Janet is the former CEO of The New York Times Company;  Chairwoman of the Presidential Board of Trustees of Salve Regina University and a trustee of the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

You can reach her at janetlr2@gmail.com 

Developing an Effective Crisis Plan

Assemble Crisis Leadership Team
Form a cross-functional team, involving all critical departments in operations, financial, communications and legal. Assignments should be clearly outlined and must encourage collaboration – a crisis can only be well managed by a cohesive team, rather than one or two senior officials who would quickly become overwhelmed. Decision-making must be streamlined to avoid paralysis. Senior management must hold each leader responsible for proper function and eventual recovery within their specific department and for the organization at large.

Leadership Team Evaluates Vulnerability of the Organization
Examine the critical operational drivers of the organization, surpassing the business continuity plan. Base the vulnerability analysis on the organization’s formal enterprise risk management plan and include plans for cyber security, employee safety, labor strikes, insurance coverage, kidnapping of management, government intervention, leadership back-up and business continuity.

Select External Support Sources
These skilled external advisors provide critical expertise and clear objectivity. They should include public relations firms, press monitoring organizations, media training experts, specialized legal representation and government contacts on the local, national and international levels.

Develop the Strategic Communications Plan
The plan must demand that all speak in a single voice and be on-message. It must identify a key spokesperson and commit to a communications strategy that is rooted in the tenets of honesty, accuracy and transparency,

Assess the Plan
Post-crisis evaluate the effectiveness of the plan and adjust the plan for future crisis. Taking the time to evaluate how the team and the plan performed during this crisis, allows the organization to learn from any malfunctions. It also allows the organization to exhibit best practices for continuous improvement in adjusting their preparedness plan based on lessons learned.

Day 15:

Crisis Planning – A Letter to CEOs

Dear CEOs,

As 2015 approaches, leaders naturally turn their attention to assess what challenges the new year will bring. Proactive leaders take the next step and immediately begin to evaluate what should be done to prepare appropriately.

There are always a number of challenges that could confront an organization in any given year, ranging from financial performance to global expansion to acquisitions, all of which are important. However, addressing your organization’s crisis preparedness should be first on the list.

Having been in the position of handling several crises during my years as CEO of The New York Times Company, I understood all too well that having a crisis management plan in place was, and is, one of the most valuable weapons a CEO can have. Whether you are dealing with cyber security attacks, product failures, employee safety or other equally difficult issues, it is critical to arm yourself now.

The magnitude of a modern-day crisis is daunting when one considers all that can go wrong and the possible impact on business performance and corporate reputation. Grasping the true consequences of crisis failure moves forward-thinking CEOs to address this challenge before all others.

While I was at The New York Times Company, our leadership team managed two separate kidnappings of Times journalists, deaths of several reporters in the line of duty, incarceration of several journalists at home and abroad, the full impact of the 9/11 attack in New York, shareholder activism and a plagiarism scandal. Having experienced these crises, I would say without hesitation that leading through a crisis helps one clearly understand the absolute need to make crisis preparedness a key priority.

Confronting the vulnerability of the organization provides a CEO and the leadership team with the vital information they need to prepare their strategic response with exacting discipline and detail. Yes, we all know that there is no level of preparation that can prevent a crisis or create perfect solutions. However, developing a strategic and tactical plan enhances the leadership team’s ability to navigate more effectively and efficiently through a crisis.

The crisis plan should be fully integrated and thought through well beforehand. This ensures that strategic conflicts between various departments are ironed out without the pressure of an actual crisis and that decisions are strategic, not just expedient. This preparedness can prove to be invaluable when the media barrage begins, when customers abandon the brand, when operations are interrupted or halted, when financial performance begins to be severely impacted or when legal action is taken.

The crisis management strategy should adhere to, and project, the organization’s values. It should be disciplined. It should expand across all media platforms. It must be simple enough for all to understand. It must be flexible and adaptable, and it must enable you to reach all stakeholders with appropriate messages. It must define what happened, who is impacted, the financial and legal exposure. It must deliver the corporate messages and define how the organization will regain control after crisis.

So today, as leaders examine the major land mines they may face in 2015, they should consider that facing a crisis is an increasingly real possibility. Leaders of today must prepare now and continually assess vulnerability and update their crisis preparedness plans. By doing so, they move closer to crisis prevention and to the likelihood of managing an effective crisis recovery. When an organization is in crisis, facing legal, financial and reputational consequences, all parties will quickly realize that the amount of money that they have spent on crisis management preparedness is worth so much MORE than every penny.

And those who faced major crises recently should consider taking the time to evaluate how your team and strategy performed, and share those lessons with others. By doing so, CEOs and crisis teams can position themselves as seasoned and successful corporate leaders. This willingness to share and coach will also underscore the team’s successful management of a crisis and will reinforce the strength, value and importance of the organization to all.

As a member of the FleishmanHillard International Advisory Board, I look forward to engaging with leaders interested in learning more about my experience in crisis management and my perspective on crisis preparedness.


Janet L. Robinson