Crisis Comms 101: Canary in a Coal Mine


Coal miners used to take caged canaries into mine shafts to serve as primitive early warning systems in case the air became toxic. If the bird kicked over in its cage, the miners knew danger was in the air – literally. In this post, I’ll talk about an early warning system you can use to detect when an emergency or event is ripe for crisis. Recognizing the signs should give you the warning you need to adjust for the oncoming storm.

The following is adapted from Effective Public Relations, written by Scott M. CutlipAllen H. Center and Glen M. Broom. Except for the canary reference. Don’t judge.

Bear in mind any one of these developments by itself is a clear warning of crisis. This means that the more of these that emerge, the greater the likelihood your bad day will get worse.

Canary #1: The event/incident/emergency is not immediately brought under control
The moment things go south, the organization should be doing whatever it can to get a handle on it. Assuming there was a plan to begin with – and with a little bit of luck – the event should at least be contained without things getting worse. The more time that passes without getting a foothold on the problem, though, the more volatile it becomes and the more everyone gets nervous. We saw this during the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. The rig exploding then sinking with 11 lost souls was bad, the crude leaking from the well head was worse and the well head spewing crude for the next two months unchecked was the definition of not bringing something under control, i.e. the worst.

Canary #2: Impact on the environment or public health and safety is increased beyond a moderate level
There is a whole sub discipline of crisis communication based on communicating risk to those who feel threatened. Few things will turn public sentiment against your organization more than the real – or perceived – threat that your actions are putting people and their loved ones at risk.

Canary #3: Media coverage begins to expand beyond local scope to regional, national or international news
We sometimes refer to this as a story “getting legs” – and very rarely does a story get legs when things are going well. With more media you have more eyes on your operations, more scrutiny and significantly less room for error. As soon as something gets botched up or a spokesperson says something he or she shouldn’t, it’s spider monkey time (full disclosure – I’m not exactly sure what spider monkey time means. I just know it’s not good.)

Canary #4: Public sentiment and the media’s tone is becoming negative
Ironically, I see this indicator overlooked more often than not. My theory: managers are often so embroiled in the organizational response to the issue that they fail to notice how it looks from the outside. This leads to dated messaging that doesn’t account for shifting attitudes and doesn’t address the most recent public concerns.

Canary #5: Multiple publics or groups are beginning to demand information and you are beginning to lose control of information flow
Referring back to the post on preparing for crisis, this is where the work you did to build good relationships and to develop some form of comms plan pays dividends.  You did the work, right? The objective is to be the best and most credible source of information for as long as you can during the crisis.  Once the public starts going elsewhere for information, there’s no saying how their perceptions will be affected.

Canary #6: The incident is highly politicized with local leaders, elected officials, etc., getting into the mix
Like I said, you did the prep work, right? If you did, you’ll have a good line of communication to local officials. If you’ve used those lines properly, the local mayor may be less inclined to add fuel. Bear in mind, as the good guy/bad guy storyline develops in the media and online, politicians will seek to position themselves as the good guys. Also, in case you didn’t know – the media loves to report conflict (even if conflict doesn’t exist).

Canary #7: Regulatory agencies and/or higher authorities get involved
Steroid use in baseball had been an ongoing issue but who knew it would become a crisis for Major League Baseball? You or I may not have thought steroid use was a crisis but when Congress is holding hearings and interrogating Hall of Famers, chances are the winds of crisis are blowing.

Once again, anyone of these is a cautionary event. The more that develop, the tighter you’ll need to strap on that gas mask (wait, what?). Recognizing the early warnings signs will keep you from overreacting – or not reacting enough.

*This is the fourth 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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