Fiddling While Rome Burns

The biggest mistake business and other organization leaders make during a crisis is not knowing they are already in a crisis. It sounds odd, but it can be alarmingly easy to miss the early stages of an unfolding crisis and devastating for those caught unprepared.

As I have written previously, expertise in managing crisis communications is essential. So too is having a well-considered plan.

Too many business leaders believe a crisis doesn’t start until the excrement hits the oscillating unit; in other words, when the situation is discovered by shareholders, customers, the media, the public at large and so forth. And while news spreads fast, bad news travels 10 times as fast thanks to the eternal 24-hour news cycle and omnipresent social media.


Photo by Dario Veronesi on Unsplash

A Test for Crises

It’s not complicated to determine if your business or organization is in crisis. If you answer yes to two or more of the following questions, your crisis has already begun whether you realize it or not:

  1. If I do nothing, could this situation get worse?
  2. Will the business or its leadership be viewed negatively if word gets out?
  3. Does any aspect of this situation have the potential to attract media attention?
  4. Could news of this situation hurt or hinder normal operation of the business?

Once you determine you have a crisis situation on your hands, it’s important to know every crisis, regardless of its origin or complexity, follows a cycle. Different crisis communications firms have different ways of classifying the stages of a crisis. For me, the essential stages of any crisis include: Discovering the crisis, disclosure of the crisis, managing the crisis and completion of the crisis.

Stage One: Uh-oh

The first stage is when someone realizes there might be cause for concern. Using the four questions above, this is when an individual or group of individuals begins to recognize the organization has a problem.

This is also the stage where, if you have a crisis communications plan already in place, you can best prepare your team to weather the crisis and mitigate damage. Absent a plan, organizations need to engage experienced crisis communications professionals as soon as possible. Even a few hours or days to prepare with the business’ leadership team can make a significant difference in any outcomes.

However, too often, business leaders believe this early stage doesn’t yet signal an actual crisis that requires action. I’ve heard a range of rationalizations for hesitating: Maybe it will go away; no one knows yet; there’s still time to figure it out; I don’t want to spend money dealing with something that might not happen; we’ll deal with it when and if something happens; etc.

Valuable time is wasted by not acting quickly at this early stage. What many business leaders fail to realize is even if the situation doesn’t come to light immediately, that doesn’t mean it won’t pop up at some undefined point in the future. And sometimes that delayed revelation adds to the damage because then it is clear that leadership knew something was wrong and failed to act. Also, by working to address the urgent issue at hand, businesses without a crisis plan in place are laying the foundation for handling future crisis situations. As they tackle the issue of the moment, they are essentially making it more manageable and, sometimes, more affordable to later build a long-term crisis communications plan.

Waiting until the situation is disclosed (by forces either within or outside of the business) puts your organization at maximum risk. At that point, any crisis communications professional you engage can only help business leaders ride the wave. The opportunity to define the narrative, to mitigate some of the damage, has passed. Once disclosure of the situation occurs, absent some form of a plan, most businesses risk being defined completely by the crisis rather than defining how it addressed the crisis and how it plans to resolve it.

Don’t Wait

The best advice is this: If you use the litmus test provided here and find your business or organization is at risk, recognize you are already in a crisis. Don’t wait until that situation causes irrevocable harm to your business or its reputation. Act quickly.

Being as proactive as possible will help ensure you can weather the crisis at hand, and possibly provide the beginnings of a plan to avoid or at least better manage another crisis in the future. Like insurance, spending money to prepare a crisis communications plan is never wasted. Absent insurance – in this case, a crisis communications plan – the costs are far higher.

In my next post I’ll talk about the disclosure stage of a crisis and what that sometimes looks like. Meanwhile, if you have questions or believe the time for your business or non-profit to prepare for a crisis is now, please contact our office at (610) 559-7585 or email me at




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About Rod Hughes

I'm a writer, bibliophile, witty wordsmith and generally a commentator on the world around me. Professionally, I am a partner and vice president of a Greater Philadelphia-based public relations agency that helps businesses get their messages out into the world in a positive, effective way. Kimball Hughes Public Relations also specializes in helping organizations manage crisis communications situations. Contact me at

2 thoughts on “Fiddling While Rome Burns

  1. Pingback: The Business Crisis | Hits and Misses

  2. Pingback: As of Now, [Who Is] In Control Here? | Hits and Misses

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