What is a crisis in Crisis management : Some FAQ

The first question is: “What is a crisis and what is not?” In crisis management a crisis is an incident that an organization can no longer solve through its normal operations. The Crisis Management Team (CMT) then takes over the management of the problem and communicates with the Crisis Communication Team.In this contribution I write my own opinion and not that of any organization
Author: Manu Steens

What are not crises? Everything that can be handled with normal operations: issues and incidents, if there is no wrong intention.
An issue is a small thing that the organization processes through day-to-day operations of a team of the organization. There is no negative impact for the organization. There is no event yet.
An incident is an event with a negative impact on the organization that is solved by the day-to-day running of one or more teams.
An issue can evolve in an incident. An incident can evolve in a crisis. But an issue can also evolve very quickly in a crisis. One crisis can develop in the sidelines of another crisis.
An event with malicious intent is always a crisis.

How does a crisis originate?

There are 4 types of origins of crises: (United States Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld)
1. Known knowns
2. Unknown knowns
3. Known unknowns
4. Unknown unknowns.

The first two are “Gray Rhino’s” in the literature. These are things that we know and are ordinary. (The known knowns.) Often we simply forget that they are there (unknown knowns), until they are nearby and overwhelme us. (Unknown known can also mean that one does not want to face the problem.)
The latter two give rise to what we call in literature the “Black Swans”. People know that something can go wrong but do not know what or where or when (known unknowns) (eg a terrorist attack, hacking, …) or you are simply not suspecting anything despite extensive brainstorming attempts and the like. (Unknown unknowns). The latter we consider to be the most dangerous because they can easily disrupt the organization completely.
Often a seemingly innocent something that attracts no attention, triggers a crisis, after which a phase precedes the event, unless there is malicious intent. That is why one must continuously look at relevant matters internally or externally to the organization. This one can do with key performance indicators or key effect indicators, or with eg early warning systems.

How does a crisis work? And what types of crises are there?

A crisis has various phases. Almost every crisis is as follows:
1. A soft subcutaneous or suppressed phase leading up to an event with strong negative impact. (Phase before the event or prodromal phase).
2. The sudden event that is typically very short and has a strong negative impact.
3. The post-event phase where the negative impact takes a reasonably long time. In this phase, the operations of the CMT, CCT, CCP, CMP and BCP usually start. The time-critical processes start from the BCP. Afterwards the essential processes and necessary processes will follow. All this one does at a predetermined minimum level of functioning. One must try to keep this phase short.
4. The recovery phase in which one goes back to an operating level of before the phase preceding the event. This one can do in the old way, or in a new way. The rule “Never waste a good crisis” applies here. By recovering you can do new and better things. Sometimes, however, people have to perform harder for a while during this period in order to get rid of overdue work.
5. Aftercare phase. Here the teams work out the details. Afterwards, the process resumes its (new) normal (or improved) operation.


We note that there are two major types of crises with this trend, namely 1) the historically known crisis types (with a possibility of more or less systematic approach) and 2) the new unprecedented crises (for which no plan exists). As a new unprecedented crisis type occurs once or several times, it joins the historically known crisis types because experience allows for a planned approach. Pattern recognition occurs in the members of the CMT, CCT and CRT.

How can you prepare?

The Romans knew: “Whoever wants to keep the peace must prepare the war!” (Flavius ??Vegetius Renatus in his Epitoma rei militaris: “Qui desiderat pacem, bellum praeparat”) and the same applies in business: who wants to preserve continuity must prepare the crisis .
That is one of the reasons to work on resilience of the company, including through BCM and risk management. There are techniques that produce a business continuity plan, help create emergency plans and describe methods of risk analysis and risk management approach.
Both these practices mention crisis management. For both the following things are worked out:

1. Setting up a crisis management team (CMT), Crisis Response Team (CRT) and crisis communication team (CCT).
2. The crisis management plan (CMP).
3. The crisis communication plan (CCP).

One of the most important goals of the preparation is being able to apply the principles. Training, testing and practicing of the CMT and the CCT are therefore not unimportant at all. This one must do at both operational and strategic level with which one can test the different roles, the leadership requirements and the cooperation possibilities (also with third parties across borders). So one must practice both the historically known crisis types and the new unprecedented crisis types. The first are testing the plans, the second mainly the leadership requirements. Both test the cooperation possibilities.

It is crisis, what now?

Notification: how do you know? And who do you notify?

Everyone in the business unit has the right and duty to report a crisis. Many eyes and ears know more. The report to the crisis team you can best structure as simply as possible. That is why it is best to keep the channels as short as possible: it is best to give everyone of the CMT reporting duty directly to the chairman of the CMT or to the person who is on duty at the CMT. If the organization has access to an early warning system, the CMT should also keep its finger on the pulse.
The chairman or the person on duty of the CMT informs the members of the CMT and CCT. A notification can also very typically come from the CCT, because they have a very clear view on what happens externally.

Priorities: what is important, and what is most important?

There are many important issues when dealing with a crisis, such as (in random order):
– political interests, inside and outside the organization,
– environment,
– laws and regulations,
– financial interests,
– economical interests,
– energy supply,
– reputation,
– Others ….

However, the most important top three focus points of internal crises within the organization are (in order of importance):
1. the people of the business units and in the buildings of the organization,
2. the buildings and facilities including ICT,
3. the processes of the business units.

IBOBBO: how do you tackle a crisis?

IBOBBO stands for:
– Informatiegaring (Information gathering)
– Beeldvorming (Imaging)
– Oordeelsvorming (Judgment)
– Besluitvorming (Decision making)
– Bevelvoering (Command)
– Opvolging (Succession)
This allows you to create an agenda for the operation of the CMT. It is also a blueprint for a crisis management plan (CMP). To make it a project, add a start-up phase and a final phase: the triggering of the crisis and the aftercare phase

Who expects what from you?

The CMT and the CCT can best think about and write down the roles and responsibilities of the employees within the CMT and the CCT in advance. Pay attention ! This is not limitative and can never be interpreted restrictively. In short, the CMT must quickly implement all measures required to exorcise the crisis. It is also the task of the CMT to use the recovery phase as a project and to guide it in the right direction. The CMT is in this role in the role of sponsor and appoints a project leader.

Aftercare, what is that?

Aftercare is dealing with the details. It is three things: doing that where you could pay little attention to its low point during the bustle of the crisis. Completing the crisis mode so that people can return to business as usual. And the completion of the recovery phase.

A common thread: Play Jazz

No one can handle a crisis alone. That is why collaboration is necessary. In the heat of the battle, the ears and eyes of the members of the CMT must remain open to know who is the best to make a move. The person who sees the possibilities must be able to present these moves briefly and be able to execute them quickly. Speed in all aspects of consultation and action is often more important than completeness. Acting on each other is therefore extremely important. Crisis management and crisis communication practice is therefore not a luxury, neither on operational nor on strategic level. That is why not only a great exercise is useful, but to align each others responsibilities, a multitude of smaller exercises is also useful!

Not unimportant: what if the crisis grows over your head?

If the need is too high, the overarching CMT is close.

If the CMT of the affected business unit can not solve the crisis alone, it can call in the assistance of the overarching CMT of the organization as a whole. There is an escalation schedule for crises within the organization. Because the overarching CMT then takes on the responsibility of managing the crisis for the entire organization, it will always be useful to inform the overarching CMT in any crisis, so that it can already go into pre-alarm if deemed necessary.

Manu Steens

Manu works at the Flemish Government in risk management and Business Continuity Management. On this website, he shares his own opinions regarding these and related fields.

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