What is a Crisis?

Posted: September 28, 2010 in Professional Insight
Tags: , ,

“We’re in the middle of a crisis situation and I don’t have time to talk.”

Defining can crisis is difficult because a crisis varies for every person, company and industry. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a crisis as an “unstable or crucial time… especially: one with the distinct possibility of a highly undesirable outcome.” This definition does a nice job of calling out some key elements – instability, timing and undesirable outcomes – but it is broad. I left this definition broad because rarely do two companies, organizations or people undergo they exact same set of circumstances.

For a small business a crisis might mean their website is out of commission for a few days, for a Fortune 500 company this could be an international product recall lasting several months, or for a parent this could be losing their child 4-year-old at the hotel arcade in Disney World.* The first step for each of these situations is to determine whether or not you have a crisis.


I don’t have all the answers on how to handle a crisis but I’ve had an opportunity to work on 8-9 different situations** ranging in severity and duration. As a research savvy guy, I’m normally pulled in during the first step, analyzing and understanding the landscape. Even if you have a crisis communications plan, which hopefully you do, you need to fully grasp the situation before you tweak your action plan or issue a public statement:

  • How many people will this situation affect?
  • What is currently being said or asked by our shareholders (employees, customers / product users, brand advocates, competitors, the media, etc.)?
  • How have similar situations been handled in the past?
  • What is the worst possible outcome of this scenario?

Armed with these answers, it’s possible to determine the scope of your situation, the best message to communicate to your shareholders and the channels you use to share information. These answers also allow you to take a step back, look at the whole picture and develop an informed strategy.

This topic is surrounded by shades of gray and as my friend Crister points out in the comments section, each industry has a different understanding of what constitutes a crisis. I’m hoping to spend more time in the future writing about crisis situations, how to handle them and how various industries define a crisis differently. Let me know if you have specific topics you would like me to explore or if you would like to share some of the lessons you’ve learned from dealing with a crisis.



* This happened to me during a trip to Disney World when I was four. Papa Piehl told me he was walking less than 10 feet away to grab a cup of coffee but I wasn’t exactly listening. Eventually, a hotel employee found me wondering around the hotel restaurant trying to find Mickey and Pluto. After this my parents made me wear an ID bracelet during every family vacation until I was in third grade.

** The majority of the crisis situations I’ve worked on are confidential and I will never disclose or allude to who the client is. My clients trust and respect is of the utmost importance. Moving forward, I will do my best to share with you the processes I’ve learned that can be applied to other clients and businesses.

  1. Crister says:

    I just had take a while to process the definition “one with the distinct possibility of a highly undesirable outcome” … because to me (as in those I’ve dealt with in healthcare) a crisis is something that has already happened.

    I totally agree with you in that it really does depend on the company/organization. For a father confessing to murdering his child in one of my hospital emergency rooms pretty much tops something that has “a distinct possibility of a highly undesirable outcome”.

    So with that said, I think it’s safe to say that not all crises are created equal – nor should they be. AND most importantly, any responsible organization should ALREADY have a Crisis Communication Plan BEFORE you-know-what hits the fan.

    Maybe defining crisis in various industries would help; for there certainly is a grayscale. I think a crisis for Tiger Woods’ publicist pales in comparison to the PR firm handling the United Airlines account during the 9/11 attacks. Yes, Mr. Woods’ image is tarnished, but we’re not comparing apples to apples here.

    • Joe says:

      Crister – Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I definitely agree that not all crises are created equal and the definition of a crisis varies based on the industry (or if you represent a celebrity). I’m hoping to dedicate more posts to topics like the importance of a crisis communications plan, the “Streisand Effect” and how a crisis isn’t the same for everyone, but I didn’t want this post to be overwhelming.

      I left the definition broad and included the word “possibility” because some situations start off as an internal crisis but never hit the mainstream news. I’ve helped with a couple situations when a company came to us and said “I have a situation that could cause my company go to bankrupt (like a lawsuit), but nobody knows.” None of the projects I’ve dealt with like this have resulted in mainstream media attention, but for several months the threat was there.

      Other situations were constantly evolving with what felt like no end in sight. An extreme example is last year’s outbreak of the H1N1 disease. A few days after the disease broke out the National Pork Board hired Weber to lead the organization’s response to this crisis. Each day we watched the conversation change as countries began to ban pork products even though properly prepared pork was safe to eat. While not all crisis situations are the result of a global pandemic, it was a unique series of issues within the same situation.

      I made a couple changes to my original post to make it more clear and would love your feedback. I’d also love to hear more about your healthcare experiences. You pick the place, I’ll buy the coffee.

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