Editor’s Note: This post was written by Patrice Cloutier. Patrice is Team Lead for strategic communications in the Communications Branch of the Ontario Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services, and a valued member of Agnes + Day’s Crisis Intelligence Team.
There are many definitions of what constitutes a crisis. Far too many to list here. However, I like to concentrate on the five key characteristics of most crises:
- the element of surprise (either timing or type of crisis)
- intense scrutiny by stakeholders/clients
- media coverage may go into hyper-drive
- departure from the normal routine
- a certain loss of control.
Now, with the impact of social convergence, time is no longer an ally in a crisis. For elected officials and emergency managers in particular, the ability to recognize that time gets crunched and moves at the speed of social network is critical during any incident.
More and more executives and leaders get that. What is still somewhat of an issue is dealing with items 4 and 5 in the list above. For top-level CEOs, directors and elected officials, there often persists an uneasiness in admitting a crisis exists if it means they have to relinquish some control or depart from their management routine. These people got to where they are by setting the agenda … not necessarily by having events dictate their actions.
Well, sometimes a crisis puts you on your own 10-yard line. If rule #1 of crisis management is “don’t make things worse”, the second one is: “focus on the matter at hand”. This means dealing with the crisis. An acknowledgment that events have forced your hands and that you have to dedicate time, staff and resources to it.
A good example of the need to recognize that you’re in a crisis, is the chaos a recent snowstorm caused in the Atlanta area. A couple of inches of snow = a complete breakdown of the region’s transportation system, forcing the distribution of emergency rations by the army.
In this case, the element of surprise shouldn’t have played a role, despite early ramblings by political staffers trying to protect the Governor of Georgia, the weather people had predicted the storm. In the end, he, like many others, had to come forth with a very public mea culpa.
The major failure was the one to recognize that routine was being thrown out the window. That snow had caused senior elected officials to lose some measure of control. A though pill to swallow for the Governor and Atlanta’s mayor. Blaming the media, as a reaction to your sense of uneasiness, doesn’t really work. Better to try to fix the lack of communications that often results following indecision from the top. A crisis communications lessons in real time.
Politicians weren’t the only ones to blame in this mess. Local emergency managers and school board officials also missed the boat on the foreseen impact of the storm … forcing them to make hasty decisions that made the situation worse (see rule #1 above). The school board people actually did very well once the situation worsened to keep people informed. But are there worse crises to deal with than the ones you create yourself?
Some leaders become the victims of their success. Listening and transitioning from routine to crisis management mode – or “flipping the switch” – are the most essential elements in getting your plan to work when its outcome depends on leadership and speed.
Image credit: Christopher Aluka Berry / Reuters