Is There a Difference Between a Crisis and a Disaster?

By Gerard Braud, CSP, Fellow IEC 

Technically, a disaster is a crisis. However, your organization can experience a crisis that is technically not a disaster.

In crisis communications and in your crisis communication plan, your organization should plan for two types of crises.

  1. A sudden crisis
  2. A smoldering crisis

What is the difference between a smoldering crisis and a sudden crisis?

A sudden crisis happens without warning. An explosion is a great example of a sudden crisis. By definition, that explosion can be a disaster.

A hurricane or a tornado can be both. They have an element of being a sudden crisis, but in reality, both are preceded by weather forecasts that warn the public of a possible strike. Absent is true predictability of exactly when and where they will strike, so that part of the crisis skews to the sudden side of the definition.

Executive misbehavior is a classic smoldering crisis.

How is a “crisis” defined?

Many public relations experts think a crisis is something that damages your organization’s reputation. This is true. But a good way to define a crisis is to think of it as any situation that escalates to the point of damaging both an organization’s reputation and its revenue.

Why is this distinction important? Executives and leaders view reputation management as a soft skill. When you begin to address a crisis as a situation that can affect revenue, you are likely to gain more respect and more attention.

When you position yourself as a strategic partner who is looking out for the organization’s bottom line, trust me… you’ll earn a seat at the table.

Many organizations wrongly focus on only crises that rise to the level of an emergency. That leaves a gaping hole in your level of preparedness and response.

In the 5 Steps to Effective Communications, Step 1 focuses on your Vulnerability Assessment. Your assessment, when done correctly, must include all sudden crises, such as emergencies, but also all smoldering crises.

Many organizations will tell you they have experienced far more damage to reputation and revenue by smoldering crises than they have to sudden crises.

Don’t create your own disaster by having a single crisis communications plan focus on disasters and emergencies. Expand your crisis communications plan and crisis communications strategies to include the smoldering events.

To learn more about how you can prepare for both a sudden and a smoldering crisis, we invite you to take a free deep dive into the 5 Steps to Effective Crisis Communications. Just click here to receive your 5 short videos that outline the 5 steps.

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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How to Use Social Media for Crisis Communications

The Biggest Lie in Crisis Communications

4 Steps Every Company Needs to Take in Order to Avoid the Default Spokesperson

4 Crisis Communications Lessons as the NFL Management Struggles with the Ray Rice Smoldering Crisis

Rayrice blog gerard braudBy Gerard Braud

The NFL has a crisis. Do they have a plan? Will the crisis get worse because of non-verbal communications? Can the NFL management communicate their way out of the crisis? Below are some observations and suggestions to help you cope with your own corporate crisis.

The non-verbal message from the NFL is that they are more concerned about one man hitting another man in the head on the field than they are about a man – essentially an employee – hitting a woman in the head, or more specifically, punching the woman in the face.

That non-verbal message speaks volumes and creates a crisis within a crisis.

Another part of the crisis is the NFL’s failure to obtain the most compelling video of the actual punch. TMZ – not even the mainstream media, but the tabloid media – did what the NFL could not or would not. From a non-verbal standpoint, this communicates that the NFL didn’t want to try as hard as they could, fearing the crisis might get worse. As we see, the crisis did get worse and is getting worse because the NFL executive management failed to fully investigate the crisis, perhaps in fear of what they might discover.

On the plus side, NFL commissioner Robert Goodell has done media interviews and apologized. In too many crisis case studies there is a clear failure to apologize.

On the plus side, sporting goods stores have positioned themselves as heroes in the crisis by communicating their willingness to exchange Ray Rice football jerseys for new jerseys if a fan regrets owning a Rice jersey. This is great customer service and frankly, great public relations, for essentially “doing the right thing.”

On the plus side, AE Sports is removing Rice from their video games. Again, this is great public relations, for doing the right thing.

Both the sporting goods stores and AE Sports have actually capitalized on the crisis in a way you might not have expected, but in a way that creatively allows them to denounce violence against women.

When crisis management is botched because of failed communications, there is usually fallout. Usually people get fired and revenue is lost.

People are already calling for Goodell to resign. Will he lose his job because of the perception created that he and the NFL were protecting their player hoping the fallout would not get worse? More than one expert is predicting a revenue loss for NFL sportswear among females, after years of high revenue growth from apparel sales to women.

What can you learn from this crisis?

1) When a smoldering crisis breaks out, you, the public relations professional, must vigorously investigate the case behind the crisis. Approach it like an expert prosecutor or an expert investigative reporter. You need to know what the executives might not want to know or what the executives know but have not told you.

2) The PR team must also look for executives who are in denial. Denial is characterized by the executive team’s subtle attempts to move forward as though the smoldering crisis will not ignite.

3) On a clear sunny day, make sure your crisis communications plan outlines procedures for investigating a smoldering crisis and responding to a smoldering crisis. Too many PR people and corporate crisis communication plans are structured to respond only to natural disasters and sudden emergencies. It is a huge crisis communication plan failure to not anticipate your reaction to a smoldering crisis.

4) Define a crisis for your organization as anything that can affect both the reputation and revenue of the organization. The NFL crisis is a perfect example of something that is neither a natural disaster nor a sudden emergency, but certainly something that will affect both the reputation and revenue of the organization.

Experts will tell you that in most organizations and corporations, you are more likely to face a smoldering crisis than you are to face a sudden emergency or natural disaster.

If you have more questions about preparing for a smoldering crisis please give me a call at 985-624-9976.