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Spotlight as a Metaphor for Crisis

Crises is a complex phenomenon, and it can be difficult to wrap our heads around them in a useful way. To help us understand and reason about crisis, we are going to enlist the help of a metaphor, that of Crisis as a Spotlight. The idea is that a crisis begins, and a spotlight turns on, and shines down on you and your organisation.

In normal times, there is relatively little attention on you. Your customers, your suppliers, employees, families, a few stakeholders, are paying only necessary attention. And suddenly, a crisis erupts. This spotlight turns on, and everyone is paying attention. Not just the people who were paying attention before the crisis, but many more people, and a more extensive set of stakeholders.

This attention presents both threats and opportunities. The threat is obvious, people are paying attention to you at the precise moment you are most vulnerable. When something has gone wrong, when you're not sure what to do, and the pressure is on, the opportunity is less obvious, but it is no less critical. The attention of the spotlight allows you an opportunity to communicate. An opportunity to communicate who you are and what you stand for, precisely because everyone is looking at you so intently.

A crisis is a golden opportunity to communicate to a broad set of stakeholders. The challenge is to get that message across in trying circumstances, and under intense time pressure. The second thing the spotlight means is that people will remember. They will remember what you do under the spotlight.

Just as the spotlight gets turned on, it will get turned off once the crisis ends. And when it does, people will stop paying attention. What they think of you will be shaped by what you did under the spotlight, what you did while they were paying attention. Once the spotlight gets turned off, it matters little what you do.

You can save the day and solve the problem, but if people are no longer paying attention, it won't change their minds. Advertising people talk about pulse advertising. The idea is that for advertising to work, people need to experience a large number of impressions in a short amount of time.

For them to remember, they need lots of intense exposure. We can think of a crisis as a sort of pulse advertising. People are getting a lot of impressions of you in a short amount of time, and this will help them remember. Unfortunately for you, it is typically at a time not of your choosing, and with a focus on an episode that may not be so positive.

Putting these pieces together, we begin to see the importance of reputation in crisis management. We begin to see reputation as the currency of crisis management. The fact that people will remember what you do in a crisis, means that the crisis will shape your reputation long into the future.

The impressions they form in this crisis spotlight will be who you are for a long time. This means that in a crisis, we cannot focus exclusively on the short-term or proximate costs and benefits of action. We must weigh these costs against the impact the crisis is having on our reputation.

It is no good to get out of a crisis quickly at little direct cost, always a fantastic temptation to companies, if by doing so, we leave stakeholders with the belief that we are not a trustworthy organisation. If solving the crisis involves damage to our reputation, that solution may be little more than fool's gold.

To manage a crisis therefore, we need to understand what reputation is, and how it is shaped by the spotlight of a crisis. The metaphor of a spotlight helps us understand how to think about a crisis. To appreciate that it is ephemeral, and the opportunities and challenges this poses.

Crisis needs to be handled as a management problem and hence Management needs to thrive in the spotlight. You don't want to be a deer in the headlights. Yet, the nature of crisis, that it is an unretained event, the glow of spotlight, and the short-lived duration, mean that standard management tools are not enough to deal with crisis.

The spotlight means we need special tools and new frameworks.

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