Crisis Communication is Rocket Science: A Time Dilation View of Crisis and Reputation

In physics, there is a concept known as time dilation.  It is often used in the plots of science fiction stories but is a real concept derived from the work of Albert Einstein.  The basic principle is that time slows with speed.  The common example is to consider two identical clocks ticking.  One is on a speeding jet for two hours and the other is stationary on the ground.  When the clock in the jet lands, it will have ticked slightly less time.  The speed of the jet causes the one clock to experience a different rate of time flow than the stationary clock.  The example highlights how time is relative because it depends upon a point of reference.  Essentially, as an object moves faster, it experiences a slower time flow.  On a space craft, time flow can be slower near a gravitational mass because the gravitation field will cause the rocket to accelerate.  Science fiction stories like to note how time slows near black holes (a gravitational mass), for instance. 


What we commonly call rocket science is really the application of physics and engineering principles in space.  Physics informs us that a planet’s gravitational mass can be used to either slowdown or to accelerate an object moving through space.  This process is known as a gravitational assist maneuver or a gravitational slingshot.  The principles are used regularly for satellites (space crafts) sent to probe our solar system.  If an object approaches the planet and flies with the movement of planet, it can increase speed (slow the time flow).  If an object flies against the movement of the planet, its speed can decrease (quicken the time flow). 


But you are managing a crisis not writing a science fiction story or deploying a space craft so why talk of time dilation and gravitational slingshots?  I believe we can use the principles of time dilation and gravity assist maneuvers to understand how theory can inform the ways crisis communication affects the time variable in a crisis, what I will call the crisis clock.


Time is an underused variable in crisis communication.  Yes, there has always been the advice to respond fast to a crisis.  And stealing thunder informs us that if the organization is the first to release information about a crisis, the crisis inflicts less damage on an organization.  But these two applications are really timing (controlling when something is done) and so much about time itself.  When a crisis begins so too does a crisis clock.  The crisis clock runs during the lifespan of the crisis and denotes the time in which the crisis affects the organization and its stakeholders, typically in a negative fashion.  The effects of a crisis can linger well past when operations have returned to normal meaning the crisis time can still be running or can end before the return to normal operations.  The crisis clock stops when most stakeholders have forgotten about the crisis and return to normal interactions with the organizations.  Consider how automobile customers eventually forgot/no longer actively thought about the brake crisis allowing Toyota to return to its market position about a year after the crisis began.  As with issues, a crisis has an attention cycle that will run its course.  Solid organizations will survive the crisis and benefit from the passing of time and the end of the crisis attention cycle.  Essentially the crisis clock counts the time it takes for a crisis to move through the crisis attention cycle. 


Imagine an organization is a spacecraft moving through space.  A crisis is a mass in space that emits a gravitational field and radiation that can damage the space craft.  The crisis can vary in mass meaning some crisis exert little force and damage on an organization while others can exert a great deal.   The crisis attention cycle represents the time during which the organization experiences negative effects from the crisis mass—when the crisis clock runs. Ideally, the organization wants to pass through the crisis attention cycle as quickly as possible—time should move as fast as possible.  However, time dilation causes time to slow down when our organization is under the gravitational pull of the crisis mass.  Time passes more slowly as the organization speed up during the encounter with the crisis mass because actions are now time sensitive.


Crisis communication can be used to adjust the trajectory of the organization thereby influencing time dilation for the crisis clock—how long the organization experiences the crisis attention cycle.  We can draw a distinction between aggressive and passive crisis responses.  Aggressive crisis responses tend to be accommodative and quickly seek to address the concerns of the victims.  Passive crisis responses are less accommodative and seek to take as little action as possible.  Apologies and compensation are aggressive while denial, scapegoating, and excuses are passive.


An aggressive crisis response initially moves the organization closer to the crisis because managers are acknowledging the crisis.  Hence, the initial crisis communication can speed up the organization and slow the movement of crisis time while enhancing the negative effects of the crisis on the organization.  This may seem bad but is part of a larger process designed to change the crisis clock in a positive manager for those experiencing the crisis. The initial crisis response begins a gravity assist maneuver.  The question is what differentiates between a gravity assist maneuver that increases or decreases the organization’s speed.  Ineffective crisis communication will increase the speed of the organization from this encounter while effective crisis communication will decrease the speed of the organization.  The goal is to decrease speed because a decrease in speed permits the crisis clock to move faster. 


The critical question is how do we know what is effective and ineffective crisis communication?  Space craft rely on theories of physics to determine increases and decreased in speed from a gravity assist maneuver.  Managers can rely upon crisis communication theory to determine the outcomes from their gravity assist maneuvers.  In physics, speed is reduced by moving against the movement of the gravitational mass.  This is accomplished by moving in front of the gravitational mass.  Passing behind the gravitational mass will, on the other hand, increase speed.  To fly against the crisis mass, an organization must address stakeholder concerns and engage in other positive actions.  The crisis mass is negative, hence the need for positive actions.  Ineffective crisis responses contribute to the negative force (unfavorable reactions by stakeholders) and move with crisis mass.  For instance, denying a crisis when the organization has some responsibility, blaming others to avoid responsibility, or criticizing those trying to help with the crisis are all negative responses that will increase the speed of the organization thereby slowing the crisis clock and the crisis attention cycle thereby increasing the damage a crisis will inflict on an organization. 


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