Print Share Home / Publications & News / ISM Conference Proceedings

No Dragons Are Out There! The Art of Crisis Management


Preston J. Leavitt, Ph.D., J.D., C.P.M.
Preston J. Leavitt, Ph.D., J.D., C.P.M., 8533 West Rice Avenue, Littleton, CO 80123-1131, 303/973-2625.

80th Annual International Conference Proceedings - 1995 - Anaheim, California

A crisis is a major, unpredictable event that has potentially negative results. The event and its aftermath may significantly damage an organization and its employees, products, services, financial condition, and reputation. In a crisis the stakes are incredibly high for a great many individuals and numerous organizations, and potentially for the economy of an entire country. Successful crisis management then becomes a necessity in today's business world.

CRISIS DEFINITION- From a practical, business-oriented point of view, a crisis is any situation that runs the risk of:

  1. Escalating in intensity.
  2. Falling under close media or government scrutiny.
  3. Interfering with the normal operations of business.
  4. Jeopardizing the positive public image presently enjoyed by the company.
  5. Damaging a company's bottom line in any way.

In practice, a major event goes hand in hand with the image people have of it. It need only touch on an area of particularly sensitive images to make the borders between fact and perception blur completely. In fact, to trigger a crisis, it is not necessary to have an immediate, tangible, and indisputable problem. The situation needs only to be perceived as such by internal or external actors. A simple rumor can be devastating especially if the manager does not really know whether the threat is real. A purely subjective problem can quickly become an objective reality.

KINDS OF CRISES. Here are some guidelines as to the various kinds of crises:

  • The unimaginable crisis requires that we think about what is truly unthinkable.
  • The neglected crisis comes about because of our lack of attention.
  • The quasi-unavoidable crisis occurs despite attempts at prevention.
  • The compulsive crisis results from a sort of innate ineptitude on the part of the relevant actors to manage the crisis.
  • The wanted crisis is one which is desired by certain actors.
  • The willful crisis is apparently secretly desired by all involved.

How does an organization know it faces a potential crisis situation? It begins when the problems of a major event cannot be circumscribed; there is not longer a single hole in the dike. Each question interacts with every other question, and the organization becomes totally caught up in the event. Take note as soon as you begin to notice any of the following elements surrounding an issue:

  • A strange drift: it seems decidedly impossible to analyze certain questions within existing frameworks; something doesn't fit, but no one can say why.
  • There is a degree of uncertainty and ambiguity that causes unusual uneasiness.
  • The people you would expect to take action remain absent from the scene.
  • There is no common measure between the events and the explicit or implicit values that seem to govern how the matter is being handled.
  • Resistance within the organization to considering a given problem is stronger than the obvious elements of the case would lead you to expect. This is a way of detecting a crisis through its effects (like the vague fear it arouses even before it is diagnosed) rather than by its causes, which may only become apparent later.
  • Gaps keep getting wider, and they threaten to merge into yawning voids.
  • A symbolic problem takes on great importance, even when the original event is minor.
  • A strange and somewhat strained unanimity reigns.
  • Bizarre expressions, that run counter to general thinking emerge through "safe" channels such as laughter, jokes, or caricatures.

Crises represent complex realities, bound up with both issues from the past and the present social context. Crisis dynamics are driven by three principal problems.

Tidal wave - A crisis is first of all a sudden avalanche of an impressive number of problems. Difficulties pile up and combine while at the same time normal logistics are ineffective and defenses prove to be illusory. The situation now becomes overwhelmingly complex and uncertain. The emergency cannot be contained by problem-solving resources.

Disruption - Ordinary operating methods are insufficient for the task at hand. Many support structures fail to function and wheels of the system seize up. Self-regulating mechanisms are not triggered and alliances become fragile or fleeting. Those involved often take refuge in dream worlds or magic solutions.

Breakdown - The familiar world threatens to collapse. Difficulties often create absolute barriers and minor tendencies turn into irreversible choices of direction. Problems tend to be lumped together and fundamental choices and values are discredited. The crisis now takes on a life of its own.

The most often identified crisis attributes include:

  1. Crisis is often a turning point in an unfolding sequence of events and actions.
  2. Crisis is a situation where the requirement for action is high in the minds and planning of participants.
  3. Crisis is a threat to the goals and objectives of those involved.
  4. Crisis is followed by an important outcome whose consequences and effects will shape the future of the parties to the crisis.
  5. Crisis is a convergence of events whose combination produces a new set of circumstances.
  6. Crisis is a period in which uncertainties about the assessment of the situation and alternatives for dealing with it increase.
  7. Crisis is a period or situation in which control over events and their effects decreases.
  8. Crisis is characterized by a sense of urgency, which often produces stress and anxiety among the actors.
  9. Crisis is a circumstance or set of circumstances in which information available to participants is unusually inadequate.
  10. Crisis is characterized by increased time pressure for those involved.
  11. Crisis is marked by changes in the relations among participants.
  12. Crisis raises tensions among participants.

In a crisis, the significant values of the policy-makers are threatened. There is a relatively short time in which to decide to act and pressure exists to decide on a course of action quickly. Crises are most always unexpected, so there is no set of plans or any existing program to handle it. During a crisis pressure builds to innovate in problem-solving, thus creating a great deal of ambiguity. Demands increase in number and importance, which in turn increases conflicts and fatigue.

Question, anticipate, and take initiatives (even symbolic ones). This involves going beyond the established framework by questioning the facts, anticipating how the crisis will develop, and taking initiatives that will make it possible to influence the current dynamic process. In a constantly changing situation, where all meaning has collapsed, subjective perceptions become very important objective factors. You must therefore pay particular attention to all symbolic aspects of the crisis and the way it is handled.

Seize opportunities offered by the crisis. The important thing is to gain the upper hand in a very serious situation. Often, however, a crisis also opens up a new potential. In order to make the most of it, you must be on the lookout for these openings. You must have thought up various modes of action well before the crisis, thereby making it possible to act positively in the event of a major disturbance.

Establish separations to reduce confusion. Separate things involved in the crisis from things not involved. Separate the technical management of the crisis from the communication about the crisis. Also, be sure to separate the crisis team from general management. General management has a specific role to play which should not be confused with the immediate management of the crisis.

Don't get caught in a communication trap. Communication during a crisis depends largely on prior communication. You cannot suddenly wheel out a totally artificial arsenal of weapons to wage a media war. While communication is an important aspect of crisis management, it is not the only lever, and certainly not the most important. Do not become trapped in the increasing tendency to make communication the be-all and end-all of crisis management.

Create a decision-making and organizational capability. And create a minimum framework of authority. Build up links between decision-making centers while at the same time building up trust. Set up a critical intelligence group that is autonomous and composed of many different cultures within the work setting. This will help redistribute information, resources, and power. This group is designed to ask questions and act as a strategic watchdog.

Draw up patterns for action. This should include rules on policy, rules on cooperation between the various actors in the crisis, rules on the management of the business during the crisis, and rules on decision-making.

Ensure that the crisis is property tackled. The natural tendency is to grind to a halt when faced with a new challenge that doesn't fit into any known framework. On the other hand, don't overreact with inappropriate attitudes and actions. And remind everyone that the crisis may be a lengthy one.

Encourage people to anticipate events. You must constantly open up new horizons and repeat the question: "What next?" or more specifically, "In what situation will we find ourselves tomorrow, next week, or next month?" If you do not look beyond the immediate situation, the crisis will continue to dictate and you will continue to react.

Continually identify the major initiatives the system ought to take. The fundamental tendency is to react to difficulties as they arise. The moments when you can intervene effectively and take useful initiatives will be few and far between, so it is essential not to neglect these opportunities.

Rapidly identify gaps that can appear in roles and responsibilities. It is vital not to leave problems unanswered and contacts without a reply. Identify all the sections of the public with whom you will be working and communicating, otherwise you may well make the mistake of confining yourself to the audience of the most powerful media.

Constantly track down and pinpoint the mistakes made by the organization. Then correct them immediately. If this is not done, small cracks can rapidly turn into rifts that are impossible to bridge.


  • What is the main issue of the potential crisis?
  • Which departments are responsible?
  • What is the risk it will escalate?
  • Does there appear to be a violation of local, state, or federal law?
  • Is it a matter of litigation?
  • Is wrongdoing implied?
  • Does the crisis involve environmental concerns or affect the safety of the area?
  • What is the possible financial impact on the company and its products?
  • Will customers and their perception of the company be affected?
  • How might investors be impacted by the crisis?
  • How might employees be affected?
  • How much would the media be interested in the crisis?
  • Is this just the tip of the iceberg of a much larger and more damaging crisis?
  • Can you form a coalition with others to attack the crisis?
  • Who will be there to help you, and how?
  • Who might stand to gain from your misfortune, and how should this be handled?
  • Who or what outside the company can be a resource or offer assistance?
  • How will rumors be handled, both inside the company and in public?
  • Does the company have appropriate contingency plans for different scenarios?
  • Are there persuasive speakers about this subject in the company?
  • Are there top management speech possibilities related to this issue?
  • What specific actions must be taken and by whom to improve public perceptions?
  • What are the most vicious questions the news media can ask?


  • Was the crisis itself handled quickly and effectively? If not, why not?
  • Were the immediate needs handled and the safety and well-being of others dealt with swiftly and capably?
  • Which publics did you communicate with and with which message?
  • Did you miss any publics? If so, why?
  • How did things work? Things like the command post, phones, fax, security, etc.?
  • Did communications efforts work according to plan?
  • How did the team members interact?
  • Were any more members needed? Fewer members?
  • Were any departments under represented? Over represented?
  • Do you feel your messages were communicated?
  • What do you feel the perception/image of your organization is now? How is this different from before the crisis?
  • Were there any miscommunicated messages?
  • What has been done to prevent recurrence of this type of emergency?
  • What has been done to express gratitude to the community?
  • What has been done to help employees?

Successful crisis management begins with a plan. Being proactive is one of the keys. Avoid the no comment syndrome with the press. Identify the areas of vulnerability and pinpoint ways to deal with them. Also seek outside advice. Get someone to provide perspective from the outside looking in. Select a spokesperson who can speak from the focus of power - someone who bears an official stamp.

Involve other stakeholders by asking who else will feel the brunt of the crisis? If your company does advertising or public relations make certain that it's appropriate in light of the crisis. And don't forget to address the public directly. This way you can attack the problem while at the same time fix the image. In dealing with the public, remember not to become overconfident and never, never alienate the media.

Spot crisis indicators on a regular basis and then define the risk that a specific issue might escalate. Develop different scenarios of how a crisis might progress and for each scenario anticipate possible questions and the ramifications of responding with a variety of solutions. Identify your most important publics and know in advance which are the most appropriate ways to address each of the publics. Then translate this into corporate policy decisions.

One thing that always keeps people going during a crisis is knowing that tomorrow will come and all things will pass. So if you have done your best in handling the crisis, communicating in a timely and effective manner with your publics, and been open and honest, you need to move ahead with the current needs of your company. While the emotional scars may last a lifetime, the effect on your company will in time subside, and if there is any comfort in this thought, then it should be passed on to the other members of your crisis team.

Carton, Barbara. "In Case of Catastrophe." Boston Globe, March 26, 1989, p. A5.

Charles, Michael T., and John Choon K. Kim. Crisis Management: A Casebook, New York: C.C. Thomas, 1988.

Preston J. Leavitt, p. 4

"Cleared for Takeoff: United Cuts a Deal with Pan Am - And Lays a Gutsy Bet on Global Growth." Business Week, November D-, 1990, pp. 46-49.

"Coping with a Corporate Crisis." Canadian Business Review, Autumn 1986, pp. 17-20.

"Crisis Management: Looking for the Warning Signs." Management Solutions, January 1987, pp. 5-10.

Fink, Stephen. "Crisis Forecasting: What's the Worst That Could Happen?" Management Review, 1986, pp. 53-56.

Freedman, Alex M. "Rumor Turns Fantasy into Bad Dream." Wall Street Journal, May 10, 1991, pp. B1, B4.

Lerbinger, Otto. Managing Corporate Crises: Strategies for Executives. Boston: Barringer Press, 1986.

Littlejohn, Robert F. Crisis Management: A Team Approach. New York: AMACON Books (American Management Association, Publications Division), 1983.

Meyers, Gerald. When It Hits the Fan - Managing the Nine Crises of Business. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986.

Mintzberg, Henry. "The Strategy Concept II: Another Look at Why Organizations Need Strategies." California Management Review, Fall 1987, pp. 25-32.

Nudell, Mayer, and Norman Antokol. The Handbook for Effective Emergency and Crisis Management. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1988.

"P&G Rubs in Rumor Suit." Wall Street Journal, March 20, 1991, p. D4.

Pinsdorf, Marion K. Communicating When Your Company Is Under Siege. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1987.

Ramee, John. "Crisis Management: Looking for the Warning Signs." Management Solutions 32 (January 1987): 5-10.

Wisenbilt, Joseph Z. "Crisis Management Planning among U.S. Corporations: Empirical Evidence and a Proposed Framework." Advanced Management Journal, Spring 1989, pp. 31-41.

Back to Top