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How to Build a Rockstar Crisis Management Team

Like the massive touring acts in the heyday of classic rock ‘n’ roll, your crisis management team should be more than an entourage of big hair and guitars. Instead, it should be a squad of talented professionals with specific responsibilities laid out well in advance of any potential crisis.  

In its essence, a crisis management team is a combination of senior management personnel who have been granted the authority to make strategic and tactical decisions on behalf of the organization.

“To build an ideal crisis management team, it’s imperative to know staff members from different departments, define whether they have the skills and experience required when dealing with the crisis. The most relevant team members only should take leadership if a crisis occurs.” 

Alexandra Zelenko, a Senior Marketing and Technical Writer at DDI Development, a company that delivers web and mobile digital solutions for a wide range of businesses.

The crisis management team is there to ensure that the details and action items in your organization’s crisis management plan are properly executed and head off the negative effects a crisis may cause your business, staffers, and stakeholders. Your team behind your crisis management is crucial. 

“The exact makeup of your team will likely depend on the nature of the crisis and the structure of your organization. Almost all crises should be led by a small group of senior leaders, including legal and communications counsel. The full team must always work together and from the same set of facts to ensure cohesion.”

Philip Hauserman, director of crisis communications at The Castle Group

Crisis Management Team Roles

The lineup your team takes will conform to the specific needs of your organization.  Your crisis management team could draw from the “Greatest Hits” from all of your departments, or, perhaps your particular company only requires a lean and mean skeleton crew to tackle a crisis. 

Either way, use the classic crisis management team roles breakdown below to help you plan what your team will look like. 

Project Management and Operations — The Stage Manager 

Hard rock act Van Halen was notorious for having a clause in their live show contract rider that stipulated “no brown M&Ms.” On the surface, this seems petty, but it was actually a test to assess how thoroughly the stage crew had read their requirements of the stage show.

Given the pyrotechnics and acrobatic-style rigging that Van Halen’s stadium shows required, if singer David Lee Roth spotted brown M&Ms in the candy bowl, he knew that the contractual requirements had not been met, and the band’s safety could be compromised. 

Essentially the project manager and operations team work together to guarantee there are no brown M&Ms. This means that they dig deep into the details and know exactly which projects can be delayed, and what processes can be recalibrated to minimize the negative impact on the organization and maximize safety for everyone.

Marketing and Communications — The PR Team

 In the old days of concert promotion, many bands had an “advance man,” someone who would travel to the next tour stop ahead of the band and drum up local press coverage. In a contemporary corporate setting, this would be the marketing and communications expert on your crisis management team. 

In this scenario, they would work with the other department leaders to make sure the messaging and narrative needs of the organization are properly communicated to stakeholders, staffers, and the media using crisis communications techniques.

Human Resources — Artists and Repertoire 

The so-called “A&R rep” is music industry jargon for the record label team member that works directly with the band. In your organization, this is most likely the human resources manager, who is responsible for the development and implementation of services to support your staff throughout the lifecycle of a crisis.

They will typically oversee issues with benefits, determine whether or not temporary staffing is necessary, and when it’s appropriate to bring in support staff like grief counselors. 

Information Technology —  The Guitar Techs

 These guys keep your crisis management team tuned and ready to play. In the event of a crisis, the IT team will coordinate, protect, and restore your networks and information systems with an eye (or ear) to mitigate any negative outcomes.

The IT leader on a crisis management team should also have a solid understanding of the company’s data infrastructure, and ensure that neither company nor client data is vulnerable to an attack.

Administrative Support — The Road Manager  

The administrative support team member supports the entire crisis management team in real-time just as a road manager would with a touring band. They track key issues and action items and get things done. They also have practical knowledge like where to score gas, food, and lodging. Essentially the admin support jumps in and does what’s needed to keep an operation moving forward. 

Finance and Legal — The Record Deal 

For issues related to accounting, reporting, regulatory, and compliance responsibilities, you will want a department leader who understands every nuance of your particular systems and has the authority and the ability to make financial decisions like releasing emergency funds. 

You will also want a representative of your legal staff on your crisis management team for matters related to liability, certain kinds of communications, legal considerations, and the countless other legal ramifications that might come up during a crisis.

The Team Leader — The Front Person 

As with any old school rock ‘n’ roll act, your crisis management team will also have a front-person, a lead singer who calls out the songs and leads the chorus. The crisis management team leader not only manages the team but does their best to provide for the safety of the employees. The leader should also work to reduce the negative effects a crisis will have on the organization’s operations and various stakeholders. 

Like a bandleader, the crisis management team leader follows the rehearsed setlist but also knows when to pivot from it and leverage ad-hoc tactics when necessary.  

“Crisis management teams are difficult to put together, not only because many involved would never have had training on certain crisis subjects but also because different members of the team will have different solutions.

– Ty Stewart, CEO & President of Simple Life Insure.

He goes on to say that “The roles need to be understood from the start, which includes who does the research about the issue, who puts together presentations, and who is in contact with external sources looking for solutions. 

The members of a crisis management team also need to understand that being a part of the team is a priority above all else. This means that any workload given beforehand will need to be bumped further down the to-do list in order to focus on what’s necessary.”

Leadership in Crisis Management

Those entrusted with roles on the crisis management team need to maintain a 360-degree view of their organization’s needs and understand where a crisis might impact it most. They should also be empowered to advocate for their particular department while keeping the organization’s broader scope in mind. It’s also critical that the members of this team acquire and share information readily and transparently.

Depending on the size of your organization, some staffers may need to take on more than a single role. Just as Eddie Van Halen played both guitar and keyboards on their 80s pop-rock crossover “Jump,” some members of your team may find themselves having to pick up additional duties. 

For example, if your team is relatively small, your marketing and communications team leader may also need to look after project management needs. Human resources and legal needs may likewise fall to a single team member. To the same end, be sure to designate an alternate team leader to take over if your initial leader is unavailable.

Just as it’s near to impossible to keep every song lyric in your head, it’s okay if CMT members don’t have all the information for their areas of responsibility memorized by heart. They should, however, know how to access whatever information they need ASAP, whether that’s via cloud storage or even a “lyric” cheat sheet kept as a note on their mobile phone.

Chris Spivey, a Texas-based information technology project and transformation leader, suggests that crisis management teams employ the OODA Loop concept, which he learned from a friend who happens to be Master Hostage Negotiation Trainer.

The acronym stands for Observation, Orientation, Decision and Action and, according to Spivey, it breaks down like this:

“The idea is to make sure your team has the most up-to-the-second information. (Observation) and a team who can interpret it and forecast impacts (Orientation) and an agreed authority (Decision).  It is also important to have a Scribe. I say, “if it’s not in writing, it didn’t happen…”. Then the team must understand their roles and accountability to take (Action).”

Chris Spivey, information technology project and transformation leader

Spivey last used this strategy in September 2018 when his company’s manufacturing facilities were potentially in the path of a hurricane. “We had team updates three times a day as we watched the path projections,” says Spivey. “We were able to prepare and maximize our production while minimizing the risk to our employees and facilities.

With apologies to The Scorpions, we sincerely hope that any crisis that befalls your organization doesn’t “rock you like a hurricane.” With the right crisis management team in place, your organization will surely rock on.

Download our crisis communication checklist to learn more crisis management best practices.