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The 10 Stages Of Every PR Crisis & Some Thoughts On How To Handle Them

Looking broadly across the many crises that have unfolded over the years, they seem to all share roughly the same 10 stages in common. If I could make one overall point it is this:

"Pay now or pay later."

That is - right or wrong, if leadership takes responsibility early on, gets all the information out, and does something dramatic and real to fix it - people usually will prefer to keep the organization intact rather than make a major change.

1. Precipitating event 
Something happens. It can be one event, at one time or many events over a long period. It can be related events, or events that seem unrelated. Of course things happen all the time that are "not good," but not all of them rise to the level of a scandal or a crisis. A "not-good happening" becomes a "precipitating event" when the public defines it as a crisis. (The outrage happens in Stage 4, so crises are defined retroactively.)

2. Operational consequence 
The crisis has an impact on someone or something. Someone is injured or dies, their rights are violated, there is harm to the environment. Whatever it is, the effects are tangible and documented.

3. Denial 
People tend to think that "good organizations automatically acknowledge a problem." That may be true sometimes, but not all the time. In fact the default mode for every individual and organization is to resist recognizing a problem. This is not an active choice but a manifestation of survival mode, as well as change aversion. Nobody wants to interrupt their regular routine to admit a problem. That is why they invented the concept of an "intervention" to help addicted people get help. They will stubbornly deny everything.

It should be said that in the case of a crisis, the key words to remember are "the faster the better." Denial may work for a time but it tends to backfire in the end. The first mover generally has the advantage.

In deciding whether to "acknowledge a problem" the organization has to make a strategic decision as to whether they are creating a problem where there was none in the first place, or proactively dissipating a crisis that may arise later because the public reacts against something they had done previously.

My thinking is usually to act first and dissipate. There should never be a question, and if a question has arisen it is better to share the data and dispel gossip and rumor.

4. Public reaction 
Stakeholders get word and get mad. Whether it's the public, the media, Congress, an "iReporter," or what have you - they they resist and they resist vocally. They file suit, demonstrate, start social media campaigns, tell their friends, share documents legitimately or illegitimately. What makes this stage a stage is the decision to speak out.

5. Acknowledgement, narrative, and assignment of responsibility 
The public reaction leads to a decision within the organization that there is actually a crisis - otherwise there would not be an outcry. Upon this recognition, there is a statement of some kind. At this point the organization usually tells its side of the story and places accountability somewhere, even preliminarily.  

It should be noted taking responsibility for something tends to lead the organization to do better in the end, versus if they lay blame they tend to do worse. This is where lawyers and communicators tend to disagree as the lawyers will want to be more protective and say as little as possible, whereas the communicators will want to take the "blah, blah, blah" approach. Communicators know that even if your narrative is not perfect, the fact that you shared it openly makes you credible. Lawyers know that if you say things that are contradictory or that reflect incorrect actions, there are legal consequences. It's a difficult discussion to have which is why it is important that all sides of the team respect one another and work together, but then speak rather than staying silent.

6. Investigation 
In some form or fashion, there is a fact finding process aimed at unearthing evidence and sharing them with a judicial body, formal or informal. The more impartial and unbiased the investigation and the more transparent its findings, the more useful this stage in dissipating the crisis.

7. Suspension of operations 
There is a period of time, formally or informally, where nothing significant happens until the outcome of the investigation is determined. This stage is extremely important. Trying to "go on as usual" ultimately undermines operations. If there is a problem it is important to recognize it and stop, even temporarily, even if life could go on. This shows the organization's seriousness about dealing with it.

8. Report-out, punishment and action 
The findings of the investigation are made public in some way, the more transparently the better. The person or entity responsible for wrongdoing is formally censured and/or penalized. It is important that people see the findings and see the justice being meted out. This restores the lost faith in the system.

Part of this stage is a decision to do things differently - to take action. The organization must accept its "punishment" and do something physical, significant and substantial to address the crisis they tend to do better.

9. Grief and mourning 
Even after the issue is resolved, there is a period of time during which the public asks in a publicly what went wrong, how things could have gotten to this point, and also expresses pent-up emotion over the pain it has caused. It is important that there be a public conversation.

Usually during this stage there is a discussion of "who is really responsible" and it becomes clear that more people are involved, who facilitated or looked the other way when the wrongdoing occurred.

Again, it is not just about "letting it out" but also making improvements for the future. There is always going to be some interplay between #8 and #9. This is due to the ongoing logical versus emotional discussion about what overreaction vs. underreaction - striking the right balance.

In this phase it is important that the organization reach out to those who held it accountable. That some respect and reconciliation occur between the two parties.

10. Monument, commemoration and ritual
There is some public, physical display that reflects a commitment to do things differently in the future. A statue or permanent structure of some sort may be built. A ritual, a ceremony, a holiday -- something without functional value that purely commemorates our memory of what went wrong and our commitment not to repeat those same mistakes.

As I've said over and over again, all organizations suffer crises at one point or another. Rather than handle them as new and unfamiliar phenomena, it seems sensible to follow the playbook of institutions that have weathered crisis and survived.

* As always, all opinions are my own.

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