Understanding the Three Phases of a Crisis

Erik Bernstein crisis management


[Editor’s note: This guest post from Sheri Singer, president at Singer Communications, explores three phases found in every crisis, teaching a bit about each and highlighting the most important phase…which is probably not the one you’d expect!]

As one of the wealthiest people in the world, Warren Buffet says it takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.

According to PwC’s Global Crisis Survey 2019, almost 70 percent of leaders reported at least one corporate crisis in the last five years — with the average being three crises.

Since the definition of a crisis is that its unexpected and unanticipated, it seems odd to say you need to prepare for a crisis.

But there are a few things you can do:

  • Understand the three phases of a crisis
  • Prepare as best as you can to handle each stage
  • Identify and focus on the most critical phase.

When presenting crisis management workshops, I ask the audience which of the three phases is most critical–Before? During? Or after? The majority of the participants think it’s before the crisis. Great answer, but not correct.

The most critical phase is AFTER the crisis. Why? Because how you emerge from the crisis is the key to managing your reputation. It helps to remember that–especially when you are in the crisis.

But I’m jumping ahead of myself…let’s talk about Phase 1– preparing for the crisis.

This is when you have the time to strategically develop a plan, identify the potential audiences and stakeholders including employees, create messaging, and identify and train your Rapid Response (RR) Team (ideally 5-7 individuals). The composition of the this team is dependent upon the specific issue; however, all RR teams need to include a communications expert and an attorney.

The crisis breaks in Phase 2 and time is of the essence. You want to be in control of what you say, when you say it and how you choose to say it.

That’s why the first task in Phase 2 is to assemble your RR team. Next, develop sub-messaging that address the specific crisis, and assemble and train your RR Team on these specific messages.

In this phase, your adrenaline will be running high and it’s easy to simply react instead of thoughtfully considering all your options. Be sure to heed any expert advice, remember to speak to ALL your stakeholders, and proceed with caution.

By its very nature, Phase 2 is chaotic. But your plan and your RR team will help you navigate the chaos.

In the most critical phase–Phase 3—you focus on assessing the damage if any and creating a strategy to preserve your organization’s long-term reputation.

It’s important in this phase to avoid scapegoating (blaming someone else), denying the events occurred, saying no comment or making excuses. In other words, follow legal advice and where possible, accept responsibility, and then focus on moving forward.

Your goal is to start to turn the ship away from the crisis and toward a brighter future. To do this, remind stakeholders of the good works you have done in the past. Also, illustrate the positive using data and testimonials.

Once the crisis has passed and your organization’s reputation is intact, use the lessons learned to update your plan.

Understanding the three phases of a crisis won’t prevent one from happening, but it will provide you with a map of what to expect, how to prepare, and how to preserve your organization’s reputation.

As president of Singer Communications, Sheri L. Singer is passionate about helping associations and businesses solve their PR, marketing and communications challenges. Sheri has worked on several Fortune 500 and association crises. She speaks on crisis management for PR professionals and association executives.