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Deepwater Horizon

A few days ago I read an interview of a well-known expert on crisis communications, who said that «All crises are predictable. If they are predictable, then they can be planned for» and I am afraid I have to disagree. To be honest, I tend to agree with the great Danish physicist and Nobel laureate,  Niels Bohr, who said “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future”.

The role of all the crisis management professionals and communications experts includes the horizon scanning identifying potential threats and issues which should be analyzed and then integrated into a crisis management plan. A thorough horizon scanning will definitely bring on the surface issues that might harm the reputation and endanger the business continuity of an organization. If we could find out all issues then we could establish all the necessary processes and plans to deal with them. But, it is not so simple, is it? If, in a perfect world, we could know all potential threats then there would be no crises, which means in this case that a crisis is predictable…!

For the sake of discussion, let’s say that our scanning has covered all the potential threats and we now work on a painstaking crisis management plan. I strongly believe that our plan would be complete and very detailed. If that’s the case, we have done what’s necessary in order to deal with any issue. But this is not really what happens in the real world.

Organizations with extensive experience in crisis management, detailed environment scanning that covers all aspects of operations and  very experienced staff have been caught off guard by situations that went out of hand. The BP’s 2009 Sustainability Report says: “Our goal of ‘no accidents, no harm to people and no damage to the environment’ is fundamental to BP’s activities. We work to achieve this through consistent management processes, ongoing training programmes, rigorous risk management and a culture of continuous improvement.” Does anyone believe that BP had no plan to deal with a disaster at an offshore drilling unit like the Deepwater Horizon in 2010?

There are two elements that make a crisis unpredictable. The first one is the element of surprise and the second one is the indeterminable factor. We all have read numerous reports about crises that came as a surprise to top executives, communication professionals, investors, and academics alike although they were expected and they could be avoided. Several organizations are caught by surprise because either they do not really believe that a crisis might really occur or they suffer from a cry-wolf syndrome and they make a wrong assessment at the crucial moment.

The indeterminable factor could be anything… Any unexpected change at the political, environmental, economic, social level or just a human mistake could undermine any crisis management plan.

A crisis is not always inevitable or predictable. A crisis is a situation that has to find us prepared and ready to deal with  issues that go beyond any plan or even our imagination.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and they do not reflect in any way those of his various affiliations.