Federal government shutdown not a crisis — yet

A friend who happens to be a Republican and a banker wanted to know why I hadn’t blogged on today’s shutdown of the U.S. government. [I don’t have the stomach?]

Why, he wanted to know good-naturedly, hadn’t I gone after the House Republicans who forced the shutdown with a vote linked to postponing the Affordable Care Act one year.

Fair point, that. So, here we are.

Is the political bickering over the ACA, driven by those Tea Party Republican House members, really a crisis? Does a federal government shutdown affect more than the 800,000 unfortunate federal workers furloughed and the businesses around Washington, D.C. who will see revenues tank? Does the average American among 275 million of us see this as a threat to their lives and livelihoods?

Certainly the media see it as an opportunity to inform and explain, and that’s helpful. Media are best when there’s actual news. But even the “worst-scenario” stories don’t seem that bad. If I wanted to visit the Statue of Liberty, Yosemite or Glacier National Park, I’d be pretty upset.

And economists warn that largely due to wages not paid to federal workers, several days and weeks of this could have a stifling effect on the economy and thwart growth.

But with Congress consistently receiving single-digit poll grades for the last several years, most Americans tuned out of this melodrama long ago. They see this squabble as partisan and don’t like either side. They’ve largely given up on the ability to feel this is a crisis. Too many wolf criers inside the Beltway in recent years.

A key part of crisis management is determining if you are really in a crisis. There are a number of key ways to tell whether what’s happening is a crisis or just bad publicity and negative notices. Your gut feelings are one indicator. Another easy way is whether the event keeps you from business as usual. The crisis is usually over when you return to business as usual.

The seven warning signs a crisis may be imminent:

  1. Matters that attract unwanted media attention or give rise to a dramatically increased level of activity, attention or commentary on the internet.

2. Incidents that involve serious personal injury, death or jeopardize public safety.

3. Activities that have or may cause law enforcement or regulatory involvement.

4. Matters that result in significant work stoppages or production delays. [Hmmm].

5. Behavior by managers or employees that reflects badly on your company’s reputation.

6. Actions by competitors or others – including rumors – that threaten financial performance or customer or investor confidence. [Hmmm again.]

7. Be especially alert to a “smoldering crisis.” Some indicators: dropping share price, sudden sales losses, employee exodus, pending lawsuits, government investigations, negative shift in media portrayals with company portrayed as villain, a buzzing grapevine, rampant rumors. Heed these early warnings.

Smoldering crises are often self-inflicted — like this one. Consolidations and restructurings with subsequent layoffs and facility closures are potentially volatile situations that can and should be properly anticipated. A management failure to plan accordingly, not the event, is what can cause the most damage to your reputation.

This mess — for that’s truly what it is, an embarrassing mess about lack of leadership — may get worse before it gets better. It may evolve into a crisis over time, maybe even taking the nation back into a recession. No one hopes for that.

Meanwhile, the website New York set up for people to register for health insurance — the exchange — crashed this morning after two million hits in the first half hour. Seems like a lot of Americans want health insurance, which is not an unreasonable desire in a modern Western democracy. Unfortunately, some members of Congress see that as a bad thing, but they probably haven’t generated a crisis — yet.

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.


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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