There is no shortage of crisis management tools and concepts, yet individuals and organizations often still struggle to respond effectively when a crisis occurs. There are likely numerous reasons for this, but one challenge stems from an inability to operationalize the key concepts during a crisis. It can be helpful to establish frameworks that can serve as “mental cues” to organize, guide, and prompt action. This article examines one such framework.
To be effective, a framework must be both intuitive and action oriented because, although it is critical to act quickly during a crisis, it can be difficult to remember and process information during high-stress situations. In simple terms, examples of this kind of quick and easy-to-remember call to action include: “stop, drop, and roll”; “duck and cover”; and “run, hide, fight.”
Crisis communicators have long promoted the 27/9/3 concept when it comes to communicating information during a crisis. This means that the communication should be 27 words or less, take no more than nine seconds to convey, and only include three messages. The three-message theory is grounded in the work of psychologist George A. Miller and others who have found that the brain is limited by the amount of information it can process, especially during high-stress situations.
Responsibility, Communication & Opportunity
In addition to serving as an effective means to communicate externally, the 27/9/3 concept can also provide the basis of a framework to help guide the actions necessary to respond to a crisis. To that end, consider the “ACT” crisis management framework, which includes three key actions regarding how individuals and organizations should respond to a crisis:
- Accepting responsibility and working to address the problem;
- Communicating quickly and effectively with stakeholders; and
- Taking advantage of the opportunity to learn from the crisis and improve as an individual or organization based on any lessons learned.
Accepting responsibility begins by identifying that a crisis exists; yet, denial (or delay) is too often the first reaction. Whether responding to a disaster or some other type of situation that may threaten the reputation of an individual or organization, time is of the essence. It is critical to accept the situation before it can be dealt with effectively.
The Flint, Michigan water crisis provides an example of what can happen when there is a failure to accept responsibility. In this case, government officials were slow to recognize the situation, which led to more people getting sick and greater long-term damage to the infrastructure. Alternatively, the Tylenol cyanide incident in the 1980s is an example of an organization, Johnson & Johnson in this case, acting quickly to respond to a crisis and to accept responsibility. The company pulled all the Tylenol products off the shelf in what was, at the time, the largest product recall of its kind, plus they fully cooperated with the authorities to investigate the situation. Ultimately, the company’s reputation remained intact and they quickly regained the confidence of consumers.
Bad News Does Not Get Better With Age
It is also imperative to communicate quickly and effectively with stakeholders, including the public and others with vested interests in the situation. In today’s age of social media and the 24-hour news cycle, it is more important than ever to move quickly to share information. Doing so can help control the narrative and shape public opinion. During a crisis, complete silence is rarely the best option. However, an effective communication strategy would leverage social media and other mechanisms to disseminate the message, ideally using the 27/9/3 concept noted above. Depending on the nature and magnitude of the crisis, the media will likely have a strong desire for information. If they are not getting what they need they will find and tell their own versions of events.
Crisis communicators must also balance the need for speed with the need for accurate information. Again, the Tylenol and Flint incidents serve as good examples. Johnson & Johnson engaged in a proactive effort to share information and cooperate with the media, which included effective messaging from the company’s chief executive officer and the establishment of a hotline for consumers and the media to call for the latest information. Alternatively, the officials involved in the Flint water crisis were slow to communicate and did not cooperate with the media, which only served to exacerbate the situation and anger the public.
The “Silver Lining”
Each crisis presents an opportunity to learn and improve. Understanding what went wrong and how to prevent it from happening again is seemingly a simple concept, but it can be difficult to make the behavioral and/or policy changes necessary to prevent another crisis from occurring. However, mature individuals and organizations are willing to learn from their mistakes and take corrective action.
After the Tylenol incident, for example, Johnson & Johnson spearheaded the effort to create tamper-proof packaging for their products, which ultimately led to the passage of a federal law for all over-the-counter drugs. A state investigation into the Flint water crisis has resulted in criminal charges against state and local officials, including manslaughter charges against five individuals for failing to take action when they knew of the dangers to the public. Time will tell if Flint truly learns from this crisis, but other municipalities across the country should pay close attention to what happened in Flint and learn from its mistakes.
In addition to the Tylenol incident, the 2013 Boston bombing offers another example of an effective implementation of the ACT framework. First responders, medical workers, and even members of the public accepted responsibility and quickly sprang into action that day to help save lives. The Boston Police Department also did an outstanding job of communicating with the public, to include the use of social media. After the incident, a detailed After Action Report was developed and highlighted areas for improvement. Several officials involved in the Boston bombing attributed the successful response to the lessons learned from prior events and the strong partnerships between the various response agencies.
The ACT framework is not groundbreaking by any means, but the value is in its simplicity and the ability to apply the concept to almost any crisis. In addition to serving as a tool to help improve crisis management, it can also be used as an analytical framework for academics and practitioners to examine how individuals and organizations responded to a crisis. Ideally, the insights gained from this analysis will help others to avoid a crisis all together.
Terry Hastings is the senior policy advisor for the New York State Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services (DHSES) and an adjunct professor for the College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity at the State University of New York at Albany. He oversees the DHSES policy and program development unit and a variety of statewide programs and initiatives.