Crisis Communications: The Plan is Not to Plan

Don’t think ‘plan.’ Think ‘process.’

I have some friends who avoid the stress of planning for their annual summer vacation by not planning for it. Yes, they take a vacation every year, and they always have a good time in a nice place. But they don’t plan for it, at least not in the way you may think.

To say they don’t plan at all would be to miss the genius in their pattern. They do have a plan, and that plan is not to plan. Maybe it’s more of a process than a plan.

What they do is plan to wait until close to when they want to go on vacation. They do have a general window of time for when they’d like to go. They usually like to go somewhere warm near a body of water, like a beach or a lake, but usually a beach. They like it to be driving distance from their home, which is 7-10 hours max.  And, with their kids raised, they know it’s just the two of them.

Those are their non-negotiable parameters.

Here’s what they know. Somebody somewhere will have to cancel their own reservations at a resort or hotel in a beautiful destination. Someone else’s plan fell through. Somebody who made these plans up to a year in advance, but something came up and now, before they lose their deposit, they will cancel.

When it gets close to the window for when my friends plan to go on vacation, they will start to research destination location hotels, rentals, resorts and other accommodations. They won’t be so choosy as to get stuck on one date or one location. Their flexibility, adaptiveness and responsiveness are key.

Very quickly, they will hit upon that one venue where someone else has cancelled. The destination will be scrambling at that point to fill the room and may even offer a discount. My friends will be there to seize that opportunity, and they will book it.

For them, it’s always a pleasant surprise. They get to stay somewhere nice that fits their criteria but presented itself to them.  Their plan is not to plan.

How does this relate to crisis communications planning?

The lesson is simple, and I’ll keep it short. Too many crisis communications plans get so caught up in the minute details of scenarios for every possible crisis, that they over-plan, and the plans become rigidly useless when an actual crisis occurs. Not because of the thinking behind the plans, but because real-world circumstances don’t match up well enough to the plan.

Over decades of crisis communications management and planning, I’ve found that one way of looking at effective crisis planning is to plan not to plan.

Yes, you do need to know what you want to achieve in any and every crisis situation. Yes, you need to know who on your side will be the key decision-makers and possible spokespersons involved when a crisis occurs. And yes, you should have a system in place for identifying a crisis, managing information flow, and managing all possible resources for crisis management. You need to know all of your parameters, so that when a crisis does present itself you are ready.

You’re ready to seize the opportunity to deliver effective messaging to the right people in the right way at the right time.

You need a crisis communications process, one that is at work all of the time, not just when a crisis erupts. It should not be centered on scenarios that may or may not happen and it should not be collecting dust during non-crisis periods. The process needs to be focused entirely on monitoring and identifying potential crises, factoring in how your organization will respond to any and every eventuality. It’s all about process and mobilization.

Which in the end, is the lesson from my friends. Have your own process in place that’s flexible and responsive, one that allows you to make quick decisions and mobilize when the time calls for it.

If you’d like to learn how to create a flexible crisis communications plan that you won’t throw out when a crisis erupts, let us know.

Also published on Medium.

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