Trajectory of a Crisis: Are you prepared for what happens next?

July 30, 2018

What I want you to do is look at the trajectory of a crisis shown below and look specifically for the dotted line. The dotted line is where most crisis response tends to stop. After something breaks — my least-favorite expression to hear in these moments is “It’s blowing up on Twitter!” — usually there are a set of rapid response tools that are deployed, and then the crisis plan is over.

I’m not necessarily saying this is a bad thing. You deal with the issues quickly and you hope it fades from memory relatively soon. But as you can see in the chart, there’s so much that happens after the dotted line — and often crisis communication approaches miss all that.

The bottom line for me in these situations is something I’ve been saying for years:

Crisis doesn’t develop your leadership; it REVEALS your leadership.

Let’s use one of the biggest crises of the last few years as an example — Larry Nassar at Michigan State University.

The Indianapolis Star has a detailed timeline of the Nassar tragedy, and it’s also covered in our webinar here:



As you can see in both sources, the basic timeline of the crisis breaking is around September 12-16, 2016 — that’s when things started to come out publicly. (On the Indy Star link, you can see that Michigan State relieved Nassar of clinical and patient duties on August 30th, underscoring that they probably knew what was coming.) He was officially fired on September 20 — so roughly four days into the crisis.

From September-November, the crisis was relatively managed along the lines of “We fired him, we’re investigating further.” In the winter, though, everything began to blow up again — in December Nassar was indicted on federal child pornography charges, then in January 2017 18 new victims came forward, then Texas charges emerged later that month, and federal officials added new charges in February.

Here’s where we come to the crisis of leadership. In that January 2017 filing with the 18 new victims, the lawsuit alleges that twice — in 1999 and 2000 — alleged victims raised concerns to MSU coaches or trainers and that the university conducted no investigations.

MSU hired a former major Chicago prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, as a special investigator in this case — then totally botched the transparency side of what needs to be done in these situations. They essentially wanted Fitzgerald to both examine and defend what happened, according to The New York Times — and in late 2017, they even claimed the internal probe report didn’t exist. There’s also this:

A look at the contract with Patrick Fitzgerald’s law firm, which was obtained by The Detroit News, indicates he was brought on to do just the opposite. Fitzgerald is being paid $990 an hour to help shield the university from legal liability in the lawsuits filed by 150 victims of Dr. Larry Nassar.

Again: crisis doesn’t develop leadership. It reveals it.

This is how bad it got: one of his victims, in an emotional testimony, said that Nassar was “a symptom of the very sickness that plagues the very core of Michigan State University.”

Michigan State/Nassar was a situation handled very badly, but it illustrates how you need to actually walk through a crisis — specifically thinking about Rounds 2 and 3 as opposed to just Round 1 (the initial flash point). Michigan State was completely flat-footed when it came to the period that commenced in December 2016 with the new slate of allegations.

You need to see around corners and predict what’s next. Pattern recognition is the key to advanced crisis management. In the Nassar example, the August 30th relieving of duties before the September 12 initial story broke means they clearly knew the pattern was there. They needed to know all the steps that would come in an avalanche — and it looks like they didn’t. The end result was a tarnished brand and a $500M payout to the victims.

There is a predictable set of events that transpire in every crisis, and that’s what is important to understand when you face one. And oftentimes, the base equation looks like this:

If you know your core values, have a clear chain of command, and can see around those corners/recognize patterns, you can usually deal with issues quickly (the initial flash points) and then brace for how the trajectory will unfold. MSU did not. As you’d expect, their President lost her job — and the brand of Tom Izzo, their legendary basketball coach, was also tarnished. (Football could be the next domino to fall.)

Don’t be Michigan State. There is a better approach.


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Bill is a reputation management, crisis communications and professional development expert, keynote speaker, Wall Street Journal Risk & Compliance panelist, and best-selling author of Critical Moments: The New Mindset of Reputation Management. He has more than 25 years of global experience managing high-stakes crises, issues management, and media relations challenges for both Fortune 500 companies and winning global political campaigns.