Crisis managers are taking center stage during the pandemic - and can make a lucrative living. Here's how to break into the in-demand role, according to 5 veterans in the industry.
- The Bureau of Labor Statistics says that the median salary for an emergency management director is around $83,000 per year.
- Business Insider interviewed five crisis management teachers and consultants who all stressed that strong communication and critical-thinking skills are key attributes of people who work in the industry.
- Roles vary across in-house and consultancy firms, and between government and corporate, but the skill sets required are largely the same.
- Read the news, practice thinking of solutions to big problems, and start looking for roles and internships in house.
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Whether it's for a large-scale disaster such as the COVID-19 pandemic or more routine problems such as fires, cyber-security breaches, financial losses, or product recalls, crisis managers play a critical role in getting an organization through the issue and helping them recover.
A crisis manager, or otherwise called an emergency manager, is tasked with protecting the company you work for, or your clients, and preparing for a crisis or putting in place an action plan when one arises. There are a number of disciplines which make up crisis management, including risk management, strategic communications, emergency planning, and training.
With a median annual salary of $82,570 per year for emergency management directors, according to the Bureau for Labor Statistics, there's no doubt that it's a demanding career. Around half of all roles are in local government, but sources told Business Insider that big corporations and tech giants are increasingly investing in their crisis management departments, with opportunities for career advancement internally. Crisis managers who work their way to leadership positions such as directors within consultancies can expect to earn six-figure salaries.
Fve industry leaders that Business Insider spoke to said that while crisis management can be challenging, it's also hugely rewarding - and given the scale of the COVID-19 crisis, it's expected that there will be increasing demand for crisis management professionals in the years to come.
Here's how the experts said you can break into this field.
Read the news to get a good understanding of how the industry works
Elizabeth Cholis, a managing director at strategy consulting firm FTI Consulting who specializes in crisis communications, said that her first advice for anyone wanting to enter the field is to read the news.
"It sounds obvious, but I'm afraid that people don't do it as much as you might think," she told Business Insider. "Following ongoing crises, such as COVID-19, or read about last year's big crises such as the Boeing 737 Max crashes, or the college admissions scandal, or opioid manufacturers, and look at the reputational damage they have suffered and how they are trying to mitigate that."
Cholis said that while crisis managers would never comment directly on an incident that they're involved in, there's usually a lot of information leaked to reporters, as well as outside crisis consultants providing commentary.
"There is always so much information at your fingertips. Read all of the in-depth, extensive reporting, see the press releases that the company puts out, follow the information that is being reported internally and externally," she explained.
She added that following the news is a good way to hone your writing and communication skills, and understand the exceptionally high level of writing that's required for crisis communication managers.
"Following the news can feed into how you learn. How do reporters write about these topics? How are communications written differently for different audiences? What are the types of things that backfire, and can you tell which things succeed?" she advised.
Practice communicating clearly, assessing a situation and solutions, and thinking critically and logically
Matt Hochstein, vice president of client services at emergency management consulting firm Hagerty Consulting, said that it's important to develop the key skills needed from someone working in crisis management.
"I can tell you there are not enough emergency management professionals in the country right now to meet the demand of the COVID-19 event. Both the public and private sectors will be looking for smart people that can clearly communicate, think logically, and lead," he said.
From his time working on major events including Hurricanes Matthew, Harvey, and Maria, Hochstein said that he looks for crisis managers who can quickly learn key concepts and frameworks to handle a given situation, as well as deliver these messages to different audiences.
"Disasters are stressful and decisions need to be made efficiently. Thus, having the ability to clearly and concisely communicate issues, status, and recommendations in a manner that can be easily digested is key," he said.
These skills can be improved by learning to simplify and stay on message, and engage and collaborate with stakeholders to know how to formulate the right message.
"You also need to excel at critical thinking. With COVID-19, past experience in managing response and recovery is valuable, but this is a new event and requires new thinking," he added. "If you are supporting this event at any level, you have to really think through your recommendations and course of action because short-term solutions may have adverse long-term impacts."
Hochstein noted that typically in emergency management, teams are working on disasters that are time bound with a response that starts and stops and impacts a certain geographic area of the country. There's no one way to think critically, but certain methodologies can help.
"You can improve your critical thinking skills by trying to find the root cause of a problem, gather as many data sets as possible, analyze that data, understand existing biases, come to a conclusion or course of action, and be able to defend it. Like anything else, repetition is key," he said.
Study up through online courses
Given that we're seeing disasters happening more frequently and with greater financial and longer-term impacts, the growth of the crisis management profession is seeing the higher education space starting to keep up.
Institute for Crisis Management President and CEO Deborah Hileman said that most companies don't have a formal crisis management department or manager, but there are still ways that you can start learning.
"Gaining practical experience should focus on individual planning and preparedness, as you never know when a crisis may strike. Younger professionals can focus on their own training in the absence of an organized company crisis management function," she said.
Hileman recommended starting with some of the free online incident management courses offered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), while those seeking a formal degree can look at the list FEMA maintains of programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels.
If you're not sure where to start, she said that familiarizing yourself with a basic incident command system is a good foundation.
"Many organizations use a form of the Incident Command System (ICS), used by the military and government agencies such as FEMA. ICS is a management system designed to enable effective and efficient incident management by integrating a combination of facilities, equipment, personnel, procedures, and communications operating within a common organizational structure," she noted.
Ultimately, she said that crisis management skills are best learned in practice.
"While theoretical learning is an important component of crisis management training, practical exercises and experience in the field are even more important," she explained.
Take on an internship to get your feet wet
For crisis management strategist and author of "Crisis Ready: Building an Invincible Brand in an Uncertain World" Melissa Agnes, getting your experience in an effective incident management culture is critical. She takes on a number of interns each year, and said that many people reaching out to her for opportunities lack basic professionalism.
"If you've targeted someone and would like to connect with them, introduce yourself. Tell them how you heard of them and why you're reaching out. Be considerate of their time. Remember that you're requesting something from them and they don't know you," she added. Agnes put an example of an email from a student who wowed her on her website as an example of best practices.
When it comes to finding an internship, she recommended looking for organizations with a good governance structure, meaning they have strong processes and protocols in place, so that you can learn across the full spectrum of crisis management.
"The people you want to work with will be defining an issue versus a crisis, identifying likely high impact areas, stakeholder mapping, and understanding what the people they cater to expect," she explained. "Ultimately, you're striving to have a culture in organizations that can instinctively detect problems when the dominos start to fall."
Start in house and plot your career pathway by networking and attending events
Brian Strawser, principal and CEO of strategic advisory firm Bryghtpath, recommended looking to start out your career in an in-house role (as opposed to a consultancy), as it's best to home your skills in crisis operations, such as natural disasters, fires, or active shooters.
"When you're working in house in crisis management for a company or public sector agency, you're focused on the resilience of that organization or the local community," he said. "You can take a strategic mindset to be able to understand not only the situation around the crisis or incident, but also how your function aligns with - and in support of - the organization's strategic objective."
Strawser noted that one skill crisis managers need to be able to demonstrate for these kinds of internal roles, for example, within an organization such as a power company or a bank, is to be able to "cut across silos and collaborate" in order to move the ball forward.
He said that the industry has a lot of "intrinsically motivated" people, and crisis managers wanting to move into consultancy can build networks online and through professional events, as many consultancies expect a decade or more of industry experience.
"As a consultant, the crisis manager is now acting as a trusted advisor," he added. "They are sharing their experiences from many situations in years past to bring forward the best possible advice and recommendations to their clients."
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