The Chicken Little Syndrome: Crisis plans overturned by the crisis you never saw


As a crisis manager you know this truth: You can plan for every crisis and something unexpected or unheard of will cause one anyway — consider Chicken Little.

You can communicate up, and communicate down. You can media train, win crisis war games, send warning memos until no one reads them anymore and still something unimagined will deliver a nightmare. The sky is falling.

Some could be snide and intentional, but let’s focus here on the unintentional, the innocent. Someone in your organization, perhaps someone who does not understand media in general and the blogging culture specifically, opens up about a policy or initiative in ways that harm the company.

The person did not mean to hurt anyone, and he or she did not really even understand that the friendly voice on the other end of the phone was anyone other than an ally, a compadre. Even when the offending comments appeared on the obscure blog, the source didn’t really grasp the danger.

How can we prevent such things? Rule 1, you cannot; a crisis will occur at the worst-possible time, for reasons you least expect, could never train for, and despite all your efforts to prevent it.

But there are precautions you can take. [Ask Henny Penny].

No one talks to the media — including industry bloggers, niche bloggers, tweeters — without first talking to your organization’s communications team. Not the source’s direct superior — he or she may not understand the blogger’s needs and reach anymore than the source does.

That rule must attach itself from CEO to IT to Operations to Marketing and throughout the company. The director of customer service may be flattered to get a call from a friendly blogger for “PersonnelTreatment,” and feel she’s having a conversation with a friend.

But if the director is not forewarned and forearmed, her admissions about the company’s current labor relationship, its goal of cutting jobs by 2015, or its out-sourcing of web hosting can cause the company major internal and external problems.

Add to that the possibility that the information someone in your company or organization releases may not be the most current version; or it may be entirely wrong.

When Henny Penny, aka Chicken Little, said the sky was falling, she was incorrect. The fact was, an acorn hit her head. But the crisis she caused among her friends and peers was real. In some versions, they all end up as a fox’s dinner.

Who could predict Chicken Little would arise one day and conclude the sky was falling? No one. But we may plan for the irrational, unexpected or just plain jaw-dropping.

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About steveoncrisis

The content is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It comes from Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and as managing editor and editorial page editor at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower and Associates, one of the nation's largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agency with six offices in the Northeast and Southeast.
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