Image for The Faux Difference Between Issue and Crisis Management

Managing a crisis requires split-second action. Managing an emerging issue may seem like it has more lead time, but it really doesn’t. Issues have a funny way of unfolding on their own unpredictable schedule.

Thinking you have time to deal with a crisis or an emerging issue is an illusion. Both require anticipation, advance planning and commitment to action. The best way to deal with a crisis is to expect it to happen and be prepared. The best way to deal with an issue is to expect it to explode and be prepared.

Organizations unprepared for a crisis or an emerging issue may see them as very different challenges. In fact, they produce the same result from the same lack of preparation.

The differences between crisis and issue management are subtle. What makes them alike is more consequential. A crisis or an issue can destroy a reputation, sometimes in the blink of an eye. Crisis and issue managers must be forward-looking and willing to do what’s necessary to preserve a reputation. Crisis and issue managers must know where to go to get reliable information. Crisis and issue managers must be willing to trespass over boundaries to achieve a desired result.

The best crisis manager helps organizations avoid a crisis. The best issue manager helps organizations get ahead of a crisis.

It’s true, a crisis manager has to deal with an onslaught of media and concerned citizens who want immediate answers, while an issue manager may have the luxury of gaining insight on a more leisurely timeline. However, some crises occur in slow motion and some issues ignite overnight. The timing for response in either case is dictated by events over which managers have little or no control.

Ironically, crisis and issue managers can take advantage of time. They can make time an ally by adequately preparing for a crisis or thoroughly researching an issue in advance. For the crisis manager, he or she can identify potential crisis scenarios, go-to resources and people who need contacted. For the issue manager, he or she can identify potential issues on the horizon, their likely trajectory in the public arena and possible ways to head off controversy. Advance thinking and planning must have action at its core. Crisis and issue managers both should look for immediate steps to reduce future risk.

Dealing with a crisis may seem more urgent than trying to stave off the impacts of an emerging issue. That’s true if you only measure the impact by the frequency and intensity of phone calls and tweets. Urgency also exists in getting a leg up on an emerging issue before it hits a critical and irreversible point of exposure.

The real on-the-ground problem is that too many organizational leaders treat a crisis situation like an emerging issue. They believe they have the time and ability to control the crisis, as if it was just another bump in the road. That’s a dangerous perspective with a track record of ruining reputations and even tanking businesses and nonprofits.

You can steward time, but only by anticipating and preparing for a crisis or emerging issue before they explode. While the timelines of crisis and issue management may vary, the way to address the risks they pose doesn’t. 

Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm’s PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.