Creation of a Crisis Strategy

People react to a crisis when they often don’t if it’s just an everyday problem. For example, a major international airport might have been begging for more money for security and for years been held back by the accounting department. Suddenly, there is evidence of an imminent terrorism threat. Now there is a crisis. The accounts department panics in the face of questions such as “Why was saving money more important than safety?” Instantly the Finance Director pledges more money and any support required. The Head of Security gets his additional staff and x-ray scanners. His position in the company is elevated and his personal power expanded. People now jump when he calls, after all, this is the crisis! No one asks: is this a generated crisis?

The question that should be asked is: “Was there really a crisis (threat), who revealed it and who benefits from the actions taken as a result?”

Crisis creation as a tactic is commonplace and it is surprising how often it isn’t recognized and how often it works. Some examples include:

  • The word is that the Chairman (President) is furious that this hasn’t been done and he / she is considering a management shake-up.
  • I’m thinking of leaving you and taking the kids if you don’t listen to me.
  • The building may not be safe we need funds to improve crowd control.
  • The news media will want to know if our suppliers in India use child labour. We should consider switching manufacturers. I can recommend some people.

The above points are all classed as a “False Crisis”. They are not an actual crisis yet. This type implies that a crisis exists when it does not. Quite often they’re an exaggeration or simply not true at all. This is the most common form of the tactic. However, the very serious and ruthless tactician often ensures a genuine crisis is discovered or created.

The Crisis

For example: An unethical politician, whose political ticket to be elected a city mayor is “Anti-Crime / Safer Streets”, might be tempted to ensure that there was significant civil unrest in the weeks leading up to the election. In short, the creation of a “Real Crisis”. Can this be done? Yes – quite easily. The release of some clearly racist pamphlets in the appropriate part of the city could swiftly trigger race riots. A power failure in a deprived area would stimulate looting. A few drive-by shootings in a wealthy suburb would create panic – some wounded lawyers or actors would be best. The “surprise” discovery of an “allegedly” hidden report that claimed violence was actually up 50% would make front page news. And … there are plenty of worse things that could be done too.

A real example of how this tactic might have been used is the 2003 Iraq war. The USA and Britain wanted to remove Saddam Hussein from power. A crisis was needed and generated. The existence, and devastating threat, of WMD’s (weapons of mass destruction) suddenly gripped the media. Saddam had them for sure – everyone was in danger. War was approved!

U.S. President George W. Bush declared the objective of the invasion was “to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, to end Saddam Hussein’s support for terrorism, and to free the Iraqi people.” (Wikipedia 2007)

Well, Saddam fell, the region was destablised and surprise, surprise – no weapons of mass destruction were ever found. Interestingly, both Tony Blair (Prime Minister of Britain) and George Bush (President of the USA) survived the revelation. Was it tactical? You’ll have to make up your own mind.

A third way to use a crisis is to wait for one to happen and then be prepared to capitalize on it. This is known as an “Opportunistic Crisis”. This is a political favourite as the tactician need not cross-the-line into what is currently accepted as unethical behaviour. Also, they probably won’t have to wait too long.

Why does this common tactic work so often? People respond differently when faced with a crisis and often make quick and over reactive decisions. Fear is an important factor. On the surface, this is not unexpected as a crisis usually requires rapid action. A burning building, a terrorism threat and even negative accusations in the press all require a speedy response. The emergency services can’t afford the time to have a three day workshop to discuss the problem of the burning building and create team consensus about how to fight the fire. They have to act immediately if life and property is to be saved. It is for this reason that many companies even establish a crisis management team.

It seems to be part of human nature that the majority of people dislike being involved in a crisis even though those same humans tend to be fascinated by the same subject if it is happening far away and is no direct threat to them.

From a tactical point of view, the creation of a crisis can be a powerful tool to manipulate opinion but a word of caution, use it too often and people will start resisting or recognizing what you’re doing. Once that happens, your reputation is gone forever. Most importantly, train yourself to recognise this tactic when it is being used. It really is everywhere – just read today’s newspaper.