Is Your Organization Ready for a Crisis?

Published November 8, 2009

The adage “failing to plan means planning to fail” applies to risk management in sport. Many sport organizations have learned the hard way that they might have benefited enormously from having planned ahead to deal with a sudden incident, emergency, scandal or crisis.

The current buzz about the H1N1 virus has caused us to reflect on what we as a sport community, and more particularly as leaders of sport organizations, ought to be doing to be better prepared should this pandemic become endemic. We know that many international sporting events have been canceled as a result of this flu. As well, as we ready our families to return to school, there is a great deal of media attention on the H1N1 influenza.

If your sport organization is planning on hosting a large-scale event, or if you have teams that are planning international travel, we would suggest that you pay attention to what is being said about H1N1, and examine what best practices are being promoted to address this risk. There are a number of resources available, including the recent publication by the Conference Board of Canada: H1N1 Influenza: Preparing Your Organization for a Pandemic.

Interestingly, many of the suggestions for helping your organization to be better prepared for a flu pandemic can be applied more broadly to many crisis situations. As risk management consultants, we have spent two decades helping sport organizations to identify, assess and manage risks. An important risk management tool for any sport manager is an “emergency response plan” which specifies the steps to be taken in the event of an emergency.

An emergency can be a pandemic, a serious or fatal injury to an individual or individuals, a positive doping test, or a criminal or moral scandal involving a representative of your organization. An emergency action plan addresses not only what needs to be done to respond to ensure the safety and well-being of the parties involved, but also what messages should be communicated and by whom, to members, the media and the public. Terms such as “crisis management plan” or “issues management plan” may also be used to describe how an organization should respond to the public and to the media in an emergency.

Emergencies, crises, scandals and pandemics all have the potential to cause enormous harm to the brand and image of a sport organization. However, that harm can be mitigated through thoughtful, appropriate and well-timed communications. It is always better to plan these responses ahead of time, rather than making them up in the heat of the crisis.

We encourage all sport organizations to think about emergencies that might confront them and to take the fairly simple step of setting out the protocols for dealing with such emergencies. Think, in advance, about who will be the public spokesperson for the organization, and who will make quick decisions (often this will be a management team or a small subset of the Board of Directors – in either case, it should be a group that can convene and deliberate quickly). You should set out the steps that will be followed to make, and communicate, decisions. You should only have one spokesperson and should impose the necessary discipline to ensure that others from your organization are not speaking to the media.

Another useful tool is an “interruption management plan”, which is a simple plan to address who assumes responsibilities for someone who might become incapacitated through injury, illness or other absence. This can apply to both staff and volunteer roles. So for example, if your Head Coach is taken out of commission, who steps up to fill this role? Similarly, if your ED, CEO or Vice President of High Performance are not able to perform their jobs, how are their responsibilities covered? Plotting this out ahead of time will save time and energy later, and will ensure that confusion is minimized and that there is a smooth transition causing minimal interruption to normal operations.

At its core, risk management is about minimizing loss, harm and liabilities. But risk management can also serve as a more positive tool to help sport leaders manage resources wisely, lead and govern effectively, make decisions soundly and project positive images to sponsors, government funders and the public.

Whether you are managing risks for a flu pandemic, a tournament you are hosting or an international tour your athletes and coaches are planning to undertake, the principles at play are all really the same.

Originally published: Centre for Sport and Law Newsletter (2009) Vol. 5(2)

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