Crisis! Now what?

How to develop a crisis management plan

By G. Mark Towhey

© 2006 G. Mark Towhey. All rights reserved. Originally published in PETBIZ magazine,  Mar. 2006. For reprint permission contact

Picture this:

It is 4 a.m., your telephone rings and the police are on the line. The business next to yours is ablaze and the fire department says your property is at risk. The animals trapped inside your store need to be rescued.

If this were to happen to your business, would you have a plan for evacuating pets? Under what circumstances will you attempt to rescue them? Where will you shelter the animals for the rest of the night, the next few weeks or months while your store is being repaired?

Do you have off-site storage for business records and accounting data? If you are not able to gain access into your building for the next month, how will you meet customer orders? Will your business survive?

Here is another scenario:

The chime sounds, indicating a customer has just entered your store. You look up and realize the woman standing in front of you is not a customer, but a public health investigator. She is tracking an outbreak of a deadly disease that has killed one person and made six others critically ill. The trail, she says, leads directly to pets purchased from your store. Outside, a TV news van is pulling into your parking lot.

In this situation, who would you arrange to speak to the public health inspector? Who should talk to the media?

Are you or members of your staff trained to handle reporters—understand how a story is formulated, anticipate the next question and respond appropriately? Should you even co-operate? Would it be better to refer their questions to your lawyer? How would you deal with the aftermath?

These two scenarios show just how devastating crises can be if not planned for beforehand. Statistically speaking, most crises are caused by issues that have been brewing for some time and erupt because we overlooked or ignored them in the first place.

The impact of a crisis

No matter how they are caused, every crisis typically impacts a business in one or more of four ways:

  • Operational crisis. It impacts your ability to continue normal operations.
  • Life safety and security crisis. It injures or kills employees, customers or animals.
  • Reputational crisis. It damages your reputation and reduces your support among stakeholders.
  • Financial crisis. It weakens your revenue, increases costs and hinders your ability to raise capital.

Often, a crisis begins in one category and spreads to the others. For example, in the first scenario, the initial impact is clearly operational. However, if the crisis is not managed properly, it may threaten the lives of any pets inside your premises (life safety and security crisis) and an imprudent rescue attempt could cause injury or even death to would-be rescuers. Then, if the public believes people or animals were killed or injured because you did not react properly or had not planned effectively for an emergency, your reputation could be severely damaged. Finally, if you can not conduct business for a period of time—or if your customers choose to shop elsewhere—your business may face financial failure.

Effective crisis management has two goals. The first is to prevent ‘dimension creep,’ to keep an operational crisis from becoming a life safety and security, reputational or financial crisis.

The second goal is the most important one: To enable you to manage your business through the crisis and emerge from it in a position to continue achieving your business strategy.

When a crisis hits you must do a series of things correctly and start making the right decisions immediately. This is not the time for trial-and-error management. What would be ideal is if you and your management team had taken the time to anticipate a crisis and laid out some helpful guidelines in a crisis management plan that would help make better decisions at the time of an emergency. The value of a plan becomes even more apparent when you understand what happens during a crisis.

What happens in a crisis?

In the early stages of almost every crisis, an information gap occurs; there is never enough information available. To make matters worse, much of the initial information will turn out to be incorrect. Unless you have planned and trained for a crisis in advance, you are likely to respond in one of two ways:

  • By avoiding critical decisions until you have enough information. Unfortunately, you may never have enough information as the situation will keep changing—often getting worse—leaving you in ‘analysis paralysis.’
  • By responding to the first news you hear and leaping into action—basing your response on incomplete, often inaccurate information. While early response is important, it is just as important to focus on the right problem.

It is essential, then, that you learn, develop and practice ways of making sound, timely decisions without all the necessary information you might normally want.

Back planning

If you have not already developed a crisis plan, your first steps are clear. Discuss the need

with senior management in your business and get their agreement that a crisis plan is essential. Without senior management buy-in, developing a crisis management plan and putting in place crisis management tools would be like pushing rope—very, very frustrating.

One of the simplest ways to start developing your plan is through a process called ‘back planning’—spend some time thinking of a few crisis scenarios, like the two at the beginning of this article—then put yourself at the scene.
Think of how it would hurt your business and what strategies you could implement to prevent further damage.

As you visualize it in your head, record all the things you wish you had available. For example:

  • Contact information for all management and staff.
  • An alternative meeting place to plan and organize your team and a pre-arranged time and place to meet if contact was lost.
  • An alternative power source and communication technology.
  • Names and contact information of organizations that could house animals in an emergency.
  • Contact information for routine vendors and suppliers to reschedule or cancel deliveries, arrange emergency supplies, etc.
  • Contact information for your lawyer, accountant, insurance broker, public relations company, computer recovery technicians, crisis management consultant, etc.
  • Customer contact information.
  • Location and contact information for local animal hospitals, veterinarians, etc.
  • Resource lists that show suppliers, prices, contact information for specialized equipment and support, such as generators, pumps, plumbers, electricians, moving companies, clean-up crews, clean water, animal food, computer repairs, pizza delivery, etc.

Make sure all of this information is available to you wherever you are and not locked up inside an inaccessible building. Once you have a feel for the kind of information, resources and support you would like to have at hand during a crisis, you can begin to assemble a pre-plan. It is called a pre-plan because the actual crisis management plan is something that must be tailored specifically to each unique crisis, so the plan is developed in real time during the crisis.

Since every crisis is unique and calls for different solutions, avoid the urge to delve too deeply into “if X happens, then do Y”-type of planning. History proves that X will never happen quite the way you expect.  Instead, your pre-plan should do at least three things:

  • Create a crisis management team (CMT). Identify a structure for your crisis management team and assign people to a primary role. Then find back-ups for each role.
  • Establish a crisis communication protocol. Stipulate how the CMT will communicate with each other, make decisions, receive information, issue instructions and supervise activities.
  • Resource catalogue. Build a catalogue of sources for all the skills, material, information and other resources you identified during your “wouldn’t it be nice if..” discussions.

Much of what you must do in the early stages of any crisis is the same, but it is important to establish these by developing a crisis management pre-plan. This way you can identify what you will likely need at this stage and build a tool box to dip into in times of need.

Developing a crisis management approach

When managing through a crisis, break it up into bite-sized bits. Focus your first decisions on containment—taking immediate action to prevent the situation from getting worse. You do not have to solve the entire crisis right away. First, you have to prevent it from getting worse and buy yourself some time to assess the situation in more detail and then make a situation-specific plan to resolve it.

A crisis management approach called the CAPER Crisis Management Framework is designed as an easy-to-remember five-stage process to help you find your way through any crisis:

  1. Containment. Take immediate action to prevent the situation from getting worse. This buys you time to acquire accurate information about the crisis and assess it properly. In an emergency situation, people respond by instinct. Unless you can afford to practice immediate actions to the point they become instinctive (as military and emergency services professionals do) you should design these procedures to be as close as possible to routine, daily operating procedures.
  2. Assessment. Each crisis is unique and requires different solutions. It is important to build into your crisis management process the capability to make accurate on-the-fly assessments of evolving situations. This means assigning responsibilities for gathering information, creating reliable procedures to pass information to decision-makers and training people to interpret it accurately.
  3. Planning.Since each crisis is distinct, it is important to develop your team’s ability to make quick, effective plans based on evolving information. This requires identifying people with this competency, training them to work in a dynamic environment and practicing plan development and approval procedures that will work in emergency situations.
  4. Execution. In any crisis, you must be able to execute your plans effectively. This task is much easier if you have a strong, high-performance team in place before the crisis. Great teams bend with the wind and are amazingly resilient in stressful situations. Effective training and development to build a leadership culture, depth of talent and a sense of teamwork in your organization is invaluable.
  5. Reorganization and recovery. As the crisis winds down, it is important to return your organization to normal operations as efficiently as possible and to refresh any consumables used in the crisis (the next one could occur at any time.) Great organizations also learn from their experiences, so your crisis management process should also include procedures for an after-action review to discuss what has worked, what did not and what needs to be improved.

People, pets, property

You should establish a guiding principle for yourself and your employees that will govern every decision your business makes. Along the lines of ‘safety first,’ this principle should be clearly articulated to employees so they understand their priority in emergency situations. Most emergency services organizations follow the principle ‘self, team, victim,’ which means each responder is responsible to protect himself or herself first, followed by the team and then to protect the victim.

One possible guiding principle for pet retail operations that house live animals may be, ‘people, pets, property.’ The safety of people—employees and customers—come first, followed by the safety of pets on the premises and finally, actions to protect property—but only when it does not threaten the safety of people or pets.

Don’t panic!

Effective crisis management involves keeping focused on your mission, applying common sense and doing the right thing. If you can do this and apply the CAPER Crisis Management Framework to break down the crisis into manageable stages, you and your business should survive to share your lessons learned with others.

Mark Towhey is an international crisis management consultant who has managed crises from media scandals and hostage-takings to wild fires in Middle-East minefields. His company, TOWHEY Consulting Group Inc., helps organizations of all sizes prepare for, prevent and manage through all forms of organizational crisis. Visit or call 1.888.8TOWHEY for more information.

Sidebar: Next steps for building your crisis management plan

  1. Get executive buy-in.If the chief executive officer (CEO) does not support crisis management planning, it is not likely going to go far. Do your homework, show the costs associated with any crisis and those associated with a mishandled one.
  2. Build a team.Bring together a senior-level team to discuss your needs. Include executive-level decision-makers who are capable of making things happen. Discuss a number of scenarios that could take place (and also get their buy-in to the process). Get their authority to build a working group to tackle the problem.
  3. Working group.Depending on the size of your business, assemble a working group with a range of experience in operations, administration, human resources, security, information technology (IT), corporate communications, customer service and any other critical area of your business. Again, begin by discussing some scenarios to get their buy-in. Next, delve into each scenario and begin to itemize a list of people, skills, resources, practices, policies, tools and information that would make managing the crisis easier.

When you identify scenarios that would cause major problems for your business, they become priorities for preventive action to avoid the risk and minimize the impact.

  1. Begin to create your pre-plan.Based on what you learn in the scenario analysis, begin to craft a pre-plan that includes, at a minimum, a crisis management team, an established crisis communication protocol and a resource catalogue.


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