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  • Writer's pictureSteve Bowen

How to Assess and Escalate a Crisis

A crisis is an emotive time for any organization. When the reputation or financial performance of the organization is under threat, it's easy to lose sight of the appropriate management response. When do you need to bring in the senior crisis management team? When do you need to alert the authorities?

The heightened emotions around a crisis can interfere with objective decision-making. Everyone has a perspective and a preferred approach. A robust escalation matrix is an essential tool for the communications practitioner and the wider organization to assess the appropriate level of response and ensure that decisions are objective and appropriate to the threat level. The escalation matrix should be built into your pre-emptive crisis management and communications plan. But how do you do it?

Here's one model for designing a practical escalation matrix.

  1. Define key impact areas for a general situation that the organization might face. At a minimum, these areas should include Financial Impact, Operational Impact, Health and Safety Impact, Environmental Impact and Reputational Impact.

  2. Define the levels within the organization at which the situation would be managed. These would typically range from the daily management team through the crisis management team or the Board and potentially up to outside parties (e.g. relevant government oversight bodies or regulators). It's a good idea not to get too granular at this stage - four to five management levels is quite sufficient.

  3. For each impact area, define the objective trigger point or points at which the situation would be escalated. These may be based on appropriate delegation of authority (e.g. for financial indicators) or perceived severity (for health and safety or environmental. You then arrive at a matrix that looks like this:

Obviously these trigger points are illustrative only - they will vary depending on the nature of the business. To arrive at a practical set of criteria will require the input of all relevant business units, including Legal, Compliance, Finance and HR as well as front-line operating departments. Each box may have three or four triggers. What's important is that they are clearly defined, objective criteria that can be quickly and easily assessed.

To use the matrix, simply assess the situation across every pillar and mark the appropriate management level for each. The highest score in any pillar indicates the appropriate escalation level, independent of the other pillars. Thus, if an incident is marked 'High Risk' in the environment pillar but 'Low Risk" in all the others, then the situation is classified as 'High Risk' and escalated accordingly.

As a situation unfolds, return to the matrix regularly and reassess it, moving the escalation level up or down as required.

The greatest advantage of this model is that it provides a rapid, objective assessment of a given situation based on criteria that the organization has already agreed, leaving the team free to make critical decisions necessary to manage the issue. Ultimately, that should be the overarching goal of the entire crisis plan.

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