James E. Lukaszewski ABC,APR, Fellow PRSA, President of the Lukaszewski Group Division of Risdall McKinney Public Relations

Most responses in crisis situations fail in the first hour or two. That’s because the most challenging aspect of readiness for urgent situations is the strategy for first response; literally, what you do first, second, third, etc. Problems become emergencies, crises, or disasters due to the hesitation, timidity, and confusion that occurs as the threatening nature of a situation rapidly unfolds is recognized, and management is overwhelmed.

When a crisis occurs, management has a crisis of its own.

A successful first response depends on the activation of appropriate counter measures and proactive decision making that were pre-authorized during the crisis response and readiness planning process.


If we’re looking for the one word definition of readiness work, it is this concept of pre-authorization. If decisions can be programmed into a response scenario and executed instantly, the most successful response and the overall success of dealing with the challenges presented by crisis situations will be met.

The most powerful ingredient of scenario based readiness work is what happens when a specific threat is identified, hypothesized, and time lined. Many of the critical decisions that will have to be made in the sequence of events can be identified, brought to management, and decisions made well ahead of time.

The Golden Hour

Perhaps the most useful and appropriate model or metaphor for first response strategy is “The Golden Hour” concept, which comes to us from wartime battlefield medicine. It was probably the Korean War that taught us the benefit of bringing sophisticated medical care and facilities to the front lines rather than transporting the wounded miles behind the front lines for medical treatment. The lesson was that the severely wounded who received medical treatment within minutes of injury had a survival rate enormously higher than the soldier who was treated well beyond the first 60 minutes of injury, if they even survived the journey. Time and again, major problems turn into crises or worse due to lack of initial momentum to do something, to make decisions, and to begin grinding down on the problem. Speed of action beats smart action every time. Preauthorization enables more smart decisions earlier in the response.  

The First Response Checklist

An appropriate, scenario-based first response checklist will help deal with the most urgent, crucial matters and decisions as early as possible. This is possible because crisis managers considered a wide variety of decision points during the planning and testing phases of readiness preparation, and pre-authorized many of those decisions to achieve a more prompt response.

Relax when you review this checklist. It is complex and comprehensive, and based on years of experience mostly learning from things we failed to do when we should have. One of the potential criticisms of this approach could be the “fear of overreacting.” This is a totally phony fear. In 30 years of crisis management, some involving enormous tragedy, not one single case of overreaction has ever been observed or documented. To the contrary, more common is indecision, timidity, hesitation, and confusion leading to far broader litigation exposure, larger clusters of victims, a longer public memory of less than appropriate behavior, and serious damage to an organization’s reputation.

Note that the First Response Checklist also includes monitoring your responses and dealing with the issues and collateral damage that responding always causes.

I have also included an After Action Analysis outline below the jump.

1.   Recognize a crisis.

The situation is a people-stopper, product-stopper, and show-stopper with reputation-defining potential, victims, and/or the potential for explosive negative visibility.

2.   Reaffirm communication policy in emergencies.

         •   Candor

•   Openness

•   Responsiveness


•   Truthfulness

•   Transparency


   Managing the Record

3.   Activate response strategy.

•   Begin resolving, reducing, or eliminating the problem.

•   Deal with those who opt in: critics, competitors, regulators and overseers, and             others who appoint themselves.

•   Establish communication with employees.

•   Manage the victim dimension.

•   Notify those indirectly or involuntarily affected.

4.   Implement first response infrastructure including incident response teams trained on a scenario specific basis.

5.   Review your first response checklist.

•   Act and speak promptly.

• Analyze constantly.

• Begin a log.

• Create an ongoing, detailed chronology with key events and decisions.

•   Create a database of key contacts

•   Establish response priorities that meet community expectations.

•   Expedite communications..

•   Identify the most likely collateral damage scenarios.

   Manage the record as it evolves.

•   Prepare to back up your core response team.

6.   Begin fact-finding.

•   What happened?

•   Who’s involved and responsible?

•   When did events occur?

•   Where does the problem exist and where might it expand?

•   How could it have happened?

•   How could something like this occur?

7.   Forecast the potential for collateral damage.

•   Bloggers, Bloviators, and Bellyachers

   Consultants − theirs/ours

•   Critics, competitors, celebrities, and media promotion of negative events

   Disgruntled employees

   Lawyers − theirs/ours

   Victims’ families/survivors

•   Well meaning employees

8.   Activate your crisis Web site. Your crisis home page may include:

•     About our work

•     Advertisements

•     Company history

•     Company overview

•     Contacting us

•     Corrections and clarifications

•     Dear so-and-so

•     Ethical practices

•     In the news

•     Investor center

•     Issues inventory

•     Letters

•     Media center

•     Our purpose

•     Policies that guide our business

•     Special projects

•     The global picture

•     What we stand for

•     Who we are

9.   Activate the communications response process.

•     Assist in victim management

•     Develop a chronology/sequence of statements.

    Manage communication to all constituents.

•     Monitor response progress.

•     Monitor the status of settlements.

10.   Manage the big issues.

•     Victims:

−          Identification

−          Notification

−          Acknowledgement

−          Compensation/treatment/settlement

−          Prevention/detection/deterrence

−          Follow up

−          Closure

•     Gaps and lapses:

−          What failed/who failed?

−          How was it detected?

−          Who’s responsible?

−          Who’s at fault?

−          Who’ll be punished?

−          What changes will be made to prevent similar circumstances?

11.  Avoid failure triggers.

•     Minimize response effort. Always do more than is required.

•     Underestimate the victim dimension. These individuals can change your life     and your future.

    Blame the victims

     Shift Blame

•     Fail to be empathetic (or apologize where possible)

    Let the media drive your response strategy: Keep the record straight, manage it           or someone else will.

12.   After Action Analysis: Learn from adverse events.

•     Step One: Situation assessment

−           What happened?

−           What are the facts?

•     Step Two: Strategic considerations

−           What decisions did management need to make and when were they made?

−           What are the implications of these decisions on those directly and indirectly          affected?

•     Step Three: Operation response/action steps

−           What essential steps did the company take or need to take to get the       situation under control?

•     Step Four: Communication response/action steps?

−           Who spoke for the company?

−           What immediate short-term and long-term communication issues were     created?

−           Who were directly and indirectly affected by those issues?

•     Step Five: Holding statements and other communication

−           What were the critical messages and the order in which they were            delivered?

−           What were the most important points made during this crisis situation and             what were the results?

•     Step Six: Questions and answers

−           What were the five or six most difficult, challenging, unanswerable            questions raised?

−           What were the most crucial messages gotten across during the process?

•     Step Seven: Incident response

−           Which organizational officials or representatives were crucial to resolving the situation?

−           Were they members of the incident response team?

•     Step Eight: Tools, vehicles, mechanisms

−           What were the most effective techniques of communication for those        directly affected? Indirectly affected?

•     Step Nine: Hindsight

−           What would you do have done differently, how?

−           What would you have avoided, why?

−           What failed, misconnected, or caused substantial collateral problems?

When people or organizations fail to promptly address a problem and resolve it, the resulting crisis creates additional, victims all of whom are left untreated and situations left unresolved. In the minds of the public, the victims, and survivors, delay equals denial. Refusal to promptly commit to a constructive course of counteraction is viewed as arrogance, which says the perpetrator doesn’t care.