In a crisis, news coverage and public interest tends to follow a consistent pattern. There are four stages to be alert to if your company is sucked into the frenzy, international crisis expert Jane Jordan-Meier observes.
"Those predictable patterns help you plan better [and] help you stay ahead of the game when you find yourself warding off fire from more directions than ever, because every man and his dog can have an instant, unrestricted say on the matter, thanks to Twitter, You Tube, and 'Lord' Google," she notes in her book The Four Stages of Highly Effective Crisis Management. She describes the stages as:
The spotlight is shining on the incident, with the mainstream media trying to confirm basic details of what happened. This is the breaking-news phase, the sort of intense scrutiny we've just seen with the crisis at Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. Just as you are trying to determine what resources you will need to handle the situation, the mainstream media is trying to determine what resources they should throw at it. Social media can also be active at this point – they are instantaneous, and can also break news.
Questions at this stage are often speculative as the news media, acting in the interest of public safety, try to determine if people are safe, the response quick, the victims dealt with properly, and the reason for the calamity known.
"The key lesson to Stage One is only say what you know to be fact. Resist the temptation to speculate. You need to think like a reporter, and think ahead," Ms. Jordan-Meier writes.
The unfolding drama
The spotlight now moves from the incident to the response and the victims. She calls it the Unfolding Drama stage, since the initial facts about the incident are now out there for debate and discussion, in the mainstream and social media, as well as dinner tables. She also stresses it is "dirt-digging time; there will be more disclosure. You cannot hide the skeletons. The truth always comes out. Just ask Tiger Woods."
This is the reputation-forming stage – and it can be make-or-break for your organization. You need to put the incident in perspective, and have a key message that justifies what you have done. The lesson here is to understand the power of the crowds in social media; ignore them at your peril. Court those who will support you, serving as your unauthorized spokespeople, and try to help get them a voice. If you handle this stage well, you may be lucky enough to skip the mudslinging ahead in stage three and jump straight to stage four.
The blame game can now take over. People want to know who is responsible. Try to avoid mudslinging matches. Highlight what you have achieved, show you are talking to your critics if that's appropriate, remain available to the news media, and if you haven't hauled out the big guns in the organization yet this may be the time. "The lesson in Stage Three is to manage Stage Two well – very well! Never wait until you have the right information to speak or think that your brand can withstand the public scrutiny. Reality is that it can't," she declares.
Resolution and fallout
The spotlight may have dimmed on your crisis, but will return to full glare if you slip up or something similar happens elsewhere in your industry. Resolution can take many forms, ranging from financial woes for your company, or an inquest or a government inquiry. Review the crisis yourself and mark its end with a ceremony involving your staff, making sure to thank those who made sure the company survived the crisis.