There’s a Difference Between a Problem and a Crisis

One of the more common myths when it comes to crisis management is that problems are often conflated with crises. In other words, when a company or brand is faced with negative social media backlash, it’s broadly assumed that’s a crisis when in fact it’s not. It’s just a problem, a serious problem, perhaps, but still not a crisis.

What’s the difference?

A crisis is a situation that poses an imminent threat to the ongoing operations of the organization. When a natural disaster like an ice storm paralyzes the electric grid, that can be a crisis for everyone affected, from the power company, to essential food stores, to consumers, all of whom may be without power for an extended period.

Even a shorter disruption could cause enough serious damage so that the costs and damages are enough to threaten continued operations for some who are affected. That’s a crisis.

A problem is a situation that may be unwanted, unexpected and even taint the reputation of an affected organization for a time, but when put into perspective, its immediate impact does not put the continued operations of the organization in jeopardy.

A Problem Can Become a Crisis

Here’s the thing. A problem can be come a crisis. While not every problem is a crisis, if neglected or underestimated, some problems can easily devolve into crises.

Just about every organization of any size will at some point face negative feedback on social media. This is a problem, not a crisis. More often than not, negative social media posts have little impact on the organization’s operations.

But, let’s say your organization is a nursing home, and while you’ve gotten used to families of your residents using social media to register complaints, certain types of complaints or posts can create problems that could turn into crises.

In my own experience, I can recall one nursing home client where a family had posted on social media photos of alleged bruising of their loved one, and they accused staff members of the nursing home of causing the injuries.

While the posts in themselves do not represent a full-blown crisis, should the news media pick up on the posts and broadcast negative stories on the situation, that pushes the situation from problem into crisis territory.  Once the situation is publicized, there’s always the possibility that other copycat accusers could emerge, and soon after that trial lawyers enter the picture looking for a big pay day.

If not taken seriously, a problem like this could cost large amounts of money in legal bills and possibly settlements and damages. And the related negative publicity could cost the nursing home future residents, and even penalties and sanctions from government authorities and regulators. That’s a crisis.

So, while it’s important not to overreact to every problem, it’s equally important to study each problem and consider just how bad it could get if left unaddressed.

Make Sure You have Early Warning Systems and Monitoring Systems

In my work in crisis communications planning, we often build into the process systems for ongoing monitoring and early warning notifications. Tied to this are regular meetings with the crisis communications team to ensure that the plan is always current, that the always changing internal contact information is kept up to date, and that certain specific situations are closely monitored and properly anticipated.

The goal is to identify problems, but not to treat all of them like crises.  Still, we know they could always turn into crises if not effectively addressed early.

Since the global health pandemic has been omnipresent for over the past year-and-a-half, it’s not a far-fetched analogy to compare this process to that of effective Covid treatment.

While you can’t make your organization immune to all possible crises, you can identify problems before they become crises.  A regimen for ‘early treatment’ should be prescribed to prevent a full-blown crisis.

Where is the problem? Who is affected? If we do nothing or say nothing, how bad will it get? How long will it take before it gets really bad? What can we do now? What must we do now?

Usually, once you answer most of these questions, the case for taking preemptive action makes itself, and so you aren’t left second-guessing whether you should do something or do nothing.

No matter what, the key is to treat a problem as though it’s not the end of the world, but to make sure it’s never given a chance to evolve into a crisis situation, which could cause certain irreversible damage.

Want to Explore This A Little More?

If this topic interests you, sign up to get notifications of our next Zoom webinar called, “How to Keep Problems from Turning Into Crises.” Just send me an email at timobrien@timobrienpr.com and let me know you’d like to be added to the invitation list.


Also published on Medium.

Posted in Corporate & Strategic Communication, Crisis & Issues Management, General, Pittsburgh, PR & Media Relations, Workplace Communications and tagged , , , , .