We are in the medal round for our year-end countdown of Top 10 Most Read Pieces of 2015 here on the blog. This bronze-winning piece was inspired by my philosophy coursework at Old Dominion University (Go Monarchs!). Really! I took a philosophy course on ethics and crisis communication, so it makes sense that I’d migrate some of that book learning and classroom discussion over here. Enjoy, and we’re looking forward to sharing more crisis communication insight with you in 2016!
The first chapter of Kathleen Fearn-Banks’ “Crisis Communications: A Casebook Approach,” covers – as the chapter title indicates – “Crisis Communications Today.” Several topics in the text stood out for me during a recent reading:
1. The importance of being able to clearly define what constitutes a crisis
A key point during a discussion of the text: crises are often defined by people outside the organization experiencing it (or, in the case of an individual crisis, just defined by someone else). Individuals in the business of having to deal with crises would be well-served to define their problems by first listening to how others are defining them. A discussion of the text also covered the differences between a “problem” and a “crisis.” There was an analogy of a flat tire on a car. Depends on the circumstances, but if your car is parked when you discover the flat, and you don’t need to use it that day, it’s just a problem: something you can get back to later and the consequences remain relatively unchanged. If your tire blows out while you’re in heavy traffic on the highway, you could have a crisis, especially if the flat tire leads to a more serious accident, such as a collision with another car. Paul had some great words on how to define crisis a few weeks ago.
2. Institutional considerations when defining and attempting to mitigate a crisis
In terms of institutional considerations when identifying and responding to crises, the discussion turned to the thought process that needs to happen before building a strategic communications plan (or conducting tactical communications). Any institution with the potential for having a crisis needs to support, at all levels, strategic and tactical communications plans and activities. One can see the consequences of the opposite in media stories every day – from CEOs who try to conduct media briefings without the requisite skills needed, to news release writers who botch messages that deal with public outrage or other negativity to which they are trying to respond. Having a crisis management plan is great, but only if everyone in the organization is both familiar with it and supports it before a crisis occurs.
3. Fearn-Banks’ “The Five Stages of a Crisis”
Finally, the stages of a crisis serve as an educational management model for anyone who needs to plan for or conduct crisis communications. Fearn-Banks posits that these five stages occur during a crisis:
Based on my experience, I don’t completely agree with this ordering, and here’s why: if an emergency has already reached crisis stage, there’s no such thing as “prevention” stage. Well, maybe “preventing much, much worse,” possibly, but that’s really just part of any good operational response model. A more realistic ordering of the stages that Fearn-Banks notes might be:
- (Pre-crises) Prevention
Action in the detection stage centers on the ability to identify crisis (and, at times, via the aforementioned empathetic brainstorming or stakeholder engagement). Preparation, as I wrote, seems to be in the correct place, after detection. In this regard, Fearn-Banks defines actions in the preparation stage as “necessary for dealing with crises that cannot be prevented. The crisis communication plan is the primary tool of preparedness … (and) provides a functioning collective brain for (everyone) involved in a crisis.” The final three stages, containment, recovery and learning, are self-explanatory. The key takeaway for me, in regards to learning, is this: lessons learned from working through a crisis (even unsuccessfully) only work if they’re implemented in changes to an organization’s strategic plans.
Fearn-Banks’ stages of crisis, basically, correlate to the accepted stages of emergency management (prevention, preparedness, response, recovery and mitigation). If you don’t have a crisis communication plan in place, you could certainly use Fearn-Banks’ identified stages as an organizational framework. Paul had great tips on preparing for the inevitability of crisis here on the blog a few weeks ago.