Crisis Management: A book review by Bob Morris

Crisis ManagementCrisis Management: Planning for the Inevitable
Steven Fink

After So Many Years, Still Relevant and Invaluable

I read this book when it was first published in 1989 and decided to re-read its paperbound edition (2000), curious to learn to what extent it had been update. Significantly. In fact, Steven Fink’s core insights are even more relevant now than they were when the first edition appeared. This situation reminds me of another, decades ago, when Albert Einstein’s colleagues playfully chided him to asking the same questions every year on his final examinations. “Quite true. Each year, the answers are different.” Similarly, Fink identifies key issues as well as timeless strategies. As for tactics, they should be determined by the given circumstances and supervised by those who are best qualified.

What sets this book apart from almost all others which discuss the same general subject is the fact that Fink’s observations, insights, and recommendations are (if anything) more relevant as years pass. How can this be true? My answer is that he correctly emphasizes the importance of a comprehensive and cohesive process that consists of four separate but related components: anticipation and preparation, rapid response, follow-through, and post-event evaluation. For obvious reasons, each is critically important but post-event evaluation has even greater importance (and value) if it guides and informs subsequent anticipation and preparation.

In an ideal world, seamless anticipation and preparation will eliminate all crises. In reality, “the best laid plans” can almost instantaneously become irrelevant, if not counter-productive. Presumably, major airlines such as American and United as well as the City of New York (not to mention federal agencies) involved some exceptionally talented people to formulate a number of “What if?” scenaria. And then the events of September 11th occurred. The efforts to formulate such scenaria were not invalidated by those events; nonetheless, as in Hawaii almost 60 years ago, the challenge was for various corporate and governmental entities to respond immediately and effectively, as indeed they did. In time, as with the events that occurred on December 7th, the events that occurred on 9/11 will be evaluated even as preventive measures are taken and new scenaria are formulated, as indeed they should be.

Fink organizes his excellent material within 18 chapters that are arranged in a sequence appropriate to the aforementioned components. With meticulous care, he defines various terms (thus providing a nomenclature for crisis management which most readers probably did not have before) while establishing a context within which to illustrate and apply those terms. Of greater value, I think, is the matrix of different perspectives that Fink provides. This strategy reminds me of the way Henry James develops his major characters in various novels. That is, look at a given situation from every possible angle.

This Fink does brilliantly as he explains how to measure the nature and extent of a given crisis, decide who must do what immediately, how to manage information (he devotes Chapters 13 and 14 to crisis communications), and how to make the most effective decisions under what are inevitably severe pressures ranging from shock and fear to grief and anger within compressed timeframes. He also includes what he calls “A Catastrophic Quartet” in Chapter 17: case studies of crises involving Ohio Savings and Loan, Union Carbide, Procter & Gamble (Rely Tampon), and Johnson & Johnson (Tylenol). Having reached this point in the book, Fink’s reader is already well-prepared to recognize various dos and don’ts within the four case studies.

Who will derive the greatest value from this book? My choice would be decision-makers in organizations (regardless of size or nature) who realize or at least suspect the importance of having a crisis management program already in place, especially now. Noteworthy is the fact that the same observations, insights, and recommendations which Fink shares in this book are as relevant to “catastrophes” involving loss of intellectual property as they are to situations in which there is loss of human life and/or destruction of physical property.

With only minor modifications, the multi-dimensional approach Steven Fink recommends can be of incalculable value to anyone preparing for or now struggling to cope with natural disasters and terrorist initiatives as well as other types of crises that involve major disruption of transportation, communication, and issues related to public health and/or safety.

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I highly recommend that Crisis Management be read in tandem with Steven Fink’s latest book, Crisis Communications: The Definitive Guide to Managing the Message (April 17, 2013). In Crisis Management, he creates a context, a frame-of-reference, for Crisis Communications. The latter should be viewed as an update and expanded coverage of the material in Chapters 13 and 14 in Crisis Management in which he develops in much greater depth material concerning “controlling the message” and “handling a hostile press.”

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