Jeff: When my daughter was little, she was visited occasionally by a hideous scaly monster with stinky breath and poisonous scales who would take up residence in her closet. (This creature is not to be confused with the loud creaky skeleton-like beast that preferred the nightlife under her bed.)

As a rookie dad, I didn’t get it. I can’t tell you how many sleepless nights were spent trying to rationally explain to a four-year-old all the reasons why there could not be a hideous scaly monster with stinky breath and poisonous scales in her closet, or how many more such nights were spent trying to convince her that if such a beast were there, it was just visiting.

At some point along the way, a good friend who was also a grandpa many times over finally set me straight. “Your problem,” he said, “is that you aren’t giving any consideration to how she feels. You aren’t taking her concerns seriously.”

“But there’s no monster!” I protested.

“She believes there is,” he replied. “Her perception, not yours, is the only thing that matters.”

Timothy Coombs defines “crisis” in his book “Ongoing crisis communication: planning, managing and responding” like this:

A crisis is the perception of an unpredictable event that threatens important expectancies of stakeholders and can seriously impact an organization’s performance and generate negative outcomes.

To loosely paraphrase: A crisis is anytime you believe something will ruin your day.

I’m not being flip. The magnitude of a crisis depends solely on the perceiver. And that’s what makes labeling a crisis as Laura suggests so darned tricky.

Here are some examples:

Level 1: A level one crisis is one that will feature an inconvenience for your employees and customers alike. Your basement has flooded, and you will need to close for a day or two during clean up.

Level 2: A level two crisis is going to take you out of commission, literally or figuratively, for a week or longer. Or it might be a nasty article that has appeared about your business in the local/regional media.

Level 3: Level 3 is a catastrophic, Irma-esque event.

Now for the interactive part of this exercise.

Grab a pencil and paper, take a moment and come up with a short list of possible crises for your business, and try to assign a severity level to each. Next, identify an audience segment (customer, employee, general public, etc.) to each.

Now the tricky part: Have you noticed that your list of possible crises and severity levels doesn’t match up to your list of audience segments? Generally speaking, what you perceive as a Level 1 crisis for you might be a Level 2 crisis for an employee whose lost hours means he won’t make rent.

This is critical: Communicating effectively in a crisis requires you to see everything from your audience’s point of view, not your own.

When your basement floods and you need to close for a few days, you might be tempted to “put on a happy face” and demonstrate to customers that it’s not as bad as it seems, and that you’ll be back in no time, etc. But you’ll need to be project a very different message to the employee who just lost a week’s wages.

When a regional media outlet releases a nasty article about your organization, your response in public should be considerably different from your response to employees, which should be different from your response to customers.

I am not suggesting you complete 50 different strategic plans. I am saying that you must – repeating: you MUST – build your communications strategy around your audience and THEIR perception of the situation.

In a crisis, perception IS reality.

Jeff Peyton

Author Jeff Peyton

Jeff Peyton is Director of Marketing & Communications for Triple Strength. A 30-year veteran of publishing and corporate communications, Jeff gained national prominence directing one of the largest grassroots communications efforts ever fielded. He was the architect of the nation’s first major nonprofit website, attracting millions of visitors per month in the early 1990s – years before social media, twitter, or even broadband access. Jeff spent nearly 10 years working with nonprofits, developing their communications and Web strategies. But don’t be fooled by his professional accomplishments – he also wing-walked on an airplane at 700 feet, co-piloted the Goodyear Blimp, swam with sharks, and still managed to obtain paperwork officially declaring him “legally sane.” (No, really.)

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