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Eight Steps to Better Align Your Incident And Crisis Management

​Managing an incident and managing a crisis are different undertakings and present different challenges. Incident management addresses an immediate physical, safety, or security risk with the goal of protecting people, the environment, and assets. Alternately, crisis management addresses reputational, financial, commercial, and strategic risks that threaten the viability of the company and may result from an incident or an escalated issue.

Despite these differences, the two situations and how to manage them are often confused.  This is particularly true when an organization has to conduct incident management and crisis management simultaneously, leading to a lack of clarity and alignment.

In fact, in Regester Larkin’s recent crisis management survey, more than 40 percent of respondents cited difficulties aligning crisis management with other resilience disciplines. A third of the 170 respondents noted that a lack of clear mandates between different response teams was a key challenge to successful crisis response.

While there are similarities between incidents and crises, maintaining an appropriate focus between the two elements of the response is critical to success. The following eight considerations should help differentiate between incidents and crises and maintain the appropriate focus across the response.  

Incident, Issue, or Crisis?
First, it is important to determine what type of situation you are dealing with. As noted above, incidents and crises are not the same even though an incident may lead to crisis. While many crises are caused by incidents, some of the biggest recent corporate crises have been caused by issues, not incidents.

For example, the News International phone hacking scandal in the United Kingdom, Chinese allegations of corruption against drug company GSK, and the Volkswagen emissions scandal were all clearly crises for these organizations—and were labelled as such by the media—despite the fact that there was no operational incident at the root of them.  

Clearly identifying the type and severity of the situation you are facing is a key step to an effective response.

Clarify Responsibilities
Similar to the differences between an incident and crisis, the roles of the teams responding are also different. These are best illustrated using a simple example.

Imagine an explosion and fire at a company’s manufacturing facility. People have lost their lives, some are seriously injured, and others are unaccounted for. The fire is still burning and there are chemicals leaking into a local waterway. This is certainly an incident but given the scale of this situation, it is likely to be declared a crisis too; not because of the immediate damage caused, but because of the wider potential impacts on the company.

The role of the incident management team (IMT) in this situation is to focus “in and down,” to coordinate the operational response, to save lives, to prevent damage to the environment, and to protect assets. 

The IMT should have detailed plans for managing such incidents and this operational team should also manage liaison efforts with the first responders and any other local organizations involved in the response.

However, in this scenario, the incident’s effects are not just contained locally. The chemical spill will threaten water supplies, wildlife, and water-users further downstream, requiring high-level liaison with federal or governmental agencies. An incident of this magnitude will draw significant media attention at the local—and possibly national—level, not to mention raising concerns from investors, clients, staff, and partners.

All of these strategic aspects of the response will be dealt with by the crisis management team (CMT), which will look “up and out,” dealing with authorities, regulators, stakeholders, and the media. The job of the CMT is to protect those things recognized as being of utmost value to the company through high-level decision making, analysis, and strategy development. 

​CMT Responsibilities ​IMT Responsibilities
  • ​​​​Declaring a crisis​
  • ​​Managing the operational response​
  • ​Senior stakeholder liaison, including shareholders, regulators, corporate board, and wider workforce
  • ​Conducting local liaison with first responders, communities, and local workforce
  • ​Approving requests for extraordinary expenditure or external support
  • ​Identifying major capital expenditure or extraordinary support requirements
  • ​Approving compensation and long term family support
  • ​Relative and family support
  • ​Coordinating the media response
  • ​Local media engagement under the direction of the corporate communications team
  • ​Formulating the legal response
  • ​Declaring an end to the crisis


Ensure coordination…
These different areas of focus should not suggest that the two elements of the response are completely separate. In fact, the activities of the IMT and the CMT should be coordinated closely. The CMT must ensure that the operational response proceeds as expected, supporting it appropriately with strategic direction and extraordinary resources.

In addition to providing direction, the CMT needs information and should require the IMT to report to it regularly, particularly as the CMT will also oversee the communications and human resources elements of the response. 

But beyond this, the CMT should avoid becoming involved in the operational response, which is one of the primary pitfalls in a major response. When the CMT gets caught in the weeds, it is easy for the CEO to become the chief engineering officer, rather than the strategically-focused leader the situation requires

Imagine the confusion in our scenario if both the IMT and the CMT were simultaneously trying to coordinate the spill containment. No one would be liaising with the affected communities downstream.

…But Maintain Separation
The downside of close coordination is that team responsibilities can become blurred and while the focus and activities of an IMT and CMT should be distinct, some organizations find it difficult to keep them separate. This is particularly true when an organization builds its crisis management capability on top of an established incident management or business continuity capability.  Without fully decoupling the strategic elements from the operational, the two teams will overlap or gaps will develop in the response.  

To avoid the CMT shifting its attention inwards and down, the team should maintain focus on the strategic aspect of the response: thinking about perception, impact, recovery, and survival.  Meanwhile, the IMT should focus on the coordination of the operational response. 

Even when the two functions are separated on paper, maintaining that separation in practice—particularly during a crisis—is not easy. 

Leaders will quickly become overwhelmed if they try to manage both the strategic and operational elements of a response. An example is the difficulty faced by former BP chief executive Tony Hayward as he tried to remain involved in all aspects of the Deepwater Horizon response in 2010. 

The high tempo and complexity of an operational response, and the need to remain engaged with the media and senior stakeholders, is simply too much for one person to manage. This suggests that Hayward’s difficulties could have been caused due to a lack of capacity—rather than a lack of competence. Delegating the operational response and making greater use of a dedicated spokesperson, would have allowed Hayward to focus on the key decisions and activities that only a chief executive can address. 

Clarify Roles Early and Often
The different roles of the IMT and CMT should be clearly defined in all response procedures but it is also important to clarify these as early as possible during an incident.  

Despite the relatively straightforward nature of this recommendation, only 53 percent of Regester Larkin survey respondents appeared confident that their crisis responders clearly understood their roles and responsibilities.

Maintain Information Flow and Situational Awareness
Developing and maintaining a shared understanding of the situation helps the CMT and the IMT coordinate effectively. It also ensures that both teams have access to the most up-to-date and accurate information.

Due to the chaotic and rapidly changing nature of a crisis, however, achieving good situational awareness is no small feat. Forty-two percent of survey respondents noted that information management is a challenge to a successful crisis response. Creating a fully contextualized view of a situation requires the collection, collation, and assessment of information from many sources before it is packaged and disseminated to a number of teams in a number of different locations.

To avoid the CMT being overloaded with information, there is a need to package information into a usable format—rather than passing on each and every piece of information. 

While too much information will stifle the CMT’s response, too little data will provide only a partial picture of events, forcing the CMT to start to look for facts from potentially unreliable sources. 

Predicting the right amount of information required is difficult. But rather than trying to predefine the amount and type of information to push to teams, organizations should establish systems to manage, refine, and package information efficiently, and make this available for teams to pull the information required to support their activities.

The key is to ensure that the right people can access the information they need accurately and quickly, using some kind of central database or library, but to avoid overloading decision makers with too much “noise.”

Regular, simple situation reports with standard formats and clear, nontechnical summaries that translate the technical jargon will help all responders maintain a common operating picture of the situation. Meanwhile, the detailed reports remain available in the database for those who need technical data. There are commercial systems available to assist with information management, but simple, ad hoc arrangements on systems such as Sharepoint can also work well. 

Use a Coordinator
A key role in any crisis response is the crisis coordinator who will help ensure that many of the issues identified above are avoided. The crisis coordinator should be a senior member of staff although they are not a decision maker within the CMT; they own the process but not the crisis. 

The crisis coordinator’s role is to ensure that the CMT is operating effectively by rectifying poor coordination, ensuring separation between the teams, and encouraging the practice of good situational awareness. The crisis coordinator should be monitoring that the process for planning, briefings, and reporting are followed, and that the CMT is providing suitable strategic direction to—but not overshadowing—the operational response.

The coordinator will oversee the generation and distribution of reports and updates, ensuring that these are succinct, focused, and limited to what the CMT needs to know to support critical decision making. This will enable strategic response while preventing the CMT from drowning in excessive information. An effective crisis coordinator can be the lynchpin for ensuring the operational and strategic elements of the response are aligned without overlapping. 

Practice, Practice, Practice
Finally, the best way to instill understanding and cooperation between the IMT and the CMT is to bring the structures and processes to life through training and simulation exercises. Developing individual and institutional "muscle memory" of how to react is key to success.

Regular, progressive training will ensure that skills and processes are thoroughly embedded in the organization and this training can be capped with a high-tempo simulation exercise. Exercises that combine physical drills, external role-players, and media simulations allow all elements of the response to conduct their roles in realistic, challenging, and high pressure environment.

This also allows individuals and teams to practice their individual and collective roles, and these are also an excellent way to stress test an overall system. These can be as ambitious as your imagination—and budget—allows, and Regester Larkin has run exercises over multiple days with participants in the United States, Europe, and Australia.

These exercises provide the operational and strategic teams with an idea of the complexities of handling information and making decisions during a crisis, while also allowing team members to build an experience-based understanding of their role in a realistic setting. 

Nothing can make up for experience, but ensuring that your responders at all levels participate in realistic training will go a long way to ensure that teams are aligned and ready if an incident or issue arises. 

Andrew Sheves is a director at specialist crisis management consultancy, Regester Larkin. He is an expert in risk, emergency response, and crisis management. He is a member of ASIS, currently with the Houston Chapter. He can be contacted at: [email protected]