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Management of Crisis Situations

Common Ingredients of Crisis Situations – Victim Management is Paramount

by James E. Lukaszewski, America’s Crisis Guru®, ABC, APR, Fellow PRSA, BEPS Emeritus

Victims are the most important ingredients of crisis.

There are new versions of crisis definitions proposed each year, but after more than 40 years in the crisis communication management (aka victim management) business, I prefer a very simple, direct, positive, and powerful definition. The purpose of the definition is to instantly direct response activities at the most important and urgent issues crises present.

My Definition of Crisis:

“A people stopping, show stopping, product stopping, trust busting, reputation redefining event that creates victims and may cause explosive visibility.”

Very few plans that I see deal with the victimization crises cause, when, in reality, victim management determines the outcome and reputational damage of every crisis response.

What To Do First in Every Case: Five Critical Time Sensitive Steps for Getting the Most Important Things Done at the Start of a Crisis

The Grand Crisis Response Management Strategy: AKA The Golden Hour

What is the best response to a crisis? While you may require some time to understand what is going on you can immediately implement a strategic five step first response. This strategy is often referred to as The Golden Hour Strategy because the intention is to launch all five steps within the first 60-120 minutes of the crisis incident, whatever the crisis happens to be.

Five Strategic Steps:

  1. Stop the production of victims. Continuous victim production is what drives the media coverage, the public interest, the emotionalization, the commentary and criticism from 1,000 different sources focused on reputation destruction.
  2. Manage the victim dimension. This is what leaders and senior managers should be doing rather than hanging around and second-guessing the command center.
  3. Calm and settle employees down. Communicate directly and frequently with employees, stakeholders, and those directly affected.
  4. Notify those indirectly affected, those who have a problem now because you have a problem; regulators, licensing authorities, neighbors, partners, collaborators, key stakeholders, those who need to know and who should hear from you very promptly.
  5. Manage the self-appointed and the self-anointed; the news media and the new media, those who opt in on their own, the critics, the bellyachers, the backbench bickerers, the bloviators.

This is the strategy management needs to help all responders focus on what matters most and first. Far too many response plans have only legacy media public relations driven tactics. Crisis response is a management responsibility driven by a simple, sensible, constructive, positive, and clearly achievable strategy. The strategy needs to be productive, capable of being managed and led successfully by leaders and managers, rather than communicators.

The Golden Hour Metaphor

The first hour or two of crisis situations are often referred to as the Golden Hour or hours. The phrase comes from military medicine at the close of World War II, and during the Korean conflict. Military medical studies indicated that the single most prevalent cause of death for wounded soldiers was blood loss, the failure to get these individuals into serious life-saving medical treatment quickly after being wounded. They were bleeding to death in the Jeeps driving them to the hospitals located in rear areas of the battlefield.

The helicopter, which was brought into ever wider military use following World War II, was the perfect vehicle to get wounded soldiers quickly off the battlefield. But one more critical component was needed. Surgical facilities had to be as close as possible to the battle lines to reduce even further the risks and damage associated with transporting the wounded to urgent care.

The U.S. Army came up with the mobile hospital concept, the” Mobile Army Surgical Hospital,” or MASH as they became widely known, just like the television show. These mobile facilities were located right on the battle line and moved with the progress of the battle.

Here’s the point, 96% of wounded soldiers who arrived alive at a MASH, regardless of the severity of their injuries, left the MASH alive.

To me, this is the perfect metaphor when combined with following the Grand Crisis Response Strategy to address what management has to be ready to accomplish in those first 60 to 120 dangerous, frightening and chaotic minutes of a crisis. The exhibit below presents an outline of the crucial ingredients, impact, and responsibilities when victims are created. Keep in mind that many bad things can happen; explosions, fires, accidents. What makes any of these circumstances a crisis is the production of victims. There are three kinds of victims: people, animals, and living systems.

Victims = People, Animals, and Living Systems

I mention this because far too often communicators label something a crisis when it’s clearly just bad news. Business operators and leaders are used to hearing staff people shout crisis, but the vast majority of these warnings are exuberant but insubstantial.

Stop being a “chicken little.”

Stop calling problems crises. The fact is that many senior managers tend to refer to communicators as “chicken littles”, announcing every minor adversity to be a real or insipient crisis. Cut it out. I found early in my career that when I mentioned the chicken little metaphor, no matter the culture I was working in, it triggered an immediate laugh. The overuse of the crisis label diminishes communicator credibility and even the sense of urgency.

Organizations of all kinds have problems, many of which are ongoing. The reality is very few problems are actually crises. But every crisis is a serious problem for an organization.

The outline below, Outline for Managing the Victim Dimension, shows the victim direct response strategy; the ingredients, causes, effects and remedies when victims are created. There is a much more extensive monograph here: Managing the Victim Dimension of Large-Scale Disasters.

Victimization and victim management are rarely taught in management schools. The culture of today’s management is such that all victims are suspect and victimization is doubted, dismissed, and often denigrated at the beginning; sometimes throughout the crisis response. Poorly handled victim situations are a significant trigger for termination of top management. Not to worry though, in today’s environment even the worst of catastrophes and victim production fail to deter enormous departing compensation of fired executives.

Victim mismanagement combined with lack of empathy and compassion are generally the most significant triggers for litigation against alleged perpetrators and predator organizations.

Study the outline, read the monograph, then go teach, coach and inspire managers and leaders to behave properly. I’ve also included a list of the most common mistakes, errors and intentional misbehaviors to guard against.

Outline for Managing the Victim Dimension

This outline has been constructed for those wishing to walk management through the concept of managing the victim dimension of a crisis or serious situation.  For additional background on this topic:

  1. Visit www.sorryworks.net, a website that describes the efforts that improve patient relationships and reduce litigation in health care;
  2. Search the Web for “extreme honesty,” which will lead you to a 10-year study at the Veteran’s Hospital in Lexington, Kentucky that explored the power of apology and dealing with emerging situations quickly and empathetically;
  3. Also take the time to read Managing the Victim Dimension of Large-Scale Disasters, where I discuss, in detail, this entire victim management strategy.

Victim Management Process Outline:

Victims Are:

  • People
  • Animals
  • Living Systems

Victimization Is:

  • Self-designating
  • Self-maintaining
  • Self-terminating

Causes of Victimization:

  • Abuse
  • Accusations
  • Arrogance
  • Assault
  • Baiting
  • Belittling
  • Blaming
  • Bullying
  • Callousness
  • Carelessness
  • Commission
  • Confrontation
  • Contention
  • Deception
  • Demeaning
  • Denigration
  • Discrediting
  • Disdaining
  • Dismissiveness
  • Disparagement
  • Embarrassment
  • Exclusion
  • Fear
  • Humiliation
  • Intimidation
  • Lies
  • Minimizing
  • Negligence
  • Omission
  • Ridicule
  • Sarcasm
  • Shame
  • Surprise

Victims Feel:

  • Anger: betrayal, disbelief, dread, anxiety
  • Frustration: powerlessness, helplessness, fearfulness, humiliation, impotence, loneliness
  • Inadequacy: walking but wounded, agonized, confused, weak judgment and resolve
  • Betrayal: trust no one, no one to trust, irritable, anxious, agitated

Victim Reactions to Your Actions:

Your Action

Their Response

  • Friendly gestures
  • Personal interest
  • Well-meant advice
  • Interpreted as threats
  • Perceived as intrusions/betrayal
  • Perceived as insulting or controlling

Victims Suffer:

  • Intellectual deafness
  • 24/7 internal and external monologue
  • Everything is a question

Victims Need:

  • Validation: preferably by the perpetrator
  • Visibility: to describe their pain and warn others
  • Vindication: taking credit for resolution that prevents the victimization of others about the perpetrator
  • Apology: verbal or written admission of responsibility, the promise of amends

Victim Management Imperatives:

  1. Control your own sense of outrage and betrayal
  2. Keep the real victim’s circumstances in perspective
  3. Recognize the utter loneliness of victims, much of which they end up having to resolve themselves, by themselves, in their own time
  4. Be empathetic, keep at it, be helpful
  5. Anticipate and act ahead of patterns
  6. Recognize the deafness problem, repeat key information frequently
  7. Help move toward closure
  8. Be empathetic . . . do helpful stuff rather than saying helpful stuff (they are deaf)

Everything about the victim experience seems irrational.

This is because being a victim, as all adults recognize, is a pretty irrational experience. We are surprised by it, often stunned, often injured. The causes, remedies, and available help are rarely apparent immediately, and often appear to be withheld for reasons we victims simply can’t understand.

The most irrational part is the behavior of victims of going forward. I’m talking about the three most predominant issues victims face. Anyone reading this document who is an adult has been a victim perhaps many times in their lives and you can easily relate to the three issues victims suffer most.

  1. Intellectual deafness:
    Because the victims are so absorbed in their problems, they literally tend to ignore vital information necessary to their recovery or their survival. From the helper’s perspective, it’s mystifying that very sensible, helpful suggestions can be made but they are totally ignored. Again, that is because the victim is wrapped up in their own problems and literally can’t hear what is being recommended.
  2. 24/7 internal and external monologues:
    If you recall your own victim state from something serious, you were basically talking to yourself, even out loud, sometimes. One thing has always been true, if your brain is talking and your mouth is moving, you’re not taking anything in. This is another exhibit of intellectual deafness going forward. Nothing seems to be penetrating.
  3. Everything is a question:
    Basically, because victims are so possessed by what is happening to them, they’re not listening, they generally have an extraordinary number of questions. However diligent you are, the frustrating part is the victims tend to come back with the very same questions time and time again. One of the greatest mistakes perpetrators make is assuming that because they answered the question in a letter, on the web, perhaps even advertised the information, that they have communicated successfully. The answer is, the only way you know that you have communicated successfully is when the questions stop being asked. From most organizations and businesses this is very frustrating because they have a problem understanding why victims “don’t get it” but the answer is, they are not hearing it. Sometimes it takes a long time with extraordinary repetitions to ultimately punch through what is going on in the brains of victims.

For a complete understanding of managing victims, please see Managing the Victim Dimension of Mass Casualty Situations.

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James Lukaszewski

Jim Lukaszewski is America’s Crisis Guru®, Powerful Speaker, Important Author, Inspiring Teacher, Trusted Advisor. If you are involved in or study Public Relations anywhere in the world you will come across or use articles, books, monographs, webinars and programs by Jim. Corporate Legal Times once referred to Jim as someone to have on your speed dial, “when all hell breaks loose.”

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