So we’ve established the crises, whether they are just beginning to show themselves or fully developed. Present to stakeholders situations where their contract expectations, their perceptions of typically undocumented but implied and assumed commitments from an organization are being threatened or have been violated. In either case, high stakes leaders must consider how best to engage these stakeholders to minimize the potential impact of the situation on their value propositions. And to ensure a healthy long term future relationship with the organization. According to our simple model for understanding stakeholder reactions during a crisis, once there has been a perceived violation of expectations, stakeholders will begin to evaluate their situation. This is pretty intuitive and consistent with our personal experience.
Something is happening that tells us we are about to be disappointed or worse, and we begin to form judgments. From our readings in this module, we understand how the elements of appraisal theory influence our stakeholders’ evaluation process. From the core elements of this theory we know that once our stakeholders have determined whether a situation is good or bad for them, they evaluate the situation through two primary lenses. One, an evaluation of the responsibility for the crisis, and two as an assessment of the severity of the situation. Let’s take a moment to look at both of these perspectives.
The idea of evaluating responsibility and assigning blame in the midst of a crisis is a feature of human society long observed by historians. Mary Douglas, an anthropologist and researcher of societal culture, particularly in the area of risks and blame, spent much of her career studying these topics and wrote extensively on how societies respond to a crisis by demanding a degree of certainty about consequences and action in cases where none had been clearly defined.
Faced with uncertainty she suggested, societies respond with a collective call for the placement of blame on someone, historically from medieval witch trials blaming women for disease outbreaks and community misfortune, to the recent suggestion that COVID-19 was synthesized as a biological weapon and the Wu Han Institute of Neurology. The response to extreme risk and uncertainty has always led to the assignment of blame. Why is this idea important to crisis leaders? Because it should not come as any surprise that when our stakeholders believe that we have failed to honor our commitments, irrespective of cause or circumstances, they will look to determine responsibility and try to assign blame.
Knowing this we should be able to predict the disposition of our stakeholders when we begin to engage them. They will likely have already thought through the question of responsibility and will probably already have some sense of who they would like to blame. Given this reality, how should crisis leaders craft their early communications with stakeholders? I would suggest that, at a minimum, leaders recognize that their stakeholders are not likely to be oblivious bystanders awaiting an introduction to the harsh realities of business. Rather, even without a clear picture of the facts, the mere perception of a threat to their value proposition is already inspired an estimated impact. An evaluation responsibility and an assignment of blame.
When we begin our engagement efforts with an assumption of the latter the tone, content and intentionality of our messaging changes dramatically. One other note on responsibility. With some background on the propensity of stakeholders to assess responsibility and assign blame. Leaders should regularly revisit the framing of their engagement with stakeholders throughout the lifespan of a crisis. Over time, the picture of crisis causes and impact become clearer. As a natural course, stakeholders will continuously learn more about what happened, why, and how an organization is responding to it. These stakeholders will just as continuously reevaluate responsibility and adjust their assignments of blame. During a crisis as more is learned stakeholder engagement efforts must be consistent with the most current information available.
Severity of damage, in addition to an assessment of responsibility, stakeholders will evaluate the severity of the damage. As mentioned previously, damage assessments may include criteria such as the number of individuals harmed or killed by the incident, the amount of property damage, the impact on the community and the environment, the financial impact of the incident or simply a purely subjective appraisal of severity. As we’re dealing with perception here, crisis leaders should assume that there may be a surprisingly broad range of severity estimates. Because of this, a key takeaway for leaders is not to underestimate the assessments of severity and impact. As stakeholders have a great deal of freedom to assign whatever values they see fit.
As we formulate our engagement strategies, it’s generally best to assume that stakeholders have assigned greater levels of severity and impact than the organization has. This should help remind crisis leaders of the importance of demonstrating care and empathy in our communications. In many ways, when it comes to stakeholder engagement the facts telling the story matter less than the perceptions of impact. Based on the evaluation of responsibility and assessment of severity, stakeholders will formulate a response to the situation which will be reflected in their post evaluation actions. Later in this module, we’ll explore the best ways to deal with these responses.