Crisis on Stage

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    In the midst of a crisis, the spotlight’s on you

    Shakespeare penned the famous line, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players,” in the year 1600, but it’s managed to remain quite relevant ever since then. Major crises today present perhaps the biggest “stage” of all, as millions of people from around the world are not only able to track every happening via traditional media but also to contribute their thoughts and discuss those of others using the Web and especially social media.

    In a guest post for the Mr. Media Training blog, crisis management pro-Jane Jordan-Meier, author of “The Four Stages of Highly Effective Crisis Management,” took this analogy even deeper as she described the four stages of a crisis.

    STAGE ONE: In Stage One, the spotlight is beaming squarely on the incident. This is the “breaking news” stage. “What happened?” is the key question. And the news travels very fast from Stage One to Stage Two – it doesn’t take long for the story to jump the “fire line.”

    STAGE TWO: Stage Two is characterized by the focus on the “victims” and the response. The light moves quickly from the incident itself (although new facts will continue to emerge) to the “drama.” How could this have happened? How many people are hurt, missing, and/or dead? How is the organization responding? How quickly did the responders get to the scene? The light will shine brightly on the perpetrator – or who we think the perpetrator might be.

    This stage is key. This is the make-it-or-break-it stage, the reputation-forming stage, the stage where the rallying on social media sites, both negative and positive, becomes a focal point.

    The spotlight, with widening and growing intensity, points at the organization and persons who appear to be at the center of the storm. It will roam around and catch whoever will talk about what’s just happened. Experts start to appear on CNN, victims start talking in-depth about their experiences, and the organization starts to give its side of the story. And it can last at least 72 hours.

    STAGE THREE: Stage Three is the one best avoided, although inevitably we all want to go there – yes, the Blame, Finger Pointing Stage. Think back to the devastating oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico when the executives of the three companies at the heart of the massive oil spill were severely chastised over attempts to shift the blame to each other.

    In this Finger Pointing Stage – everyone has an opinion about you, your product, your organization, your industry, even your country (ask Iran) – lots of “woulda, coulda, shoulda.”

    Stage Three is all about blame with the key question focused on “why.” The spotlight is more like a floodlight. Your crisis is beamed everywhere.

    STAGE FOUR: The light begins to dim in Stage Four which is the fallout/resolution stage. The spotlight now dims, but can easily be turned to full glare again if you slip up, or something similar happens in your industry. Your crisis is perpetually in print, on Google, and in Wikipedia – searchable and discoverable. Your “sin” will be for everyone to see forever – you can’t take it back.

    Typically, this stage marks the end of the crisis; there is some resolution. There might be a funeral, a government inquiry, or a Senate hearing. Your product goes back on the shelf, workers go back to the plant, and victims return to their homes.

    Stage Four is perhaps the most dangerous, as many organizations relax too much rather than focusing on the effort to drive reputation higher and regain stakeholder trust. The slip-up can be nothing more than a few errant words spoken by an exec as they leave work late, but make the wrong move and nobody will hesitate to drudge up the recent past and make you pay for it.

    For more resources, see the Free Management Library topic: Crisis Management

    [Jonathan Bernstein is president of Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc., an international crisis management consultancy, and author of Keeping the Wolves at Bay – Media Training.]