The “Smoldering” Crisis: What to do when a crisis situation slowly unfolds

By Mary Beth West, APR

Fires.  Explosions.  Crashes.  Natural disasters.  People dead or injured.  Business operations destroyed or seriously impaired. 

When most people think of a company crisis, visions of these types of immediate and overwhelming scenarios often run through their minds.

But what about crises that are slow-moving?  The ones that you can see coming from a mile away yet cannot stop or avert, and upon arrival seem to last an eternity, all the while continuously generating all the wrong headlines as well as all forms of negative attention?

In the profession, we often call these “smoldering crises” – ones that ignite a very slow and steady burn.  Examples include situations involving government regulatory actions, litigation, product recalls, investor or consumer activism, and the list goes on.

Companies and organizations should consider these types of possible scenarios as they formulate and regularly review their crisis management and communications plans.  Just as they should in sudden emergencies, management leaders should keep a proactive mindset when considering how they deal with these types of situations.

Some tips for managing a smoldering crisis:

  • Keep your head out of the sand, and deal with pending situations head-on.  When the possibility of the slow-moving crisis first starts appearing on the horizon, don’t treat it as an aberration that’s bound to amount to nothing.  Valuable planning and response time will be lost when that assumption is proven not to be the case.
  • Get a handle on the crisis scope and potential brand impact.  Understand the mindset of the stakeholders who will be most immediately impacted, taking into account the concentric spheres of influence that each stakeholder group also reaches through their own communities, traditional media, social media, etc.  Don’t be hesitant about using market research ahead of the game to start testing messages as well as public reactions to certain policy stances.
  • Develop the operational and the communications response.  Capture the probable sequence of events expected to unfold in a timeline, then process-map specific actions and messages that should follow accordingly.  Stay flexible and immediately responsive as circumstances change, perhaps unexpectedly. 
  • Make sure legal and communications teams work together effectively.  The CEO has to drive the train here and create an environment in which both areas of expertise are engaged, hold an equal seat at the table and can arrive at reasonable solutions that neither enflame liability risk nor destroy reputation through a policy of non-communication.

Smoldering crises have every bit as much the potential to inflict long-term reputational and financial damage as ones that happen in an instant.  Stay in tune with your organization’s risks for these events, and as always, don’t wait to do tomorrow what you can do today to prepare and respond.