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Are 'Emergency Plans' a Complete Waste of Time?

October 2009

I am one of the only crisis communication experts I know who does not like ‘emergency plans.’

I’ve seen countless blog posts and industry articles lamenting the lack of good emergency plans. Here in Canada, one of the Provincial Governments is considering forcing non-government businesses to prepare emergency plans. I have helped organizations large and small prepare emergency plans… but I always say the same thing: "Chances are good that when you need it, this won’t do you any good.”

I have actually heard people gasp, out loud, when I say that. For a crisis communications consultant, crapping on an emergency plan is considered sacrilegious, equivalent to a Catholic Priest skipping his tour of the Vatican and going to the amusement park instead.

Remember, I make my money teaching businesses how to communicate more effectively in the event of a crisis. So why on earth would I NOT like emergency plans? The answer, to be blunt? They are, with few exceptions, a complete waste of time.
What is far more useful is creating a crisis communications mindset. And a crisis communications mindset is nowhere near the same thing as an emergency plan.

If an ‘emergency plan’ causes an organization to sit up, adopt a wholesale rethink of the way they do things and determine how they can do better, that’s fantastic. I’ll happily eat my words. Unfortunately, far too often, an emergency plan does exactly the opposite… they fool the company into thinking their bases are covered.

One is a constant, perpetual state of mind. The other is a piece of paper. One is a way of doing things. The other is a way that things could, in theory, be done.

Let me help break it down:

A crisis mindset means your employees have a fire drill on a regular basis. An emergency plan means you discussed what a fire drill would look like.

An emergency plan poorly thought out is more dangerous than simply not having one. It’s rather akin to hanging empty fire extinguishers on the wall. All they do is act as wall decorations, while providing a false sense of security.

When Johnson and Johnson decided to institute a nationwide recall of tylenol, that wasn’t drawn up in an emergency plan. Same with Maple Leaf deciding to recall packaged meats. These are decisions resulting from a crisis mindset – and a steadfast determination to do ‘what is right.’

Formal plans are a great tool. They can spark an intellectual discussion. They can act as a crutch when you need something to lean on. Unfortunately, in the event of a true crisis, it’s very hard to run with crutches.

Agree? Disagree? Tell me about it on the blog post here.


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