Marathon bombing shows classic crisis timeline


For millions of people — especially those who live in Boston, visited for the marathon last Monday, or who have emotional ties to the city — the last week provided dismal lows and triumphant highs.

In a week, the classic timeline of a crisis evolved uncontrollably before our eyes.

Interviews in recent days only reinforced that. Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis, speaking last night on “60 Minutes,” confirmed the chaos of evidence retrieval and video images pouring in to police agencies Monday and Tuesday. It was so bad, he said, the agencies had to rent a warehouse to organize it all. A classic crisis chaos: Too much information, too fast and most of it bad.

This is what happens in a crisis. Know the signs. Business as usual ceases; everyone becomes focused on just one thing, forced to do so by the crisis.

This crisis, of course, effected nearly everyone. What confirming signs of this emerged?

While we all focused myopically on Boston last week, other immense events transpired that we barely grasped.

The U.S. Senate, over the appeals of President Obama and the families of the Newtown victims, killed gun reform legislation. Didn’t pass some of it; killed it all.

Major parts of the town of West, Texas blew up, killing 15 and injuring 200 when a fertilizer factory caught fire.

In China, 250 died in a major earthquake, and an American billionaire started a Rhodes Scholars program with $100 million of his own money at a Beijing university.

Five experienced back-country skiers died in an avalanche in Loveland Pass, CO.

Even stories like the following went largely unnoticed, when some days they could have made more routine newscasts: Sportscaster Al Michaels and [spearately and unrelated] actress Reese Witherspoon were arrested.

All these major [and minor] events in world news went largely unnoted — a sure sign of a crisis.

A crisis is a super-hot fire, one that sucks all the oxygen out of those involved, requiring their complete commitment and focus to put it out. This is why crisis training includes organizing people in advance and at least two teams so if the crisis prolongs itself, people can eat and sleep and keep the company operating while the other team works.

A crisis like Boston, where innocents were killed and maimed and national security seemed at stake, is an obvious one. At your company or organization, a crisis may be less universal, but the result can be the same. In its midst, you become disoriented, unable to process all the information, working faster than normal, walking around breathless half wondering what just happened.

Adrenaline rushes, decisions must be made on the fly, the routine vanishes.

The crisis only ends when those elements reverse themselves, the pace slows, the routine returns.

Only when you recognize this process and understand its effects will you be able to effectively cope with a crisis. Otherwise, you’ll try to sprint in a marathon.

Among the many who apparently did so expertly in Boston was Davis. The word unflappable comes to mind. If you watched any of his press briefings, you saw a man used to working in tight spaces. He was preternaturally calm. As dozens of reporters yelled questions, he moved calmly and smoothly from one to the next. He answered in brief, clear sentences. He remained, in the most emotional time of his career, unemotional. It was a classic performance by an experienced crisis manager.

His briefings will become clips for CEOs to watch.

Grasp these lessons now, before your crisis strikes.

The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the Northeast and Southeast. Learn more about EMA at http://www.mower.com. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.

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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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