Crisis Comms 101: The Anatomy of Crisis

This is the first of five posts outlining what crisis comms managers see when a crisis is looming, in terms any organizational manager will understand. Identifying crisis in the early stages vastly improves the odds of coming out on the other end merely licking a few wounds, as opposed to a one-way trip to the emergency room.

To know what a crisis is and recognize that it’s approaching, we start with understanding the anatomy of a crisis, the key parts that come together and the catalyst that moves an incident or event into crisis territory.

The first part – or ingredient, if you like mixing metaphors – is the issue. The issue is the base element of any crisis cocktail and, for our purposes, we define an issue as a matter in dispute in which two or more conflicting points of view exist.

Issues are ongoing. They don’t have a clear beginning or well-defined end. They are simply out there indefinitely. Equal opportunity in the workplace is an issue. Employee benefits might be an issue. Consumer privacy may be an issue. These are matters that have conflicting points of view in terms of seriousness, culpability or any number of other common threads. In contrast, broccoli being good for you is a non-issue – it’s not in dispute and there are no conflicting points of view on the health benefits.

I refer to issues as a “base element” because they are the fertile ground from which crises grow. They are fuel for the fire and very rarely will you see a full blown crisis without an underlying issue attached.

But, fuel by itself is not inherently dangerous. If you walk out to your car and see a fuel puddle in the driveway, you’re not going to flip out. You’d be wise not to ignore the puddle, and I suspect you’d make a point of not stepping in it or spreading it around. You’re aware of it but you’re not inclined to overreact. The issue of consumer privacy isn’t cause for alarm, but if you’re the manager of a big box retail chain, you still need to be aware of it and recognize it’s an issue.

The second part of a crisis is the emergency.

For our purposes, we define an emergency as a sudden, unexpected event requiring prompt action. Unlike issues, emergencies have a very well-defined beginning and end.

An emergency is like a spark or small flame. Just as fuel by itself is no cause for alarm, a lone spark or flame is no reason to come unhinged. It may be sudden and unexpected but it’s manageable. It’s not a crisis.

Emergencies are accidents or incidents that range from airline crashes and workplace violence to a whistleblower or product recall.

So while an issue alone is fairly innocuous and an emergency by itself is sudden, but manageable, it’s an entirely different story when an issue and an emergency converge – just like when a spark or flame comes into proximity with a puddle of fuel in the driveway – if the two are close in relation to one another, the conditions are ripe for a crisis.

To continue with the previous example, consumer privacy is the ongoing issue and the emergency could be a breach of consumer security, exposing client social security numbers or financial information.

A crisis even at this point is not a foregone conclusion, as long as you can respond quickly and competently to the event. However, your spidey senses should be tingling, as there is far less room for error of any kind.

Ultimately, it’s when managers respond slowly or incompetently due to the added pressure that the two parts – the issue and the emergency – fuse together. Flame and fuel are now interacting and the flame becomes a fire. The fire becomes a full-blown crisis when managers fan the flames by ineffective handling of the operational response to the situation and/or – more damaging – failing to communicate effectively to the public and those impacted by the event.

When the consumer security breach isn’t noticed or is somehow made worse by a failure to fix it, you’re looking at a crisis. When you wait too long to tell customers, or you fail to respond to their concerns about the necessary steps to take to protect themselves, you’ve got yourself a crisis that could quickly overwhelm operations.

For our purposes, we define crisis as a situation in which public and stakeholder reaction to the fusing of an issue and emergency impacts operations and threatens the long-term future of an organization. It is a major turning point in the life of an organization, threatening to result in permanent and drastic change. 

Hopefully this all begins to beg the question, “What can I do to prepare?

*This is the second in a six-post series covering the fundamentals of managing crisis comms. Check out posts the previous posts:
Why Crisis Suck
Anatomy of a Crisis
Preparing for the Inevitable
Canary in the Coal Mine
Canaries are Dead, Spider Monkeys are Nigh
Assessing the Post-Crisis Prognosis

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