A Hot-Cold Combo Approach to Crisis Management


In 2010, Bruce Schneier gave a great Ted Talk called The Security Mirage (see it here) He said “..security is two different things: it's a feeling, and it's a reality. And they're different. You could feel secure even if you're not. And you can be secure even if you don't feel it. Really, we have two separate concepts mapped onto the same word".

Replace the word “security” with “crisis” and it fits just as perfectly. This duality hits me every time I observe a crisis management team in action. You have the “realities" of the crisis (e.g. people injured, information stolen, stock value dropping etc.) and the “feelings” (e.g. reputation, emotions of the crisis management team, frustration of stakeholders coming out in social media etc.)

In practice, corporate crisis management teams are usually (much) stronger at dealing with one or the other: realities or feelings. This is often a relic of company culture and personal experience. Research and experience show that employees and teams tend to default to what they know in a crisis. Employees and companies that value operational and technical proficiency will often focus on the realities, while those working in the sphere of communications and marketing tend to focus on feelings and perceptions. In practice, you will find that nearly all teams have a strong (often unconscious) bias toward realities or feelings, and this will shape their entire approach to crisis management, right from the start. 

For simplicity, let’s call a crisis management team focused on the realities - a cold team. A cold team is usually easy to recognize. It is usually highly focused on problem-solving and on the technical issues. Their media/comms rep (if they thought to call them in) is usually found sweating in the corner pleading for information and hoping someone will finally sign-off on the overdue press release. In today’s social-media and interconnected world, a cold team will often not walk out with their reputation alive, even if they get the problem under control rather quickly. 

A hot team is also easy to recognize. If the first things that comes up in the crisis meeting is brand, stakeholder perceptions and social media, you’re probably on the hot side. In hot teams, the technical reps are the ones sweating in the corner waiting for decisions while the team fights over the best way to craft an empathic message. 

In practice, it’s important to recognize whether you and you core team's default setting is hot or cold. Be honest. Most core crisis teams and/or their crisis leaders really do have a tendency to one or the other. If you’re not sure, put the team under a bit of pressure, and it will become clearer. Once you recognize your default setting, balance things out by adding opposites to your core team. Now, I’m not advocating for a lukewarm approach at all. You don’t want people who are just “ok” at both, and there is no sense just adding one token cold person to a six person hot team.

Instead, go for a hot and cold combo. If you’re great cold team, then stick to it and get better at it, but make sure you have a hot team doing the same on the other side, led by a crisis leader who understand how to maximize both. Make sure the cold and hot teams have equal power to shape the crisis management approach. There is nothing better than seeing a hot-cold team in action, and nothing more demoralizing than seeing a great hot team or a great cold team fail because they failed to address the other half of the crisis. 

By Sebastien Hogan