Seeing the Forest for the Trees: How to Spot an Issue Before It’s a Crisis

In today's turbulent business environment, there is no shortage of crises du jour, which helps explain the evergreen quality and ubiquity of case studies, expert strategies and thought leadership pieces on the topic of crisis management. As the gatekeepers of all things reputation- and brand-related, communications execs have no choice but to buckle down and anticipate the worst; this approach is the only path to a best-case scenario when things to begin to go downhill--and don't worry, they will.

But first things first: When does a grim situation cross the line into a full-blown crisis? Knowing how to identify this moment in time is the crux of taking appropriate next steps.

"Not every challenge is a crisis," says Gil Bashe, EVP of Makovsky + Company. "It either is or has the potential to become one. Don't turn issues into crises."

There is a difference between issues management and crisis management--namely, the former centers on managing common challenges associated with a particular company or industry, while the latter speaks to a specific negative occurrence for which something or someone is to blame. Recognizing these nuances is integral to developing a sturdy crisis plan, as cross-populating said plan with crisis- and issues-management strategies will only dilute success.

Larry Smith, president of the Institute for Crisis Management, helps define at least one genre of crises: Business. "This is a significant business disruption that triggers negative stakeholder reaction, impacting your business and financial strength," he says, categorizing the different types of these crises as "sudden", "smoldering", "perceptual" and "bizarre". This definition business crises can easily apply to other types of crises by simply removing the word "business" and focusing specifically on negative stakeholder reaction; every type of organization has stakeholders who, when confronted with a crisis, will revise their opinions/perceptions and alter their relationship with your brand accordingly.

Once lines have been drawn and a clear understanding of potential threats is established, executives can begin working toward preventative measures and, when a crisis does strike, toward a plan of attack.

*Learn to spot emerging issues. With the loss of control over messaging that digital communications platforms prompt, it's easy to throw up your hands in defeat. These platforms are the ultimate double-edged swords, as they contribute to crises, but they also enable communications executives to identify an emerging problem before it spirals out of control.

"You need to understand the dynamic of [digital media] to best serve your organization," says Shabbir Imber Safdar, founder of Virilion Inc. "You need to feel confident enough to reach back into the organization's operations and change something about how you do business, if merely to define a policy for the future."

The easiest and most cost-effective way to monitor potential problems is to set up an RSS feed to aggregate all conversations that mention your organization or your client's organization. The moment an inflammatory comment or story appears, you can plan a response before the murmur crescendos. Safdar estimates that executives rarely have more than three days to respond; the time frame depends on whether people are waiting for the affected party to define their position.

*Work backward. Once you have identified potential land mines, channel your best soothsayer skills to envision all the possible outcomes, and then work backward. "Think 'endpoint' and build the plan toward that objective," Bashe says. "Leverage your organization's current processes/rules to help you look smart and ready." This approach sets the foundation for crisis planning (see "Six-Point Crisis Strategy" sidebar for additional tips). It also helps identify the questions that will be most important to successful crisis management.

*Advance. When the goal is in place, it's time to identify the audiences that must be addressed before, during and after a crisis. Smith acknowledges that crises always strike at the worst possible time, and he recommends having a crisis plan that can be implemented quickly, even if the basic plan just outlines response strategies aimed at key stakeholders, such as employees.

Then, "Base everything you say on factual, confirmed information. Do not speculate. Don't release information on injuries or confirmed deaths--that must come from authorities. Do not release details on the incident. Do not add to conflict," Smith says. "Document everything you do."

*Leverage every potential ally, even if it is coming from behind enemy lines. Safdar illustrates the importance of making your first statement count, as well as forging alliances with the affected parties, by citing the crisis experienced by Ford Motor Co. in January 2008. The situation involved the car company and a Mustang fan club, the latter of which planned to use images of their Ford Mustangs in a club calendar that would be printed by CafePress--an action that infringed on Ford's trademark policy. Dissonant commentators gathered in the fan club's forum to complain about the policy. Ford execs reacted just in time, taking two steps that saved the company's reputation:

1. Before ever making a statement about its trademark policy--which would require time and would become mired in an argument about intellectual property--Ford responded to the audience at hand: the Mustang Club.

2. Ford reached out to the club president Lisa Barrett Wall and asked her to temper members' commentary while it resolved the issue with CafePress. She cooperated, and the crisis ceased before ever reaching mainstream news.

For more information, check out "Online Crisis Communications: Your First Statement Is Crucial" on PRN


Gil Bashe. [email protected]; Larry Smith, [email protected]; Shabbir Imber Safdar, [email protected]

Six-Point Crisis Strategy

1. Authenticate: Differentiate what you think from what you know.

2. Align messaging: One company means one voice.

3. Accuracy: Get the facts right always and then move fast.

4. Ally: Cultivate and leverage third-party support, internal and external spokespeople.

5. Assess media horizon: Print leads to broadcast, and blogs impact "trust" environment. Media is less about facts and more about story.

6. Achieve stakeholder trust in all actions: Work toward resolution, with post-crisis reputation as guide.

Source: These tips were provided by Gil Bashe, EVP of Makovsky + Company.

Bottom-Line Essentials Of Crisis Management

Crisis Prevention:

Know the vulnerabilities of your organization.

Keep an eye on your competition.

Assess the human interest potential.

Maintain a realistic response plan, including PR.

Crisis Control:

Balance legal, operations and communications.

Know the news media and your adversaries.

Think beyond the crisis itself.

Words aren't enough; do something that makes sense.

Source: These tips were provided by Larry Smith, president of the Institute for Crisis Management.