When is the Flash Point of a Crisis?

By Gerard Braud, CSP, Fellow IEC

In crisis communications, experts will tell you that speed is important. As a benchmark, in every crisis communications plan I write, the organization is expected to issue their first statement about their crisis within one hour or less of the crisis becoming known to the public. This can be considered your flash point.

In the world of fire and combustion, the flash point is that moment in which the heat rises to a level at which a flame is generated.

Apply this thinking to crisis communications. Think of there being two types of crises:
1. A Smoldering Crisis
2. A Sudden Crisis

A smoldering crisis can be compared to a bunch of oily rags in a hot garage. It takes a while for them to get hot. When they reach a certain temperature they start to smoke and smolder. As the temperature goes up further it all bursts into flames. We have a flash point.

A sudden crisis can be like a lightening bolt striking a house. The flash point is instantaneous. A sudden crisis can also be compared to striking a match. The flash point is instantaneous.

So in crisis communications, a smoldering crisis may be something such as an accusation of embezzlement or executive misbehavior. Internally a complaint may be filed or questionable practices may be uncovered and exposed. Certain internal decision makers know of this potential crisis, but the outside world does not.

In this type of smoldering crisis, the crisis communications team should receive a confidential briefing and they should immediately prepare a statement for all stakeholders. But initially, the organization is under no obligation to immediately issue a statement. The organization has time to decide their crisis management response, i.e. will the suspect employee be fired, suspended, etc.

The crisis management team also has a number of considerations.
• Whether this information can be kept private or if there is a high probability that the outside world will find out
• Sometimes, there is a legal obligation to tell the outside world
• Sometimes legal authorities are involved

In this type of smoldering crisis, the organization determines the flash point, defining it as the moment that they issue a statement to stakeholders, such as employees, the media, stockholders, customers, or any of the many variations of stakeholders.

If you fail to create your own flash point, your organization runs the risk of an outsider triggering the flash point, which immediately positions your organization in a defensive posture. Triggering the flash point yourself usually earns you more credibility with your stakeholders.

In a sudden crisis, the flash point is determined by the crisis. If your organization experiences an explosion, the flash point of the explosion is the flash point of your crisis and triggers your crisis communications clock. That clock is the mandate to issue a statement to the outside world within one hour or less of the onset of the crisis.

In the 5 Steps to Effective Communications, all 5 steps come into play regarding flash points.
1. During your Step 1 Vulnerability Assessment, you should identify the sudden crises and the smoldering crises.
2. In Step 2 as you write your Crisis Communications Plan, you must spell out your response behavior options based on whether you experience a sudden crisis or a smoldering crisis.
3. In Step 3 when you write your library of Pre-written Statements, the wording must consider the type of language used in a smoldering crisis versus the types of sentences you might use in a sudden crisis.
4. In Step 4, when you conduct Media Training, your spokespeople should be taught how to conduct a news conference and an employee meeting for both sudden and smoldering crises.
5. In Step 5, when you conduct your Crisis Drill or exercise, don’t fall into the trap of always holding an exercise that only deals with disasters and sudden crises. Mix in some smoldering issues as well.

Whether the flash point of your crisis is slow or the flash point of your crisis is sudden, effective crisis communications helps you put the bad news behind you so you can move on to recovery.

Should you need my assistance to accomplish any of the 5 Steps to Effective Crisis Communications, you can register for the 5 video course on the right hand sidebar of this blog, or reach me at 985-624-9976.

Crisis communications and media training expert Gerard Braud, CSP, Fellow IEC is based in New Orleans. Organizations on five continents have relied on him to write their crisis communications plans and to train their spokespeople. He is the author of “Don’t Talk to the Media Until…”

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