If you take a close look at any crisis, you’ll see distinct, predictable patterns in how the media behave. There are four discernable stages, and they are evident in old and new media alike.
Why? Quite simply, we, the reader, listener, viewer, the @toms, @dicks, and @harrys, expect a certain narrative to appear at certain times. For example, research done by Stanford University regarding coverage of 9/11 shows very clearly that “narrative patterns all play out in predictable ways during crisis reporting.”
The readers and the storytellers themselves, perhaps unknowingly, expect to hear, see, and read about stories of courage, death defying events, people surviving against odds, and that someone, somewhere can be held accountable for their losses.
There has to be an explanation for why the government took so long to respond, or why there was in-fighting, or why it was yet another tale of bad boys behaving badly. We want to know that someone cares and has the determination, conviction, and compassion to do something to make sure that the “worst” can never happen again.
Essentially, human beings are story-telling animals. We will stretch, shrink, and squeeze the truth to suit our own experience, our perceptions, our biases, and our culture. Once the facts are out there—and that will happen at a blistering speed today—we will then dissect the information and pass judgment.
The four stages of a crisis
Imagine that each stage of a crisis is symbolized by a light. It goes a little like this:
The spotlight is beaming squarely on the incident. This is the “breaking news” stage. “What happened?” is the key question. And the news travels very fast from Stage One to Stage Two. It doesn’t take long for the story to jump the “fire line.”
This stage is characterized by the focus on the “victims” and the response. The light moves quickly from the incident itself (although new facts will continue to emerge) to the “drama.” How could this have happened? How many people are hurt, missing, and/or dead? How is the organization responding? How quickly did the responders get to the scene? The light will shine brightly on the perpetrator—or who we think
the perpetrator might be.
This is the make-or-break stage, the reputation-forming stage, the stage where the rallying on social media sites, both negative and positive, becomes a focal point.
The spotlight, with widening and growing intensity, points at the organization and persons who appear to be at the center of the storm. It will roam around and catch whoever will talk about what’s just happened. Experts start to appear on CNN, victims start talking in depth about their experiences, and the organization starts to give its side of the story. It can last at least 72 hours.
Here’s the one that’s best avoided, although inevitably we all want to go there—yes, it’s the finger-pointing stage. Think back to the devastating oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico when the executives of the three companies at heart of the massive oil spill were severely chastised over attempts to shift the blame to one another.
In this finger-pointing stage, everyone has an opinion about you, your product, your organization, your industry, even your country. There is lots of “woulda, coulda, shoulda.”
Stage Three is all about blame, with the key question focused on “why.” The spotlight is more like a floodlight. Your crisis is beamed everywhere.
Although the light begins to dim in Stage Four, which is the fallout/resolution stage, it can easily turn to full glare again if you slip up or a similar incident occurs in your industry. Your crisis is perpetually in print, on Google, in Wikipedia—that is, searchable and discoverable.
Your “sin” will be out there for everyone to see, forever. You can’t take it back.
Typically, this stage marks the end of the crisis; there is some resolution. There might be a funeral, a government inquiry, or a Senate hearing. Your product goes back on the shelf, workers go back to the plant, victims return to their homes.
The evidence is plain for all to see. Just watch the media coverage, follow the tweets, notice the Facebook posts, and you will soon see the narratives played out in very predictable patterns, with very predictable questions. That’s the good news.
The bad news? Well, it happens at lightning speed, so be prepared to make a statement within an hour after something happens.
Your reputation depends on it.
This is the first in a week-long series about crisis communications by Jane Jordan-Meier, who recently released her book, The Four Stages of Highly Effective Crisis Management. You can read all five articles in this series at the
Mr. Media Training blog, where the story first appeared, and receive a special discount on her excellent book here.