Regardless of sector, no business is immune from potential crises. The way you manage them when they happen can make or break a business.

EcoOnline_Harald Axelsen (1)

Harald Axelsen

One only has to look at how the recent revelations about P&O’s employment terms were handled to see the considerable reputational damage which can be done without a well-thought-out plan in place.

In the UK property industry, which is under constant public and media scrutiny, potential crises are myriad where even the longest-standing reputations can be tarnished in an instant. Whether it’s getting caught in the crossfire of external events or dealing with a home-grown issue, being ready with a holistic plan of action alongside a tactical toolkit can put companies in an advantageous position, ready to weather most storms when they arrive.

One of the worst thing business owners can do, and I’ve seen it time and again in my career, is to take the attitude of ‘It will never happen to us’.

This failure to invest money, time and energy into developing a robust strategy to effectively manage the situation when the wheels come off is incredibly short-sighted, leaving the business open to massive future risk.

It’s a task which needs to be given as much significance as any other critical part of your overarching commercial operations.

I’ve worked in crisis management for 22 years, so have had unrivalled insight into the best and worst practice in a variety of different scenarios, settings and circumstances. Whilst every occasion has possessed unique challenges, there are some home truths.

So here, I’d like to offer Property Week readers my take on the fundamentals to consider when planning for the known, and unknown, unknowns.

It’s all in the mind(set)

From the outset, create a safety-first culture, with transparency and open communication at its core. You also need to draft and implement detailed, clearly laid out plans to respond swiftly when a crisis erupts.

Of course, it’s human nature to remain optimistic and assume the worst won’t happen, however, you must adopt a worst-case scenario outlook when creating your strategy. This will ensure you’re fully equipped to deal with high-hazard, low-likelihood events, should they occur.

Practice makes perfect

Run simulations to see if key people are able to respond in the right ways when the heat is on. With a working system in place, you can instigate a call out, see how quickly people react and complete their tasks, then shut it down.

Remember that practice doesn’t have to be a full-scale operation. Table-top exercises involving key decision makers are a cost-effective way of testing communications, technology and procedures. You can test expected emergencies, and unexpected ones too.

Everyone has a role to play

It’s really important to accurately define roles and responsibilities, as well as consider back-up personnel if crucial team members are absent when the bullets start to fly.

Action cards can support clear role allocation, outlining logical pre-defined steps for team members to follow in response to an incident. They are operational versions of your contingency or crisis management plan, in the hands of the people in question.

Furthermore, having both digital and physical copies of emergency plans is a non-negotiable. Having paper back-ups to hand if online systems are inaccessible can be the difference between ensuing order or chaos.

A team of individual thinkers

Groupthink is a common occurrence in businesses of all sizes and can prevent people from making independent decisions when a situation might require them to do so in the moment. Once the first iteration of your plan is ready, it’s worth bringing in an external perspective to interrogate the document, identifying potential flaws and helping you refine your approach.

Bend to the bad

Inevitably, we cannot plan for every eventuality, but we can be prepared to meet a broad range of them with confidence, provided the right tools are to hand.

The irony is the ‘paradox of good planning’, where a plan assumes a model of how we perceive the world, might have to instantly flex, evolve or be scrapped altogether when a sudden, complex incident occurs.

So my final advice is to establish plenty of room to manoeuvre within your strategy and tactics. This way, when people recognise a plan isn’t working, they can respond with agility.

Harald Axelsen is the in-house crisis management expert for leading Environmental Health and Safety Advisor, EcoOnline.