5 Crisis Concepts Every CEO Should Know

Mike Shannon    5 Crisis Concepts Final

We live in an Age of Crisis, where every week seems to bring news of another organization or leader facing the bright lights of scandal, tragedy, or disaster. These unexpected events can paralyze a brand, damage its public trust, and threaten its very existence. The Vianovo team has counseled CEOs, management teams, boards, and public figures through some of this century’s most intense public crises and biggest reputational threats. Along the way, we’ve found five basic concepts invaluable as our clients prepare for and respond to crises. 

1. The Golden Hour

This term is borrowed from the field of emergency medicine, where physicians have come to recognize that the treatment decisions made in the first 60 minutes have long-lasting consequences for a patient’s trajectory. As in emergency care, a leader’s decisions in the earliest stage of a corporate crisis – its Golden Hour – are critical. They can help avert an oncoming disaster or fuel it (consider United CEO’s botched apology for having to “re-accommodate” a passenger). Vianovo has developed a basic ten-point checklist to help prevent leaders from making unforced errors during the Golden Hour and beyond.

2. Crisis Traps

When a leader or organization faces a crisis, they often fall into one of four traps, each illustrated by a few telling words. If you hear them uttered or are about to say them, think of Admiral Ackbar in Star Wars.

  • This is not a crisis. Crisis denial often occurs on the first day of getting hit with bad news. Denial is dangerous since it can lead to poor decisions in the aforementioned Golden Hour and worsen the crisis.
  • Things cannot get any worse. Yes they can and often they do. When a crisis hits, it develops rapidly. It causes internal conflict and confusion. And it prompts white hot scrutiny that can lead to new damaging information surfacing which triggers a jump in crisis intensity. As Warren Buffet said, “Only when the tide goes out do you discover who's been swimming naked.”
  • Let’s not say anything until we know more. Once an incident occurs or bad information is about to become public, you can and should say something. Even if it’s simply acknowledging the situation and stating that you are gathering facts. Leaving a void creates confusion, signals weakness, and allows others -- including competitors and activists -- to tell the story.
  • We can control information. You can’t. We live in an information democracy where everyone has access to a modern printing press (e.g. social media) and anyone can be a producer and distributor (e.g. YouTube). Whistleblowers and leaks abound. Assume that all bad information will eventually make its way to the public square and proceed accordingly.

3. The Crisis Curve

Crises have three phases – acute, chronic and recovery. 

Each of these phases has predictable characteristics that should guide your communications approach. For example, in the acute phase, organizations and their leaders face confusion and scrutiny, see the emergence of new bad information (trigger events) that raise the crisis intensity, and suffer from a decline in public trust. Understanding where you are on the crisis curve is important to how you talk and what to expect in terms of telling a positive story.

4. The Center of Gravity

The center of gravity is the primary concern that your stakeholders have at different moments during a crisis. Take an airline crash. In the immediate aftermath, the primary concern is the basic facts (What happened? How can I find out if my loved one is alive?). As the crisis unfolds, the primary concern shifts to responsibility (Was the plane properly maintained? What will the NTSB investigation show?) and to response performance (Why isn’t the airline handling this better?). To effectively manage a crisis, you need to know what the current center of gravity is.

5. Upstream vs. Downstream

Values and culture are upstream from policies and practices. Policies and practices are upstream from actions. Actions are upstream from communications. If you want to prevent or mitigate crisis risk, you have to focus upstream not downstream. Communicators are often blamed for poor crisis handling but the fact of the matter is that they are at the mouth of the crisis river, not the head. Effective crisis planning and response deals with upstream issues and must involve leaders from across an organization. 

Note: More about the "center of gravity" and "crisis curve" can be found in Bob Roemer's excellent book When the Balloon Goes Up: The Communicator's Guide to Crisis Response