Issue vs. Crisis: A Guide for Navigation

There is a fundamental understanding lacking among many leaders that could devastate their company or organization. It’s an understanding of the difference between an issue and a crisis. It sounds basic, which may be why it’s often overlooked. The truth is, it is basic, but it’s also critical. So, let’s unpack them and learn why.

Issue management is important to crisis prevention. Actually, a crisis could well be an issue that was improperly managed. Think of it this way: Issue management could be a pilot steering a plane out of turbulence into calm airspace. Crisis is trying to save the aircraft after the landing gear fails.

How do they compare:

Options: Issue management involves having the time to explore all choices, consider the benefits of each, and make informed decisions. In most cases, the more the issue is explored the more possible choices present themselves. For example, communications options during issues management can range from a news release to a press conference, to a one-on-one interview, to television, newspaper, radio or social media. In a crisis, reporters could be in the parking lot and few choices remain.

Decision Making: When addressing as issue, you have time to research facts, take the views of key stakeholders into consideration, and look for third-party expert opinion. There is usually time to fully assess the situation and make an informed decision. In crisis, decisions often must be made without knowing all the facts. The need to be responsive and/or transparent under pressure can force immediate decisions.

Work Flow: Issue management is done on a schedule during office hours while business continues. Crisis requires the management team to abandon organizational priorities. The result could be disruption of business.

Time Frame: Issues can evolve over time. It could take months or years to properly address moving to an alternative animal housing system or discontinuing a certain food ingredient. Crises tend to have a concrete time frame and eventually come to an abrupt conclusion. But, the impact of a crisis, particularly financial or reputational, may persist for much longer.

Impact: An issue is an identified event or trend that could have a significant impact on the organization. That impact is often measured in terms such as reputation, community concern, freedom to operate, financial cost, regulatory compliance, among others. A genuine crisis is an event which has already happened and threatens life, property or the environment, or threatens the capacity of the organization to continue doing business or achieve strategic objectives.

When outcomes are considered, the difference between an issue and a crisis becomes crystal clear. The purpose of issue management is to identify potential problems early and develop proactive plans to work toward positive outcomes. While some may claim a crisis is both a threat and opportunity, the reality is that a crisis typically puts the entire organization at risk and the chief objective is to minimize damage and survive.

Knowing this, it’s mystifying when companies have one and not the other or neither. There is a common – and potentially devastating – misconception that a company can utilize its issues management plan and process to manage a crisis. For the reasons outlined above and many others, that’s simply not the case. Operating without a crisis response plan is a dangerous gamble.

Consider this: how well a crisis is managed can make the difference between a devastating blow and a short-term setback. Yes, there is a cost to developing a plan, but a crisis can put you out of business. Think of it like a three-alarm fire. We invest in fire departments to minimize the damage. Without that investment, we’d be holding our breath and hoping we get lucky by avoiding a fire. The assumption being that if a blaze ignites, we’ll be able to put it out with a garden hose. Companies that have made this assumption often end-up having to rebuild instead of repair, and wishing they had invested in fire prevention.

When it is a crisis plan, a thorough plan is a lifesaver. Find out the critical elements of a crisis plan.