The current crisis of public confidence in UK Parliament, triggered by the publication of MPs’ expenses records, demonstrates three interesting and very important lessons of crisis management. They are worth noting, as they play a part in all major crises.
Firstly, there is the unexpected, unprecedented level of public and media rage. As Dr. Peter Sandman, a long-standing expert on risk communications once put it: “The engine of risk response is outrage”. The need to manage extreme reactions should always be taken into account when planning any crisis response.
Secondly, there is the invisible culture that surrounds the crisis organisation, blinding them from the true nature of the crisis. They cannot see anything wrong in their long-standing practices. Good crisis management requires an objective perspective. The crisis team needs to see events with the eyes of an outsider.
Thirdly, there is the natural tendency to focus on the trigger of the crisis, rather than the underlying cause. The legality of MPs’ expenses claims, and the rules governing them, are not the real issues. It’s the perception of greed that outrages the public. And that demands a much more radical response.
Unfortunately when organisations are in crisis, they tend to operate on gut instinct guided by wishful thinking, instead of logic and expectation of the worst possible outcome. It’s more comfortable to aim to muddle through, rather than confront difficult issues. But a crisis is a major turning point. Things will never the same again.