Knowing that there are stages of a crisis means that we can predict with confidence what will happen when. We can plan. We can test. We can validate.

Without that knowledge, we may falter; make mistakes and worse, find ourselves without a job.

The Four Stages of a Crisis theory that I espouse in my book contends there are four distinct, predictable patterns in how the media, both social and the traditional mainstream, report a story. (Take any recent crisis, disaster or tragedy and you will soon see patterns.)

You may wonder how I came to that theory in the first place. You may be thinking if only it were so easy. So rather than just take my word for it, let’s delve a little deeper into some of the more academic-based work on the stages of a crisis, both media coverage and the wider perspective of crisis management.

We’ll take a look at the work of some of the academic luminaries, like Benoit, Chandler and Coombs, plus management heavyweight, Jack Welch, who has outlined five rather colorful stages for crisis management.

But first, let’s step back to The Four Stages theory.

That 15-year old theory is not only based on anecdotal evidence from my 20 plus years practice in crisis management, but research and interviews with working journalists from many corners of the globe, including Australia, Canada, Denmark, Mexico, New Zealand, the UK and the U.S.

And I’m not the only one claiming predictable behavior of journalists. Stanford University, the American Communication Journal and The Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media all reported predicable patterns of coverage in a crisis.

Sadly, the 9/11 tragedy provided rich data for many to study.

In studying the reporting of the September 11 tragedy in popular news magazines such as Newsweek, Time, and U.S. News & World Report, researchers with the American Communication Journal found that “narrative patterns all play out in predictable ways during crisis reporting …” and, importantly, patterns of reporting allow for some “future predictability in how future crises may be covered.”

The Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media (Dec, 2007) reported the results of a detailed study of five U.S. television stations and how they framed the coverage of the tragic attack 10 years ago. The coverage appeared in distinct, identifiable stages. The researchers citing the work of Graber (1980) said there are three stages of media coverage:

  • Primary information source, describing what has happened.
  • Making sense of the situation, addressing the needs of the victims, repair of the damage.
  • May overlap the first two, in an effort to provide context, to put the crisis in a larger, longer-term perspective.

Not only did the study “shed light on the degree of conformity” amongst the TV stations but showed that the coverage was “homogenized to some degree.” Three of stations studied – ABC, CBS, and NBC even shared news footage. But then we are talking about a crisis of huge magnitude, where the media, as the details of the attacks unfolded, took on the larger role as “consoling the public.” This role is also evident in the coverage of the recent, devastating natural disasters as witnessed in 2008 bushfires in Victoria, Australia, the January 2011 floods in Queensland, Australia and the recent tornado in Joplin, Missouri.

The media take on a larger societal role, helping people, assisting fund raising, offers emotional support as well as reporting the facts as they emerge. Sharing resources is more the norm, the cynical hats come off (to a degree) and the cut-throat rivalry all but disappears.

Why? Quite simply journalists have common values and norms. Numerous studies have shown that “leading journalists across different types of news media in elective democracies have similar norms and values in relation to their role as journalists.” (Mogensen & Nordfors, Stanford, July 2010.)