The (oh-so-important) Difference Between an Issue and a #Crisis 8


A Guest Post by Melissa Agnes

Melissa Agnes HeadshotUnderstanding the difference between an issue and a crisis is the first step in understanding what is required for managing both. Unfortunately, many organizations and professionals don’t yet know the difference, and therefore suffer unnecessary consequences when presented with an issue, particularly on social media.

So what are the definitions of a crisis and an issue, and how do they differ? Although these definitions are unique to every organization, the following is meant to provide you with a good base for outlining issues vs. crises, as they apply to your company.

The characteristics of an issue

  • Issues don’t present any immediate risk to the organization’s reputation and/or bottom line, for the long-term.
  • However, they can quickly escalate into crises, when not responded to or handled properly.
  • You have 15-60 minutes from the time an issue originates, to respond.
  • Ultimately, when you understand how to respond to an issue and what the expectations of your audiences are, issues present unique opportunities to your organization.

Examples of social media issues include:

  • Negative comments: Although negative comments posted to or about your organization online can sometimes feel overwhelming and like a crisis, they are, for the most part, an issue. Why? Because they don’t pose a long-term threat on your organization’s reputation or bottom line; AND, when handled properly, they present an opportunity to connect you closer to your stakeholders.
  • Rogue tweets: As a rule, rogue tweets are an issue. They’re human error that garner a lot of attention, though don’t present any real long-term damage to the organization’s reputation or bottom line. HOWEVER there are triggers or “red flags” that your monitoring team, frontline and crisis teams need to be aware of. For example: the KitchenAid rogue tweet that defamed the president of the United States during the presidential election of 2012. Since defamation played a role within this rogue tweet scenario, it needed to be immediately escalated and responded to as a potential crisis – which KitchenAid did a brilliant job at.
  • Campaign-gone-wrong situations: From hashtag campaigns that go wrong (think McDonald’s #McDstories fiasco) to marketing campaign fails that garner a lot of negative attention (think of the infamous “Bic For Her” campaign), these can be serious issues that need some sort of immediate response and fixing. However, they aren’t crises since they aren’t situations that threaten the organization’s reputation or bottom line for the long-term.

The characteristics of a crisis

  • Crises present, or have the potential of presenting, negative long-term repercussions on the organization’s reputation and/or bottom line (usually both), for the long-term.
  • Crises need to be responded to with 15 to a big max 60 minutes from the time the crisis originated (not from the time your organization became aware of the crisis).

Examples of crises include:

  • Carnival Cruise’s many recent fails, ending with what was titled as the “poop cruise crisis”. These series of crises all worked together to completely damage Carnival Cruise’s reputation and their bottom line. It’s months later and the brand is still trying to convince past and prospective customers to trust them again. Not to mention that these crises lead to the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) developing and passing a Cruise Passenger Bill of Rights that puts in-place new and mandatory standards for cruise ships in the United States. Now this, is what we call a crisis!
  • The Paula Deen Crisis is another excellent example of a real crisis. Although this crisis didn’t need to play out as severely as it did, this is a perfect example of a crisis not being properly handled and the very severe long-term repercussions that come as a result. $10 million in loss of annual income definitely qualifies as a crisis!
  • Susan G. Komen is yet another example of a crisis that hurt an organization’s reputation and bottom line so bad that, nearly 2 years later, they’re still struggling to pick up the pieces.

The funny thing (well, not for the above mentioned brands, but for us who can learn from their mistakes), is that none of the above crises needed to play out as severely as they did. Let’s take a look:

  • The Carnival Cruise crises should have never happened. Had the company invested in the quality care of their ships, AND had they had a crisis management plan that met today’s realities, they would not be in the situation that they currently find themselves in.
  • Had Paula Deen not sobbed, pleaded, begged for forgiveness and attempted to make herself the victim of her own actions – and had she instead taken responsibility and made the issue bigger than herself, she probably would not have been such a laughing-stock and thus dropped by many of her partners and sponsors.
  • Had Susan G. Komen done a proper risk assessment before making the announcement to cut Planned Parenthood from their fundings, and/or had they made a decision and then grew a backbone and stuck with that decision (whether to keep the funding or not) they also wouldn’t currently be in the situation that they find themselves in today.

However, it’s easy to look back and point out what went wrong and what should have been done instead. What’s not easy (or rather is not done often enough) is to understand these definitions, trigger points, escalation processes and how to appropriately respond to the issues and crises that threaten your organization’s reputation and bottom line before they have the opportunity to materialize. Prevention and preparation is key to managing any type of negative situation. The first step towards prevention and preparation is understanding what an issue is and means to your organization, as well as what a crisis is and means to your organization.

And now you know!

Melissa Agnes specializes in crisis response, prevention, planning and training for the digital age. Working with national organizations and global enterprises, Melissa offers a variety of specialized services that help today’s biggest and brightest brands prepare for, prevent and overcome any type of crisis situation. Connect with Melissa on Twitter and Linkedin.