Anatomy of a Crisis: What to expect from the unexpected

Peter Mayer Agency

After the unexpected hits, when is it time to dust off those crisis communications guidelines and call it what it is: a crisis? While the manifestation of a crisis is different for every company—often  dependent on trending topics, timing or even the leadership in your organization—the anatomy of a crisis is consistent.

Warning Signs

There are times when a crisis can seem completely unexpected, but if you look closely, you often see there were warning signs. If you or your company is doing something that would disappoint your mom, there’s your sign. If you can’t keep your personal and brand Twitter accounts straight, there’s your sign. For Progressive Insurance, warning bells should have been going off when the company interjected itself into a civil case and long before it hit the World Wide Web. In today’s environment where everyone has a platform, your policies, procedures, and memos should be able to hold up in the court of public opinion. And if they can’t, there’s your sign.

The Event

Even if they should have seen the warning signs, for Public Relations professionals, “the event” can feel like suddenly getting hit with an ugly witch’s broomstick during the middle of a yellow-brick-road stroll. On April, 2010 BP officials woke up to an exploding oil rig; consequences are still unfolding two years later. But not all events have a global impact like the BP oil spill. In today’s online frenzy of tweets, uploads and updates, the YouTube channel you’ve carefully branded and developed can become home to the Wicked Witch of the West. Just ask Domino’s.


Whether an event explodes or simmers has a lot to do with what’s going on at the time. Since this is an election year, one misstep picked up by the right outlet could land a politician in the unemployment line. Timing is everything and often out of your control in crisis management. Had the FedEx deliveryman debacle not occurred around Christmas, it might not have caused such an outrage.


Sometimes, if the timing is right, a good response will downgrade a crisis to a fire drill, which is why it is so important to maintain a crisis communications plan. But the wrong response can send even the most meager crisis spiraling out of control. Susan G. Komen, a brand synonymous with warm and fuzzy feelings, got their response wrong when they ceased funding Planned Parenthood earlier this year. Or, Planned Parenthood got it right. Either way you look at it, the outcome could have been different if Susan G. Komen responded with timely and consistent messaging.


Whoever said “There’s no such thing as bad publicity” didn’t see their company’s stock plummet after a crisis. A crisis’ awareness level can rise when a reporter picks up a tip or when a disgruntled client hits the blogosphere. Staying on top of a growing audience is difficult; however, you must stay tuned in to how the crisis is growing and changing. With misinformation and reporters’ eagerness to break news, a game of telephone can ensue, often leaving your company on the losing end.

Crisis communications plans are designed to guide you through any of these situations, so if you don’t have one, get one, and if you do have one, dust it off every once in a while. Your best bet to survive a crisis is to be prepared. Good luck in your crisis spotting and try not to make it to this list. Do you have a crisis du jour? Tell us about, we might be able to help. Visit




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