Thursday, June 23, 2011

Incident Management vs. Crisis Management vs. Crisis Response

Yesterday, guest blogger Ed Vielmetti treated us to his thoughts about last week's computer outage at United Airlines. His assessment of this incident brings up something that frequent Quarterbackers have read about in this space a lot. There seems to be a fairly widespread belief held by leaders in many corners of the corporate and public sectors that, during an emergency, when in doubt, the best thing to do is clamp down tightly on information.

For some reason, otherwise fairly smart people believe that, in the absence of information, people will generally wait patiently until instructed what to do. They also apparently believe that, if they don't have complete information to share, people will be understanding and forgiving of complete silence until such a time as they do. At best, many organizations have utterly failed to update their communication techniques to keep up with the pace of information in the age of Twitter, or even the Internet. People expect information, even partial information, right away. Gone are the days that you could announce you'd have an announcement in a couple of hours and that would appease people.

Ed's observations raise another issue, however. Companies such as United almost all have "crisis management plans" and "incident management plans." Generally speaking, when people in the business world talk about "crisis management," what they really mean is "damage control." These are the spin doctors who help you regain your reputation when you've done something really stupid. "Incident management," on the other hand, refers to what you do to stop the actual event from happening or get it under control as soon as possible. What is missing from these plans, however, which Ed illustrated so nicely, is the "crisis response plan."

In United's case, they had a plan to fix the computer system. They probably also had a plan for how to get customers back buying tickets on United when their confidence is shaken by something like this. But they didn't have a plan to minimize the amount of confidence-shaking that happened in the first place. They didn't have anything on the shelf and ready to minimize the inconvenience to their customers. They managed the incident, and they even may have managed the crisis. But they didn't respond to the crisis adequately.

This is a very tough lesson to learn, and most organizations don't learn it even after an incident like this. In fact, I saw one repost of Ed's piece yesterday that had the comment, "This is why you should back up your hard drive." And yes, you should back up your hard drive. That's an incident management issue. But what Ed was pointing out is not that United should have kept this from happening in the first place, but rather that they should have planned better for the eventuality that it, or something like it, was going to happen despite everyone's best efforts.

Most people and organizations are very resistant to planning for the worst problem that they themselves might cause. Emergencies happen, but we believe they happen to us, not because of us. Somehow, if United doesn't plan for how they're going to help customers during a computer outage, it won't happen. It would be nice if life worked that way. Unfortunately, as United discovered last week, it doesn't.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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