Crisis Management: Execute Your Plan

The principles of crisis management are the same for individually owned businesses as for major multinational corporations.

© 2009

A practitioner and owner of a small-sized O&P facility is in his bed unaware that as he sleeps a faulty wire in his office has just sparked, causing a blaze. He wakes to numerous calls on his cell phone urging him to get down to the office as soon as possible. In a matter of hours, lives have changed. The owner races to his office and while he is relieved no one was hurt, he is frightened at the possibility of losing everything he has worked so hard to attain. He has insurance, but will it cover all the damage? The fire destroyed his patient’s records and files. How can they be recovered? The building is irrevocably damaged. Where will he practice? What will happen to his patients and his employees? All eyes are on him for guidance, direction and leadership but he has no plan – no idea where to begin or what to do. His worst case scenario has become reality.


Preparing for the unpredictable is essential for all businesses. The principles by which a business protects itself from threats that may harm their reputation or bottom line are the same, no matter the size of the business.

“The biggest thing to know is that you do not have to wait for the crisis to happen,” Mike Hatcliffe, head of corporate practice for Ogilvy Public Relations, said. “The popular industry saying is the way you manage a crisis is through the work you did before the crisis.”

Before you can properly manage a crisis, you must plan for it. Larger businesses can bring more resources to the table for planning, including human resources (HR) representatives, lawyers and public relations and marketing executives. Smaller to mid-sized businesses (SMBs), with fewer employees, do not have the luxury of such counsel. Office managers in SMB should gather employees in the organization that they trust can handle a crisis scenario. Owners can also look to their competitors and determine what has worked for them and what you would do differently in a similar situation.

“I think the crucial idea is putting yourself in control,” Hatcliffe said. “Even in a crisis, you should feel in control. That is why you prepare. Issues management is identifying what has the potential to become a crisis. Crisis management is when something bad happens. If you feel like if bad things happened tomorrow, you wouldn’t be in control, then you need a plan.”

There are risks in any field, especially the health care industry. Business owners should do the proper research and prepare a list of crises that have the greatest possibility of occurring.

“It is important that you consider the pitfalls because if you have not and something critical occurs, your business will look worse because you were not prepared,” Hatcliffe explained to O&P Business News. “You are under great scrutiny when under a crisis and no one is going to have any sympathy just because you did not think anything would happen.”


While large corporations can rely on their legal counsel and executives, they must plan and prepare for contingencies. Also, for the large corporation, obtaining the facts of a crisis is complex due to information being spread through the entire organization. According to Hatcliffe, the SMB can get to the bottom of the situation much faster due to the shorter lines of communication.

“[SMBs] can take ownership of a situation a lot more easily than a global company,” Hatcliffe said. “The small business can get more control faster.”

Jonathan Bernstein, owner of Bernstein Crisis Management Inc., believes there are some particularly useful tactics for the SMB in the midst of crisis. He recommended businesses contact compatible businesses for certain types of crisis preparation. Contingency planning with friendly competitors allows your business to operate despite disasters such as fires, floods or earthquakes. These natural disasters have the potential to cause tremendous damage to your building.

“Contingency plan with a company outside of your threat area, where if anything happens, they can come to your office and vice versa,” Bernstein said. “It is space trading worked out in advance.”

Contingency planning with other companies can be a critical asset. If your company is under public scrutiny for a particular situation, one of the most successful ways to remain a reputable business is through third party support.

“You need people to stick up for you and you need to know who your friends might be,” Hatcliffe said. “It is always a good idea to think through who your advocates are, should something happen to you.”

Documentation in the health care industry is fundamental. Proper documentation can become the deciding factor in a malpractice lawsuit that is your word against the patient’s. What if your computer system crashed and your documents were lost? In order to prevent this scenario, Bernstein recommends backing up your documents online. Bernstein’s business is essentially a one-man operation. He understands small businesses are more focused than ever on their budgets.

“My data and word files are backed up over night, every night automatically to a service that costs me maybe $100 a month,” he explained. “I think a lot of small businesses are not aware of how the Internet has made a lot of things usually reserved for larger businesses, available to them as well.”

The Economic Eye-Opener

Creating a crisis management plan can seem like a daunting task. Prioritizing the crises from most likely to least likely is a simple and effective way to craft a plan. By researching your business sector’s past crises, your team can focus in on scenarios that have the greatest possibility of occurrence.

“Preparation involves imagining those possibilities that can go wrong,” Mike Hatcliffe, head of corporate practice at Ogilvy Public Relations, said. “Some are more obvious than others.”

While many businesses have simply dismissed crisis preparation, a new survey shows that more and more IT companies are taking disaster planning seriously. A survey conducted by Harris Interactive, found that disaster recovery planning has become a priority for most IT organizations. According to the survey, 86% of IT executives said they have a disaster recovery plan in place. The survey, commissioned by SunGard Availability Services, also noted that the recent economic downturn limited IT organization’s budgets, yet 43% of IT respondents indicated that the economy has not impacted their disaster recovery budget. Of those surveyed, 33% indicated investment in disaster recovery has become a top priority.

Jonathan Bernstein, owner of Bernstein Crisis Management Inc. noted that on many occasions chief executive officers of companies have come to him because they were tired of being caught in a crisis.

“They come to me and say, ‘I just got burned two or three times. I’m sick of this.’” Bernstein recalled.

The lack of foresight and preparation for the economic crisis left both Fortune 500 companies and the SMBs scrambling. Businesses that were ill-prepared for the economic downslide were left with diminished sales and plummeting revenues. Jobs were lost across the country and many businesses simply could not survive the recession. Business can stay ahead of the next crisis by bringing together employees who are responsible for the major functions of the company, such as finance.

“Whoever is involved in finance or managing the business, such as an office manager, an outside certified public accountant or outside counsel should sit down and talk about vulnerabilities, what can go wrong and what the company needs to plan for.”

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Online presence

“About 50%of crisis management depends on the preparation you made and the other 50% depends on how you respond to the situation once the crisis hits,” Hatcliffe said.

Both Hatcliffe and Bernstein recommend taking advantage of the online social media. Establishing an online presence gives your business the advantage of immediately communicating directly with your clientele. If you already have gained a following on Twitter and have fans on Facebook, you have a ready-made community at your disposal. You may also communicate with the online community any information that is being portrayed in the media as inaccurate or exaggerated.

“You can establish truth to the matter,” Hatcliffe said. “I think any business should have a Facebook. It is cheap and easy to do and it is a great relationship builder.”

Bernstein agrees that the Internet has changed the way businesses can communicate.

“You do not want the first time people hear of your business to be when you have a problem,” Bernstein said. “You need to create a positive online presence.”

Bernstein added that in a critical situation, people will start to talk about your business online.

“If you are not monitoring it, you will not know it until so much damage has been done that you will not be able to recover,” he said. “And it doesn’t take much. I have seen multibillion dollar corporations suffer huge losses because of a few angry people online.”

The 16th scenario

According to Bernstein, a proper crisis planning agenda includes 10 to 15 scenarios. Unfortunately, even with the necessary planning and preparation, it is the 16th scenario that seems to always occur. If this is the case, Bernstein recommends leaning on your training from other scenarios.

“Even if the thing that you did not anticipate happens, training creates a system for operational and communication response which gives you the ability to address anything,” Bernstein said. “Once you have done that, addressing any situation is easier to do.”

It is important to not only state what crises occur, but to educate your employees on how to prevent the crisis and even role play the scenarios with colleagues. Prepare basic statements for certain scenarios that deal with the media.

“You need someone to test you, even if it is a desk exercise for a couple of hours,” Hatcliffe said. “You really do not want the real crisis to be your first one.”

Imagine a patient filing a malpractice lawsuit against one of your top practitioners. Most health care providers are prepared for malpractice lawsuits. However, the local paper has caught wind of the lawsuit and has asked for the patient’s statement. The patient goes on the record and makes false and outlandish claims against your practitioner and your business. A local television crew has come by your office, looking for a statement. How will you respond? A practitioner or small business owner may not have been trained on how to properly respond to the press regarding legal matters.

“What are the steps I would have to take?” Hatcliffe said. “Who are the people I would have to talk to? I would talk to my professional body and I would talk to my patients as well.”

These are the questions that need to be asked and documented before the incident occurs. Immediate, but thoughtful action will quiet the situation.

“Clearly you have to communicate directly to any patients or partners that may have read the piece and may have an opinion on your professional competence based on the article,” Hatcliffe said.


While all businesses need to practice crisis management, the truth is larger corporations have the financial ability to take the necessary hit when the occasional crisis arises. Small businesses need to be perfect in order to survive. If they are not perfect, their preparation, management and recovery, must be. This is not always the case.

“Here is the reality. Unfortunately, whether big or small, most businesses do not engage in planning until after they have been badly burned. Small businesses cannot afford that. They are much more likely to go out of business due to being ill-prepared,” Bernstein said.

Businesses can easily fall into the “it will not happen to me” trap. Bernstein also admits that some businesses can be considered arrogant and feel as though if something were to happen, they can easily handle the baggage and simply “wing it.”

“I think human beings have a great capacity for pain combined with a great resistance to change,” he said. “I think there is a business equivalent to the addicts hitting rock bottom. Businesses need pain in order to make them change.” – by Anthony Calabro

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