Defining Crisis

A crisis is any problem that has a significant impact. Most simply, a crisis is a decision-point of change, for better or worse. For example, a new father seeing his child for the first time might have a crisis of faith. A beautiful and healthy child may trigger thoughts of awe and trigger a divine revelation; whereas, a seriously ill child may bring feelings of doubt and religious contempt. In the field of crisis management, Coombs (2012) defines crisis as “the perception of an unpredictable event that threatens important expectancies of stakeholders and can seriously impact an organization’s performance and generate negative outcomes” (p. 2). In this definition, Coombs suggests that crises are both negative and unpredictable events that effect others. While I agree with the scope of the definition, as I stated above, crises do not necessarily have to be negative events, and frequently, they can be predicted. Predictable negative crises are usually caused by negligent management, such as economic crises (Berg & Pattillo, 1998; Compagnon, 2011; Feldstein, 2010; Roubini, 2010).

A crisis usually develops from a less significant issue and, if understood and contemplated, can be mitigated early (Coombs, 2012). A crisis stemming from an issue finds a causal relationship with risk. Risk can be categorized by human, systematic, and process or random (Youndt, Snell, Dean, & Lepak, 1996). Human and systematic risk can be mitigated easily; however, process risk is inherent and requires substantial process change to minimize.

The British Petroleum Deepwater Horizon event, which occurred on April 20, 2010, was said to have been fraught with risk of all three types. A New York Times article by Barstow, Rohde, and Saul (2010) describes the event and attempts to elucidate what went wrong. Initially, according to the article, there was a blowout of the Macondo Prospect well, a risk that is inherent to drilling, especially in deep water. Next, every single “formidable and redundant defenses against even the worst blowout” (para. 10) failed. This was certainly a failure of process errors (geological “bursts” causing the well blowout), systematic errors (“One emergency system alone was controlled by 30 buttons” [para. 18]), and human errors (“members of the crew hesitated and did not take the decisive steps needed. Communications fell apart, warning signs were missed and crew members in critical areas failed to coordinate a response” [para. 15]).

On a micro-organizational level (the rig), these failures are evident and allowed risk to develop into an issue, which developed into a crisis. On a macro-organizational level, however, the response seemed to be swift, but the focal response to the incident and the public relations response appeared very disjointed, which was compounded by both the media and the federal government, that is, until the U.S. Coast Guard took control. It was apparent very early that both British Petroleum and the federal government were concerned with reputation over response and recovery from the focal incident. This translated to poor support for both by the public. I believe the U.S. Coast Guard is the only managing entity involved in the response to have managed to maintain dignity throughout the effort.

Crisis management is promoted as a multifaceted approach to mitigate, alleviate, respond to, and recover from crises of different types and scope. Although there are many aspects to organizations that require attention during these efforts, it needs to be understood that some have higher priorities than others, and reputation is a culmination of all of these.


Barstow, D., Rohde, D., & Saul, S. (2010, December 25). Deepwater Horizon’s final hours. New York Times. Retrieved from

Berg, A. & Pattillo, C. (1998). Are currency crises predictable: a test (Working paper #98/154). International Monetary Fund. Retrieved from

Compagnon, D. (2011). A predictable tragedy: Robert Mugabe and the collapse of Zimbabwe. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Coombs, W. T. (2012). Ongoing crisis communications: planning, managing, and responding (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Feldstein, M. (2010, June 14). A predictable crisis: Europe’s single currency was bound to break down. The Weekly Standard, 15(37), 1-3. Retrieved from

Roubini, N. (2010, May 17). All crises are predictable: Contrary to beliefs, history shows there’s nothing new in debt or inflation. Gulf News. Retrieved from

Youndt, M. A., Snell, S. A., Dean, J. W., & Lepak, D. P. (1996). Human resources management, manufacturing strategy, and firm performance. The Academy of Management Journal, 39(4), 836-866. doi:10.2307/256714