How should you manage a crisis?

Lessons from crisis management & communication campaigns – Part 1

I just heard from a colleague that entire malls are being shut down and people are stocking up food and supplies, in California. The Coronavirus scare is getting real as the State of California has declared an emergency. For sure, this seems to be a crisis and one that we should be prepared to handle. But how does one draw the line between ‘managing’ a crisis and freaking out and creating chaos? Is there a line one can draw between these two scenarios? Let’s just focus on one aspect of this issue: How to define a crisis. I may have a few more posts on this issue, as this crisis evolves.

As Boin et al. (2005) write in their book, The Politics of Crisis Management, “It (crisis) refers to an undesirable and unexpected situation: when we talk about crisis, we usually mean that something bad is to befall a person, group, organization, culture, society, or, when we think really big, the world at large. Something must be done, urgently, to make sure that this threat will not materialize. ” They point to the crucial role of leadership in defining a crisis.

How does one know when a situation is a crisis or not? How fast should they announce it as such? Should one continue to say “It is not a big deal,” when clearly the crisis is having real consequences on people’s lives? These are not easy answers. Many of these have to do with both the information coming in, the ‘sense-making’ of that data and how the leaders choose to respond.

Just a few weeks ago, I watched this documentary titled In the absence on the (very unfortunate) and sad case of the 2014 Sewol Ferry that sank in Korea, killing over 300 people. As you can see from that particular case, the biggest failure that one can point to is the refusal of the people in charge to define it as a crisis and the failure to act, forcefully, to fix it.

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Such slow and indifferent response is quite common in many situations. Leaders don’t want to cause panic or seem to rock the boat, when information comes their way, that they don’t want to hear. We are seeing such behavior in many parts of the world, with regards to the Coronavirus issue as well.

Texts from students who were on the ferry pointed out that the captain and others on the ferry asked students to ‘stay put’ and ‘not panic,’ and that everything was under control. Sounds familiar? Many of the students who sent these texts to their parents ended up drowning.

As one can see in the documentary on Sewol, even when the President’s team got involved, they were more concerned about documenting the case and showing that they were doing something rather than actually doing what was necessary to save the children trapped on the ferry.

The decision making involved, on whether one should define something as a crisis is not entirely a rational one, and there can be political dimensions to it, Boin and his co-authors remind us. In my own experience managing crises, as a former Public Affairs Manager, I have seen this play out.

So, how does one make decisions, communicate and lead, during a crisis? That will be part of the next post…

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