Crisis aftershocks–what communicators can anticipate

August 9, 2007

OK, I think I spotted a trend here. Most of you probably noted it already but I tend to be a little slow. I’m calling it the “crisis aftershock.” We’ve seen it clearly in the Virginia Tech situation and now in the Minnesota bridge tragedy. Everyone in a similar position to the organizations involved are facing questions by local or regional media about how they would prevent such a thing happening to them or how they would respond. After Virginia Tech, virtually every university, community college or private college was asked by their local media how they would prevent the Virginia Tech tragedy from happening, how they would notify students, and if they would have made a similar decision to delay in notifying. This public scrutiny of their preparation is largely what has spurred many universities to suddenly act in buy notification systems. I wish that the driver for this was only the need to communicate re safety information. The reality is the embarrassment of not having a good answer to those question is what is driving a lot of very foolish purchases right now.

Everyone responsible for bridges is now having to answer the same question. This article highlights the demand for accountability–now focused on bridges that share a similar design. Communicators and leaders from every state and local transportation authority are facing questions about how can they assure that the bridges under their control won’t all of a sudden collapse. They’re in a tough spot.

So, the point is–each high profile crisis creates a series of mini-crises for anyone in the same or related business. If you make grow organic spinach and some organic spinach gets tainted with e.coli, you will be asked if yours is, how do you know, and what you are doing to prevent it. If you make baby widgets like six other manufacturers and one of your competitor’s baby widgets blows up and hurts a baby, you will be asked how you can assure your customers that yours won’t blow up.

The interesting thing is that we prepare for crises where we may be directly involved. But we don’t necessarily prepare for crises that others similar to us are involved. We prepare for the quake, but not the aftershock and it is the aftershock that may hurt us. So, add one more thing to your list of crisis preparation items.

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One Response to “Crisis aftershocks–what communicators can anticipate”

  1. stephen askins Says:

    A loss of confidence in any consumer product, particularly food, must be a crisis for the industry and will effect all. Recently in Greece a minister announced that fast food outlets were dirty and that the food was not fresh. The impact on all outlets was immediate regardless of cleanliness. The only approach then is for each outlet to be proactive and reassure and hope their representative industry body is doing the same.

    Your point about the bridge and the University in my view raises a different issue and highlights the arguments raised by exponents of the theory behind what constitutes a crisis. Some would say that the collapse of the bridge was merely an exceptional manifestation of a long process where warnings were ignored and where weaknesses in whatever organisation runs or maintains the bridges were overlooked or not seen. I am sure in the witch hunt which must now be surrunding these events there is now a trail of warnings and a sense that in hindsight the incident was almost inevitable. Of course things cannot be the same there after and in the processual approach theory the collapse of the bridge should give those involved in the manangement of other bridges a fresh chance to recognise their responsibilities, to examine their own organisations and to identify potential crisis areas.

    You cant help but feel that the universities rushing to buy notifying systems are missing the point. By focussing on that aspect alone (if that is what they are doing)the fix is symbolic . Perhaps that is what they want to convey. But if they approach the problem from the angle solely of the shooting then I doubt whether they will look at the stuctures of management and student care that caused the shooting in the first place. In other words it is odd that you buy a system which allows you to communicate in the next shooting rather invest in making sure that the chances of another shooting are reduced.


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