When should we call something a crisis?

When should we call something a crisis?

The news at the moment is brimming with crises. There is a crisis in Iraq. There is a “cost of living” crisis in the UK. Ukraine has been in crisis since November; Syria since 2011. For journalists, declaring something a “crisis” is a guaranteed way to grab people’s attention in the fast-moving news cycle. At a stroke, their issue attracts the spotlight of NGOs and think-tanks, who produce reams of commentary and analysis. Politicians are forced to define their positions on the issue, whether or not it has anything to do with their brief – witness Boris Johnson voicing some interesting views on Iraq recently.

Faced with these temptations, it is unsurprising that the media is prone to the word crisis.  Each North Korea missile test constitutes a crisis, despite the fact that they happen with predictable regularity and usually fail. The BBC has for several years filed all articles on Israel/Palestine under the heading “Mid East crisis”, no matter how routine.

Yet if a crisis drags on for too long with no resolution, the tempo and volume of crisis-style coverage becomes unsustainable. People lose interest and become cynical; ‘crisis-fatigue’ sets in. Journalists need to understand this context, or risk losing the interest of their audience.

The power to decide what constitutes a crisis is even greater for politicians. Almost by definition, a crisis both demands – and justifies – a response. It is not surprising therefore that Barack Obama is particularly fond of fomenting a sense of crisis, given his relative weakness at the hands of a paralysed Congress. When an issue is defined as a crisis, doing nothing is not an option, because a crisis we cannot respond to makes us feel powerless.

Politicians should beware, however. Once the crisis rhetoric and associated policy positions are entrenched, it is difficult to adopt a more nuanced position unless the situation changes. This can result in politicians being forced to repeat the same dramatic lines – “there is no military solution to the conflict in Syria” – long after the political will behind them has faded and it is time to adopt a more pragmatic viewpoint.

Organisations also face the very real dilemma about when to classify something as a crisis. When you’re in the thick of it as an organisation, everything can seem like a crisis. People understandably have a tendency to get excited and blow things out of proportion. Yet from the outside, a corporate ‘crisis’ may look relatively harmless, or be over almost as soon as it started. Remember the gigantic non-crisis over the supposedly “catastrophic” London 2012 logo? Neither do we. In times such as these, going into crisis mode alarms shareholders unnecessarily, and disrupts the smooth running of the organisation. But don’t forget that semantics do matter. Unlike the media, for organisations, a crisis can have direct and lasting implications.

For all types of organisation, it is vital to clearly understand the implications of defining an issue as a crisis and to establish a proper crisis escalation system which properly defines what is set in motion by using the term. This might take the form of a matrix with five phases of crisis and the appropriate response in terms of explicit actions.

There are different incentives for businesses, journalists and politicians to proclaim a “crisis”. But the danger is the same: a “boy who cried wolf” effect which diminishes the impact of a crisis each time it is declared.

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