The Most Dangerous Crisis of All - Crisis Prevention and Management
photo credit here
Over the weekend, I talked about how mismanaging communication during an initial crisis can trigger an immediate second crisis – the kind that causes angry, confused customers to hit you with a landslide of complaints in a short time period.  These are called secondary crises – ones that are caused, triggered, or revealed by how you managed the first crisis. They’re often big and dramatic messes that dogpile on top of each other, like the scenario I described in this blog post. But there’s another kind of secondary crisis, and it’s much more dangerous than the dogpile – because you never see it coming.
Just like there are two kinds of primary crises –  a Godzilla crisis (one, gargantuan crisis) and a Frog crisis (a lot of small problems that slowly accumulate until they hit a fever pitch) – there are also two kinds of secondary crises. They are fast crises and slow crises.
Fast crises are the one-two punch of the crisis world because they immediately follows the first crisis and are just as intense – if not more so.  Think about Paula Deen’s recent scandal. She mismanaged her first crisis – the media firestorm over quotes from her deposition – and that triggered the secondary fast crisis – losing millions in endorsement deals and contracts.  Anthony Weiner tweeted inappropriate pictures – his first crisis – and then lied about it. The lies triggered the secondary fast crisis – more media scrutiny and constituent anger that forced him to resign.  Locally, the Montvale Hotel filed for bankruptcy after real estate developer Rob Brewster, Jr. committed major investment fraud – the first crisis – and the hotel was passed to a trustee manager. After the management change, their online reviews were full of horror stories about dirty rooms, spiders, and horrific service – and after two months they’re still trying to recover.  Rushing to reopen after dealing with the bankruptcy crisis triggered a second customer service crisis.
These crises happen because we respond to the first crisis the wrong way – we don’t disclose everything we know, fail to notify everyone affected, lie about our situation, work with faulty or partial information, or act without time for thinking or due diligence. People often view fast secondary crises as inevitable consequences of the first crisis, but they’re not. They’re almost always triggered by something you did – or didn’t do – when managing the first.
A slow crisis is much more sneaky, because it occurs when you’re under the illusion that you have handled a crisis well. Sometimes, customers react immediately and are vocal about telling you how angry they are. But often – very often – they just stop using your services. You never hear from them. They never call to tell you that they’re leaving or why. They just stop coming. Your first sign is that profits or appointments are down – and keep going down over a long period of time. Slowly and quietly, those customers tell other customers about what happened, and some of them stop coming, too. When your profits are down, service suffers – and the customers who stayed notice the decrease in quality. You see online reviews that say things like “this place used to be great, but it’s really gone downhill.”  You’re suddenly surrounded by poor reviews, your profits are down, and you have no idea why customers are leaving. These crises are usually fatal because people don’t think they’re related to that crisis that happened 6 months ago.
Most people don’t look too far to the past for causes. We’re kind of like my dog that way. I remember our puppy trainer explaining to us that if we didn’t discipline her within 60 seconds of her doing something wrong, she wouldn’t connect the consequences to what she did.   If I come home from work and discover my dog ate the bacon I left on the counter this morning, chances are she did it 6 hours ago and is currently lying in a sunny spot somewhere napping. If I hunt her down in that sunny spot and yell “BAD DOG!” at her, she’ll assume that she’s in trouble for taking a nap in the sun. Dogs live in the moment and run on instinct.
When it comes to a crisis, so do we. We only understand consequences when they’re immediate and clearly connected. And when we’re in a bad situation, we look to the short-term for an explanation; we blame the economy, that new restaurant that opened down the street, that new manager, the time of year, or “changing trends.”  But almost always, the slow crisis came from mismanaging Godzillas and Frogs in the past.  That’s the real danger of a slow crisis –  that you’ll miss the real cause of your situation, the cause you can actually do something about, and instead waste time and resources chasing red herrings.
Slow secondary crises can usually be prevented by properly handling the first crisis, and prevention is always the best approach. Martha Stewart’s insider trading controvery was different than Paula Deen’s, but her reputation for ruthlessness, perfectionism, and greed meant she was just as likely to lose her her multi-hypenate empire the way Deen is now. Gwyneth Paltrow was in the same position last year when she tweeted the N-word during a Jay-Z concert. Stewart and Paltrow both prevented secondary crises by focusing on long-term goals and managing the initial crisis well.
But if you’re in the middle of a slow crisis, it may not be too late to turn it around. Toyota did it after their terrible, multi-year mismanagement of the car acceleration defect. Robert Downey, Jr. completely revived his career after decades of substances abuse and broken contracts destroyed his reputation and left him uninsurable – despite getting clean. And Bill Clinton – the king of both slow and fast crises – is still a political force to be reckoned with.  It’s true what they say – everybody loves a comeback story. The trick is realizing that you can only make a comeback if you deal with the real, long-term causes of your slow crisis.
If you think you’re in a slow crisis, you can start taking control now by focusing on just three questions:
How could these negative trends be connected to a previous crisis?
What would happened if people were still upset about that crisis and I didn’t know about it?
What can I do to rebuild trust with people who are still upset and not communicating with us?
Meredith Hutchison Hartley signature

A physicist by trade, author by choice, a born teacher, a retired veteran, and an adamant problem solver, Frank has helped the White House, federal agencies, military offices, historical museums, manufacturers, and over 250 technology startups get stuff done, communicate effectively, and find practical solutions that work for them. In his spare time, he makes sawdust and watches Godzilla movies.