Crisis communication: The fire combustion triangle

The day your internal issue breaks into the wild as a full-blown crisis is certainly not the right time to try and formulate an “issues management strategy”.

Yet this happens all too often.

When a story “goes native”, then no matter what size company you are, it’s unwise to work out a crisis communications strategy on the fly.

You’re in the middle of a crisis, remember, and you need a combination of time, a clear head and strategic thinking to work out a winning communications strategy that will not only get you through a disaster, AND protect your company’s reputation into the future.

Yet, all too many companies take the approach to issues management that “it will never happen to us”, or, worse still, “we don’t need this”.

When you inevitably –and often painfully – realize that you do, then it’s usually too late.  The Titanic has started sinking and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.

And this is when normally rational executives tend to be overwhelmed by the situation – and start what we call “rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic”. Often, this so-called strategy leads straight to embarrassing resignations … but only after days of damaging media coverage. You need to be aware that once the media knives are out, there is no more issues management, you’re facing crisis, or even disaster management.

Over the past 25 years, our team of international communications experts have been involved on all sides of issues management – both in helping to fuel the fires as news-hungry journalists, and in handling this from the other side.

We’ve dealt with everything from companies accidentally killing their customers (yes, really), products catastrophically failing in-field, stock prices slumping to half their value in just days, hostile takeovers, issues involving Government departments that simply refuse to tell the truth, mass redundancies, child labor issues, restructuring, sudden CEO departures, accusations of fraud, police raids, civil war, information leakages and theft.

We know that like a fire, any disaster requires three core elements to stay alight: This is the fire combustion triangle. By removing one of these three, you stem the flames. Here’s more insight:

  • Heat – public disapproval of what your company has done, or said
  • Oxygen – of publicity, in this case, with the media fanning the flames
  • Fuel – your unprepared attempts to “deal with” the crisis without a proper strategy

Get to know the key phases of a news story

Any news item tends to go through different phases.

At first, there’s reportage. This is often a confusing time with journalists covering any “angle” as they try to stay ahead the competition. This is where fuel can be added to the fire with the “confirmation” of what eventually turns out to be completely untrue information.

After a day or two, when the facts have been more of less established, comes analysis. Everyone is bored with the “news” but the story is hot enough to keep on burning, so the media brings in “expert” commentators. Anything highly visual – such as “previously unseen” *anything* – comes in to play here. The media starts talking about “how could they let it happen” and your reputation takes another hit. There’s an enormous amount of speculation and conjecture in this stage.

Thirdly, there’s the impact phase – how dare they, what were they doing, etc. This is where stock footage of any disaster such as a tanker oil leak gets shown again and again, as the aftermath of the disaster your company caused hits the headlines. In the case of an oil leak, it’s dying cormorants covered in oil. For a jet crash, it’s mangled pieces of machinery lying in a field.

How to avert a crisis in the first place

In our experience, the best approach is not to attempt firefighting, but to prevent a crisis from breaking out at all – and yes, we know this is easy to say, harder to do. Usually, we are brought in when the fire is blazing rather fiercely – and there’s an enormous time pressure to act.

In our next instalment, we’ll share an eight-point guide to damping down that fire … and closing down your media crisis.

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