Proactive Crisis Management: Learning from the Best

As one of the principal founders of the modern field of Crisis Management, my colleagues and I have been studying and consulting with major organizations for nearly 40 years regarding their crisis plans and preparations. We’ve been privileged to see what the best, Proactive, Crisis Prepared Organizations do before, during, and after major crises.

They embrace five core principles: 1. Everything is connected to everything else so think and act systemically. 2. The crises that one believes are the most unlikely to occur are precisely those that need special attention. 3. Without becoming mired in hopelessness and despair, constantly think and prepare for the worst. 4. Reward, don’t punish the bearers of bad news. 5. Every crisis is a special opportunity to learn what to do better in advance of the next ones that are guaranteed to occur.

First and foremost, they have learned that no single crisis ever occurs in isolation. Every crisis is connected to every other. Unless one is prepared, every crisis is capable of setting off an uncontrolled chain reaction of even worst ones.

The Coronavirus is one of the most dreadful imaginable. Principally, it’s of course an unruly Global Pandemic. At the same, it’s not only spawned a major Financial, but a serious Credibility Crisis. With his constant falsehoods, outright lies, and his ill-advised actions in cutting back the budgets of the nation’s chief Public Health Agencies, the President bears major blame for the crisis spiraling out of control. Both the President’s actions and inactions have seriously hampered our ability to be prepared and respond appropriately. Refusing to accept help from the World Health Organization only increased our inability to test hundreds of thousands who were potentially infected, thus furthering the spread of the virus. By not taking quick and decisive action—indeed, punishing those who sounded the first signals of the deadly virus–the credibility of China has been seriously damaged as well. Trust in Governments worldwide, which is always precarious, has plummeted. It’s been further weakened by Social Isolation and the closing down of virtually all public spaces, further exacerbating the Economic Crisis.

While not perfect, the best organizations actively prepare for a whole host of crises such as: Product Defects as in the case of flawed face masks, especially where they are intentionally altered by Nefarious Actors who are out to cause as much harm as possible. I’ve already mentioned major Financial and PR, or Credibility, Crises. Since it’s humans, not Mother Nature, who make the critical decisions where to build houses and other structures to what standards and codes, Natural Disasters are better thought of as Natural Hazards. In other words, they become Disasters due to the actions and/or inactions of humans. In this regard, the homeless are especially vulnerable as well as older people with preexisting conditions. Technology plays a major role, especially to the potential spread of Dis and Misinformation, leading back again to who and what one can Trust. These do not exhaust the full range of possible types, but they are sufficient to illustrate the main point that it’s never enough to plan for one and only one type of crisis.

The end result is that Worst-Case Scenarios are the very foundation of Crisis Prepared Organizations. For instance, Public Health Officials have known for years that we were due for a Major Pandemic. Where, when, and how, and what form it would take, were of course problematic, but it’s occurrence was considered to be just a matter of time.

I’m often asked, “But how much should we spend on Crisis Planning, and will it hurt our ‘bottom line’?” The best organizations spend around 1 to 2 % of their annual operating budget on Crisis Preparedness. As much as this is, it’s trivial compared to the costs of major crises. Indeed, the best Crisis Prepared Organizations are substantially more profitable—some to 6 to 12%–than those that just react without any prior preparations. Being Proactive allows one to address potential problems long before they turn into major crises.

I know of two organizations that show unequivocally that it’s possible to make thinking about the worst that can happen an integral part of their everyday operations. One uses in-house Internal Assassin Teams to attack and thereby find weaknesses in their products and manufacturing processes. The other uses a Chaos Team to do the same. In each case, they assume that they are in a perfect position to attack their products and processes because “they know more than anyone else about them.” In short, they are supremely Proactive.

In sum, Crisis Preparedness doesn’t happen by itself. It has to be part of a deliberate organizational strategy to Think the Unthinkable and to do everything in one’s power to thwart it before it happens.


This essay is adapted from Techlash: The Future of the Socially Responsible Tech Organization, Springer, New York, 2020, in press.

About imitroff

Dr. Ian Mitroff is Professor Emeritus at the Marshall School of Business and the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. He is the president and founder of Mitroff Crisis Management, a private consulting firm based in Oakland, California, that specializes in the treatment of human-caused crises. He is a Senior Affiliate with the Center for Catastrophic Risk Management at the University of California, Berkeley.
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