The Simmering Crisis. It’s the crisis that threatens to boil over or fizzle out. You just don’t know. But you have to prepare for it while you wait. The Simmering Crisis can hang around for months, never quite escalating into a full-blown disaster, but keeping you in an extended state of readiness that is downright exhausting.Traditional crisis communications talks about two kinds of crises: sudden and smoldering. Sudden crises draw more attention, but the smoldering ones are actually more common. And tougher to come back from. A company hit by a hurricane and left without power gets our attention, but also our understanding. We cut them some slack as they struggle to regain functionality. But when we find out that a company has turned its back on a situation that allows a crisis to smolder – think VW or FIFA – we get angry. We lose confidence in the brand and we take much, much longer to forgive.
But what about the crisis that’s just sitting around waiting to blow? No one’s talked about that and we’re finding them to be increasingly common. We’ve developed strategies that help our clients cope with and recover from these simmering crises; ones that are tailored to the unique challenges they present.
First, let’s look at the characteristics of the simmering crisis that separate it from its crisis “cousins”- sudden and smoldering. A simmering crisis:
- Keeps you in a state of readiness for weeks or even months
- Is known only to company insiders
- Alerts you ahead of time that it’s coming
- Has a potential eruption date sometime in the future
- Threatens to jar customer confidence
- Develops in dribs and drabs over time
We first handled a crisis like this from 2012 to 2014. A healthcare client discovered serious wrong-doing on the part of one of their medical providers. The provider was accused of (and eventually sent to jail for) crimes against patients. We were hired in April 2012, but the police were investigating the claims very thoroughly and didn’t arrest him until June 2012. We had a crisis plan in place that we mobilized on the day of the arrest. But that was only the start of things. The situation dragged on with more arrests and eventually the sentencing in September 2014. As you can well imagine, the drip-drip-drip nature of this situation, and the fact that it lasted two years and five months, necessitated a unique form of crisis communications.
Waiting for a simmering crisis to get to the boil is tedious. Part of you just wants it to hit so you can move from readiness to action. And while you wait, you ease up on your sense of urgency. Your initial concern and panic turn to boredom. You lose your edge and become complacent. Essentially, you get used to the crisis and somehow it doesn’t look so bad.
Simmering crises present a unique situation for crisis communicators. The good news is that you have advance notice so you can use the time to prepare a crisis plan. You then monitor the situation, adjusting the plan as you go, making sure everyone involved is aware of those adjustments. The bad news is that it’s tough to keep everyone at the ready. You have to regularly remind them that just because the crisis is still simmering, it doesn’t mean it won’t happen. We also find that when these crises hit, management will want to go back to the drawing board and recreate the plan from scratch. All that waiting makes everyone both weary and wary. So, when the simmer becomes a boil, panic and amnesia surface. Of course, the boil-over of a simmering crisis may mean adjustments to the plan, but that doesn’t mean starting over. Chances are the plan you created away from the heat of battle is better than a knee-jerk reaction when you’re under fire.
The bottom line is this: simmering crises are tough. They sap your strength and attention. Their wait times wear you out. When they do hit, getting back to a state of active response is tough.
Know about them. Learn to identify them. Realize the effects of their long pre-crisis wait times. Be prepared to move them from a state of readiness into action when they hit using the plan you created outside the fog of war.
A simmer can escalate into a boil. And making sure it doesn’t boil over is the best way to avoid getting burned.
UPDATE: THIS COLUMN WAS RECENTLY FEATURED IN THE “BUSINESS PERSPECTIVES” SECTION OF THE WICHITA EAGLE http://bit.ly/1M8Fybg