Recognizing When You Are in Crisis
By Shaun Adamec

Shaun Adamec
Shaun Adamec
The best way to weather a storm is to anticipate its arrival and plan for the response #147; and nonprofits that do this successfully help mitigate the one factor of a crisis that an organization can actually control: Time.

Right now, while you’re in planning mode rather than crisis mode, time is on your side. You can benefit from the luxury of time to plan for potential crises that could otherwise damage your organization’s reputation, or worse, threaten its existence.

But time suddenly begins to work against you when a crisis hits, and often an organization’s first mistake is failing to recognize they’re in the midst of a crisis. This mistake will inevitably slow response, and often dictate an improper response #147; all factors that add fuel to a PR fire.

So how do you know when you’re in crisis? How can you mitigate against the very real scenario of your organization’s leadership underestimating public response? Take this list of variables present in virtually any public relations meltdown. Often called “wildcard variables” or “crisis catalysts,” these elements turn a circumstance into a crisis.
  • Choice: When an audience perceives a lack of choice, the potential for a negative reaction increases. Example: Your nonprofit makes a controversial decision without consulting with its stakeholders.

  • Credibility: When this is lost, recovery is much more difficult. Example: On-the-record comment to media is found to be inaccurate or exaggerated.

  • Duration: The longer a crisis lasts, the worse it is for you. Example: Your nonprofit or executive becomes the victim of a drawn-out legal proceeding.

  • Exposure: The frequency of media coverage, combined with its tone and reach, will fuel a crisis. Example: A local incident becomes a national story.

  • Fear: An emotional element that, if felt by your audience, becomes very real very quickly. Example: A rumor of mass layoffs spreads rapidly.

  • Immorality: The potential for a negative audience reaction is increased if the audience perceives dishonesty or negligence of some kind. Example: A volunteer or staff member is accused of stealing.

  • Injustice: If some people perceive to have risks imposed on them while others share in the benefits, the end result could be public outrage. Example: One of your donors becomes embroiled in a financial scandal after a large gift to your nonprofit.

  • Knowledge: The more familiar an audience is with a problem, the less likely they will be to overreact. Example: You fail to correct an inaccurate claim made publicly about your organization.

  • Victim: A crisis becomes exponentially worse when the perceived victim is a child, a person with a disability, the elderly, etc. Example: Volunteer accused of inappropriate contact with a minor.
It’s important to note that these variables need not be real in order to create a crisis. In other words, the mere perception of an incident is enough to create a crisis. Response to so-called invalid crises vs. legitimate crises should be no different.

Recognizing the catalyst of a crisis—the existence of one or more of the above-mentioned variables—will then dictate the strategy or strategies to deploy in order to neutralize these accelerating factors. You can’t effectively respond to a crisis if you don’t first understand its nature. Recognizing the emotions and perceptions fueling that fire will help you determine how best to respond to it.

Further, you can be assured that you are, in fact, in the midst of a crisis, helping mitigate the risk or overreacting, or (worse) under reacting to a given situation.

Shaun Adamec serves as vice president of communications at City Year, Inc, and consults independently on strategic communications and crisis preparedness. Call him at 617-888-2213 or email
February 2013