The Stages approach is not restricted to the media coverage or, indeed, reputation management. There is a wealth of literature on the subject of crisis management; you will find an abundance of literature in the risk management, disaster recovery and business continuity fields.

The populist view, interestingly supported by Dr Timothy Coombs, academic luminary and heavyweight in the field of crisis management and communication, is that there are three basic stages of a crisis:

  1. Pre – Readiness
  2. Response – the Crisis
  3. Recovery – Post

Leading academic, Dr Robert Chandler, an internationally renowned crisis communication expert, and Director of the Nicholson School of Communication at the University of Central Florida, says there are six stages. Legendary businessman, Jack Welch, former CEO and Chairman of General Electric talks about five stages.

Chandler’s six stages have some familiar names – a response and recovery phase, but he adds Warning (1); Risk Assessment (2) before the Response (3), and then Management (4), Resolution (5) before Recovery (6). To me the Warning stage is part of issues management, rumor management, when you are doing your risk assessment. This is the pre-Crisis phase, the smoldering issue phase, that if left unchecked, will trigger you into a full-blown crisis.

Welch’s more colorfully named stages more closely follow Chandler and show insight into the decision-making of big business that, unfortunately, think “bad things won’t happen to them.”

Stage One, in the Welch five-stage approach, is “Denial”. A belief, he says, that the problem isn’t bad. For Welch, the second stage is Containment where people “try to keep the problem quiet.” He says that even those who are “extraordinarily gifted” try to make the problem “disappear” by giving it to someone else to solve. Sound familiar?

Three is the “Shame-Mongering”, where all the “stakeholders fight to get their side of the story told with themselves as heroes at the center.” This is closely followed by the “Blood on the Floor” Stage Four, where at least one high-profile person pays with his or her job. A la the hapless Tony Hayward, former CEO of BP America.

And finally, according to Welch, “The Problem Gets Fixed” in Stage Five. He says that “despite prophesies of permanent gloom, life goes on, usually for the better.”

There are stages within stages.

Probably the most critical stage is reputation repair. Bill Benoit (1995, 1997) has done the most to identify the reputation repair stages and strategies. Reputation repair can be done at almost any stage, says Benoit, but as Coombs (2007) and others have pointed out this more difficult when an organization, a product or brand has a “history.” If you have a past history of “behaving badly” and you are the likely contender for the “perpetrator” title in the current crisis, you may as well pack up and go home. The media, new and old, will savage you.

Chandler also says that it’s simply ineffective to take a blanket approach to crisis communications. He says that “to be effective, it’s critical to consider every stage of the crisis.”

I recommend using the Four Stages approach to plan and determine:

  • Messaging
  • Spokespeople
  • Channels
  • Crisis Management Team
  • Exercising, Training and Testing

The jury is out – there are stages in a crisis, and very predictable ones at that. There are at least three formal stages in overall crisis management and at least three in how the media report a crisis. The more you familiarize yourself with how the stages unfold in a crisis, the more you will see the evidence, and the more confident you will be in preparing your plans, advising the senior management team and/or being a key spokesperson.

Sadly, there is an opportunity every day to study The Four Stages Approach. The Penn State child sex abuse scandal has shown just how say it is to predict the patterns of behavior, both on-line and in the traditional mainstream media.