Communication Currents

Creating Opportunities and Renewal Out of a Crisis

December 1, 2011
Crisis Communication

The renewal process starts by seeing crisis as an opportunity. Viewing a crisis as an opportunity involves taking a counter-intuitive approach to defining the event. Over the past little while I have been working with a number of organizations dealing with different types of crises. One example is a government in Africa concerned about a crisis that could threaten their legitimacy and the goals of their country. Another is an organization and government that recently went through the worst environmental disaster in United States history. In another case, a food industry I spoke with is dealing with national and potentially global food borne illness outbreaks. Finally, I am currently spending some time with a middle school dealing with how faculty and students can consider communication and bullying. At first glance, one could consider this as one of the most depressing few years in recent memory without much room for hope. I consider these examples in an entirely different way. My goal in crisis communication research and practice is to help organizational leaders think and as a result communicate differently. In this essay, I argue that by viewing the positive during crises, leaders can expand their communication choices to create renewal, transformation, and opportunity.

Defining Crises as Opportunities  

Walking into a room of organizational leaders who are managing the acute stage of a crisis is a unique experience. The tension is palpable. The tone is serious. I try to listen to the discussions to first better understand what happened, the consequences, who the crisis impacts most, and to learn about the current state of the crisis response operations. More often than not, the stories I hear emphasize the threat of the crisis. Discussions and energy are directed toward the organization’s lost reputation, the negative media attention, what is not working, along with a litany of other seemingly urgent problems. When I ask about the potential for anything positive coming from this experience, people are silent. It is rare for organizational leaders to intuitively focus on the opportunities during a crisis. Crisis communication is a counter-intuitive enterprise.

My first critical juncture in facilitating a crisis response is helping leaders understand a new way of thinking about the word crisis. Critical to this new definition is understanding that crisis is composed of both threat and opportunity. By changing the definition of a word, you also change what one sees and ultimately how one engages the event. The FedEx logo provides a simple example that illustrates how we can overlook hidden symbols in familiar words. Most people have seen the FedEx logo many times yet have never seen the arrow located within the logo. Seeing the arrow in the FedEx logo once immediately changes what one sees in the word. 

Similarly, leaders regularly overlook the opportunity in crisis because they have not been instructed to define the term more mindfully.Thoughtfully, far eastern languages such as mandarin use two characters for crisis. One character emphasizes threat. The other opportunity.

Once leaders consider the impact of seeing crisis as both threat and opportunity, it changes their perspective and more importantly expands their communication options during a crisis.

Defining Crisis as an Opportunity Expands Our Crisis Communication Options 

How one defines an event not only helps us understand the event better, it has communication consequences. An organization that is able to mindfully view crises as both threat and opportunity increases their communication choices. On one hand, if threat is the single focus during a crisis, the organization is most likely to attend to what is most salient. In this case the sole goal of communication may involve defending the threat to the public image or reputation of the organization. By focusing solely on threat, the organization is mainly emphasizing its own needs over its stakeholders during the crisis. Conversely, by defining crises more positively the organization has the additional consideration of moving beyond its own needs to consider its stakeholders. These messages may emphasize communicating honestly to stakeholders, providing a prospective vision for moving stakeholders beyond the crisis, and/or expressing how the organization is learning from the crisis. These additional choices help stakeholder sense making, illustrates that the organization is concerned about the welfare of others, and communicates guidance for resolving the event. By viewing crisis as an opportunity for renewal, leaders have more communication options available than when they viewed the event as solely a threat. These new communication choices help leaders enact more productive crisis communication by emphasizing solutions for the crisis, communicating to meet the information needs of organizational stakeholders, and developing a prospective vision that emphasizes transformation, growth, learning, and renewal to a new normal. Consider three cases.

Defining and Communicating Positively in a Crisis Creates Opportunities for Renewal 

During the 2008 economic crisis, Rahm Emmanuel interjected the type of counter- intuitive thinking I am talking about. During discussions with the Wall Street Journal about how to manage the threat of the debt crisis in the United States he was famously quoted as saying “You never want a serious crisis go to waste... It is an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before.” 

By focusing on opportunities, Rahm Emanuel was symbolically creating a new context for viewing the crisis as well as expanding the possible decisions that could be made during the event.

In October, Steve Jobs, one of the most innovative CEOs in history, passed away. In a commencement address he gave in 2005 at Stanford University, he discussed overcoming several crises in his life including: dropping out of college, getting fired from Apple, and being diagnosed with cancer. In retrospect, he focused on the opportunities that each of these devastating events allowed to come into his life. In dropping out of college he was able to take classes that ultimately helped him with the groundbreaking typography at Apple. His loss of his job at Apple, along with providing some humility, “enabled him to enter what he refers to as the most creative part of his life.” His diagnosis with cancer helped remind him to continue to make the “big choices in his life about what is truly important.”  Steve Jobs’ reflections suggest that with time he was able to see his crises as opportunities that helped him ultimately become a visionary of the technology industry.

Finally, Conan O’Brien experienced a very public crisis last year when he lost his job hosting The Tonight Show. He discussed this very public failure in his 2011 commencement address at Dartmouth College and couched his story as advice for students as they considered their futures after graduation. The moral of his address is that the crisis he experienced opened up opportunities he could have never imagined. He explains, “one’s dream is constantly evolving, rising and falling, changing course.” A key lesson he learned during this time is “If you accept your misfortune and handle it right, your perceived failure can become a catalyst for profound reinvention.” His address illustrates the core idea that crises have the potential for change, growth, transformation, and reinvention.

‘Tis the Season for Renewal 

What I have learned from organizational crises has taught me much about life. Life ebbs and flows in relationships, careers, family, and beyond. Change is constant. The ability to resist our natural inclinations and think positively during the storms of our lives is essential to expanding our communication choices. The Christian holiday season in December along with New Year’s celebrations are demarcated with stories about birth, renewal, and the potential for a new start. Similarly, other religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism discuss the cyclical nature of birth and rebirth in life. Understand that not only change, but also the potential for renewal is a constant throughout the year. Only by building a capacity to expand our definitions and communication choices during these crises can we enable future growth, learning, transformation, renewal, and opportunity in our lives.

About the author (s)

Robert Ulmer

University of Arkansas-Little Rock

Chair