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Sorting out the Mountains from the Molehills

I participated in a panel on crisis communications and social media yesterday and it got me thinking about what defines a crisis, and what is really just issues management. It was evident that my definition wasn’t consistent with others in the room or on the panel with me. So I spent my commute downtown pondering my own definition and the criteria I would apply to determine when to flick the crisis switch. I know I’m not the person who runs to the emergency for a hangnail (knee jerk, over reaction, everything is a crisis), but I also hope I’m not a Monty Python Black Knight insisting it’s only a scratch as my arms and legs lie on the ground around me.

I figured out that I do have some criteria that I apply to sort out a crisis from the issues we tend to deal with as part of our regular communications day. One is obvious – if there is significant risk to life or property. Another is if the situation could threaten the viability of the organization – put it at risk of operational extinction. I also think you hit crisis mode if the situation requires more extensive use of resources than standard, or even high pressure, operational requirements. For me, almost everything else is issues management. The trick with this though, is that if you don’t deal with the issue, you may find yourself in a crisis.

So once I sorted out what I felt constituted a crisis, I tried to throw the social media aspect into the mix. The thing with social media is that it can speed up the elapsed time between when something stirs the pot as an issue to when it’s into a full blown crisis. It might start with some Facebook posts, Tweets or blog comment that “the CEO and executive are a bunch of jerks.” That’s probably a typical day, and you likely see it and ignore it (unless of course it’s on your sites and then you apply your House Rules that say “no personal attacks” and delete the post). Your response would shift into issues management mode if the bunnies start multiplying (the way the do) and the post was “the CEO and executive are a bunch of jerks because they’re taking kick backs and embezzling from the company.” Now you have a fairly serious issue to deal with and will bring in a few resources to nip that nasty bit of slander in the butt. Still, it’s all in a days work. I see it shift into crisis mode when that post becomes “the CEO and executive are a bunch of jerks because they’re taking kick backs and embezzling from the company and have just been arrested.” Whoops. Now you have a crisis, assuming it’s true. Those bunnies are probably going to have a field day. Now the organization is at risk and there will be multiple implications that require prompt attention – dealing with shareholders, unions, the executives who weren’t involved but appear to be, and you’re going to need to bring in multiple resources and go into crisis management mode.

So if I go back to my Monty Python fixation, that first post involved the innocuous little white rabbits that look like they can’t do any real harm. The next post makes it clear they have “nasty big, pointy teeth” that could really hurt. And by the third scenario you realize they are vicious killers.  The problem I come across in government is that there is a tendency to over react to the first scenario, when they really are just innocuous rabbits. It takes time, experience and monitoring to be able to spot the differences and respond promptly to protect your organization’s reputation.

Now I’ll probably take my analogy one step too far – but when it comes to social media, don’t assume every situation is a vicious killer rabbit that goes for the throat. Most are just innocuous bunnies, and even when they bite, they don’t break the skin.

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