If I were to ask you to define a crisis, most likely you would think of an unexpected occurrence that considerably disturbs the normal course of things, right? Perhaps a number of events that occurred in this century would come to mind: Bataclan in Paris, the firework explosion in Enschede, the Kyrill storm in Europe, the crash of the Turkish plane at Schiphol, Chemiepak in Moerdijk, the train collision in Westerpark Amsterdam, the café fire in Volendam, WTC in New York, the power failure in Diemen, the Deep Water Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. This is merely a handful of events that had considerable impact, but could they be considered crises?
What actually is a crisis? That’s a tough question to answer. Was the Kyrill storm a crisis or a natural phenomenon? Was the train collision in Amsterdam a crisis? Deep Water Horizon and WTC are clearly examples of crises, but what about the power failure in Diemen?
It seems that it’s not so simple to pinpoint what a crisis exactly is and it’s certainly not easy to decide which events can be classified as crises. One of the definitions for crisis is:
A crisis is a severe emergency that threatens the functioning of a system. In a crisis situation, we are faced with lack of information, lack of time and we are forced to make decisions that will have certain impact on the future.
Therefore, all the aforementioned events fall under the heading of ‘crisis’. Perhaps you personally did not suffer from the impact of the power failure, but for one million Dutch residents, this hit home, and it was definitely considered a crisis for the grid administrator. Whether an event is considered a crisis or not depends on how you view the situation. A company will often classify situations that require far less intervention as crisis situations. No doubt, we all still remember the fiddling around of software by a well-known car brand. On the face of it, it seems innocent enough: there were no injured persons or dangerous situations, but the impact – for example – on the company’s image and sales was immense.
That brings us to the following: is a crisis unforeseen? Could the car manufacturer have been better prepared for such a situation? Could the grid administrator have expected a major power failure? Couldn’t we have seen the oncoming storm?
I believe that a car manufacturer must be aware of a situation in which a large number of cars do not comply with the regulations or that here and there company rules are breached. I think that a grid administrator must take into account a failure in a transformer that affects the power supply to an entire region. I think an airport is pretty well informed about what happens if there is a plane crash.
Can we anticipate that a fierce storm will suddenly hit Europe again? Can you imagine that a terrorist attack occurs in Amsterdam? Can you imagine that a giant fire will occur at an oil refinery? I think that this is not entirely crazy; we can indeed conceive a number of scenarios if we identify the risks. Therefore, can you do the same for your company? Can you list the ten top potential threats to the existence of your company?
I can already see your line of thought: “OK, but you can’t prepare yourself for everything?” That’s right, you can’t, but what is the difference between not being able to work in the headquarters because of a fire, a terrorist attack, a gas leak or a computer virus? The fact is that the daily work process is temporarily disturbed. That is definitely something to think about. For this eventuality, you can certainly prepare yourself.
If I think about a crisis, I think of occurrences that severely disrupt the normal course of matters, but are not unforeseen. We know what might and what can occur, where it can occur, what the consequences might be, who will feel the impact of these consequences and how we can avert the consequences. The only thing we do not know is when it could happen, if at all.
What about you? What do you think constitutes a crisis?
Arjan de Pauw Gerlings
Trainer Crisis Management
 C.F. Hermann, 1972