should take the time to think about them now and put a plan in place. If the worst should ever happen, the last thing you want to be is unprepared.


Clare Bone

Partner & Solicitor Advocate