ao-july-2014Not all incidents are crises.  And knowing the difference will shape the way you react (or overreact).

Let’s face it the pace of our world pushes us to categorize every blip, every executive misstep, every botched customer complaint as a crisis.  As a crisis communications manager I’m delighted that people are beginning to identify reputation-threatening incidents early and often.  But sometimes that very awareness stimulates an overreaction that’s truly way over the top.

We had one client with a disgruntled employee who took to social media after his firing, posting nasty comments to their Facebook page.  “He’s posted again!”  they’d call to tell me.  And while no one likes an unhappy employee comments on their page (clearly we took them down) the situation didn’t rise to the level of a crisis because a little research showed he had few followers and no one took up his charge to flame my client.  The bottom line was this – it was an incident; one that bore watching, but not a crisis.

With that said, we all know how easily one dumb tweet can ignite a firestorm while a  major shift in the political landscape results in a giant social yawn.  So it’s easy to shift into crisis mode at the drop of 140 characters;“ to take arms against a sea of troubles” as a form of self-preservation because it’s so hard to forecast what will end up as clickbait

Not all incidents are crises, BUT (and it’s a big but) incidents left unattended can and do escalate into crises.  It’s all in how and when your react.

To shape the most effective response, you must first separate a true crisis situation from an incident.  An incident can ruin your day.  A crisis can ruin a reputation. A misspoken sexist remark by a CEO can trigger a two-hour twitter frenzy.  That’s truly an unfortunate incident.  A story about that same CEO having an intimate relationship with an employee is a crisis.  One stings; one wounds a reputation.

Many times the difference isn’t so obvious.  There is no bright, white line that separates an incident from a crisis.  PR guru Mark W. McClennan of the  MSL Group talks about a “Failure Spectrum”, a sort of continuum that runs from Incident to Event to Crisis.  On the low end there are sloppy mistakes, missteps in small groups and even most of what we call social media crises (probably because of the firefly mentality of the social media landscape.).  Mid-range on the spectrum are significant one-time errors’ and systematic failures.  On the high end, there are crises – things like executives and employees behaving badly, product failures, actions that go against an organization’s mission or core values, victimization of employees and insensitivity to “third-rail” issues (thank you, Donald Trump).

Before jumping into crisis mode, stop to evaluate where a situation falls on this continuum.  In general, you’ll find that incidents:

  • Disrupt day-to-day operations, services or functions
  • Present as single events; not turning points for the organization
  • Are low-level, localized problems that can be dealt with by routine procedures
  • Are more predictable and can often be taken care of with standard pre-prepared and well-rehearsed responses.

Crises, on the other hand:

  • Pose a long-term threat to the company’s reputation, effectiveness, profitability, or ability to remain in business.
  • Have the ability to have a lasting impact on a company’s reputation, perpetuation and bottom-line
  • Pose a threat to stakeholder trust and confidence
  • Expose underlying weaknesses in a company’s culture, values, mission and value proposition
  • Are turning point in an organization; something that, if not handled transparently, quickly and with concern and compassion could drastically alter the company’s future and ability to attract top talent.
  • Require more flexibility, creativity and strategic thinking.

Reputation-threatening situations are everywhere and the mine-field that is the web amplifies the toxic potential of every incident, whether it’s a misstep, goof, dumb remark or true failure of people, process or product.  We are hyper-aware of how fast things can go south.  Don’t let the “need for speed” shape your judgement.  Take a minute before going into crisis mode to answer the question “Will anyone care about this tomorrow?”

In our next post, we’ll be talking about the differences between responses to incidents versus crises.  Stay tuned.

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