Crisis, what crisis? Five ways to know if it’s the real thing

Crisis, what crisis? Five ways to know if it’s the real thing

Recently I have seen a few challenging comms and media handling situations described as a crisis - but are they?   As PR and communicators are we sometimes too quick to call a crisis? I asked Chris Tucker who has handled more than a few in her time and leads our crisis comms diploma to define crisis for us. Over to Chris....

Chris Tucker who leads our CIPR Crisis Comms Diploma

"Working in PR and engaging with the 24/7 global news agenda can make it seem as if we all live in permanent crisis.  As the countdown begins for the news on the hour and the loud music kicks in even those of us who know full well how the media world operates still wait to see which organisation or high profile person is now in crisis-mode.  This is why Jeremy Corbyn’s statement the other day that the Labour Party was not in crisis despite numerous accusations of anti-semitism was met with such incredulity.  Of course it’s a crisis – it’s leading the news headlines said many commentators.  But how do we really judge if our own organisation truly needs to switch to full-blown crisis mode or if a few deep breaths and a sense of perspective is more what is needed?  Here are five ways to tell if it really is a crisis:

Firstly, dig out a copy of BS11200.  It is the British Standard of crisis management and packed full of good advice.  The BSI defines a crisis as an “abnormal and unstable situation that threatens the organization’s strategic objectives, reputation or viability.” Basically, the question to ask yourself is will we cease to exist if this crisis is not resolved satisfactorily?  It could be argued that if Rupert Murdoch had not taken the tough and surprising decision to close the News of the World, his most profitable newspaper, at the height of the phone hacking scandal his publishing empire could have crashed.  

Next, does the crisis severely undermine your organisation’s brand positioning?  It has long been acknowledged that “a gap between corporate practice and stakeholder expectations” is a classic crisis situation.  As communicators we need to be alive to what those expectations are, especially if they are not obviously documented.  Misunderstanding this was one of the reasons that led to Thomas Cook, the holiday company criticised for handling a terrible tragedy when carbon monoxide poisoning killed two children on one of its holidays, to get it so badly wrong.  The company’s whole brand positioning was around happy, carefree, family holidays.  There was no way it could sidestep the blame for what had happened.

Thirdly, are the Government interested in the situation?  On the whole Governments prefer to keep out of corporate or organisational crises.  They have enough of their own to deal with.  However, if the organisation in question does not look as if it is getting a grip Governments do get twitchy.  Governments know that sooner or later stakeholders will ask for them to sort it out and they would rather be ahead of the curve than be accused of sitting on their hands.  A good example would be President Obama stepping into the BP Deepwater Horizon crisis in 2010.  The President could see that however well BP was doing from an engineering point of view in stemming the flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico it was losing the PR war and alienating multiple stakeholders.

Fourthly, beware if the situation leads to concerns about the organisation being shared across all key stakeholders.  If you think about the classic stakeholder model of the organisation at the centre surrounded by groups such as consumers, investors, employees, regulators, local communities etc. you can see how most of the time each group interacts differently with the organisation.  However, to see them all united by common cause to oppose the organisation is truly frightening.  There are no repositories of goodwill to draw on.  For communicators good stakeholder management is at the heart of good crisis management.

Finally, there is always Alistair Campbell’s “golden rule” usually applied to decide when scandal-hit politicians must resign.  If a media story lasts for a certain number of days then the point of no return may be reached.  Whilst Mr Campbell himself cannot quite remember actually what he did say from my own experience seeing a story run across the weekend and still having the “legs” to run again the following week is a good sign of an issue running into crisis territory.  Two weekends on the trot and I would recommend the tin hat stays firmly on."

Sound advice as always Chris - thank you !