When is a crisis not a crisis?

I was chatting to Ben Smith for the PR Moment podcast recently about crisis communications, and one of the things that came up in conversation was: what is a crisis? And how do you know when you’re officially in a crisis, and when you should push the button on your crisis plans? 

To know when you’ve tipped into crisis mode, you have to know what a crisis looks like for your organisation. I define this as something that has the potential to have a serious negative impact on your brand or your business: damaging sales, reputation, company valuation or share price, or even threatening your ability to operate.

How you handle it can severely impact your ability to recover from the crisis. 

What a crisis isn’t, is an issue that doesn’t threaten your future, or that has become routine for the business. That issue might feel like a crisis when you’re going through it! A good example is Nestle, which is under constant fire from campaigners for how it is perceived to market baby milk products. It faces regular boycotts by consumers, and has done since 1974. It is something the company manages on a daily basis, but doesn’t threaten the future of the company.

The interesting thing for me is that some of the younger people I’ve talked to who boycott Nestle weren’t even born when the boycotts started – they’ve probably never bought the products they’re boycotting, so the impact to the company is more about reputation than sales. That’s not to say issues like this can be ignored of course – they need careful monitoring and management. 

I often hear people talking about a ‘social media crisis’ – dealing with trolling, or someone sending a Tweet from the wrong account, or a wave of negative comments on your Facebook page. I don’t believe there’s any such thing as a social media crisis, really – a crisis might play out over social media, and it will probably break over social media – but it’s a real-world event. 

One of the first things to do when putting together crisis plans is to agree what a crisis looks like to your organisation, so you know when to activate your crisis plan based on data, not instinct.

When I was writing ‘Communicate in a Crisis’, my book on crisis communications that came out a few months ago, I spoke to Lisa Barnett, who works with us as a crisis trainer, and asked her for her views on when an issue becomes a crisis. She says companies should think of a crisis as ‘something out of the ordinary’. So that means knowing what ‘ordinary’ looks like for your business. We worked with one company once for which ‘normal’ was a few thousand complaints every day. To another company, that could indicate a crisis about to break. 

Lisa’s advice is to pause before you activate your crisis plan. She told me: “Take a breath; ask yourself: does this go against the core values of the company? Could it cause reputational or financial damage? If the answer is no, your crisis plan can stay put, for now.” 

Photo by Matt Hardy on Unsplash

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