Crisis Management

… a core concept used in Implementation and Delivery and Atlas107

Concept description

Leslie Pal (reference below) defines a crisis as “a turning point or moment of danger that threatens the integrity of an entire system” (p. 343).

He distinguishes between crisis and emergency (p. 335):

“Emergencies are typically physical events that threaten human life and property. From a “system” perspective – the political system, the economic system, even the social system – an emergency is a threat event, but not one so severe that it will cause the system to collapse. A crisis is usually considered to fall in that category; we might think of it as an emergency that is so extreme that it threatens system integrity. Also, as we noted, an emergency can evolve into a crisis if it is handled badly and people lose faith in the authorities or managers.”

Why crisis management is becoming more important

Pal writes that “it seems that crisis (a threat to organizational integrity) is becoming a more important and, indeed, routine part of the context for developing and implementing public policy” and suggests several reasons this might be true. [The points below are excerpted and reformatted from pp. 335-336.]

  1. First, information about what governments are doing is much more widely available than ever before thanks to the Internet (think WikiLeaks) and access-to-information legislation. And information flows more rapidly and easily because of a 24/7 media environment and communications technology. …
  2. Second, in a news and media-saturated policy environment, it is easily possible for “master narratives” to be formed by the press that then feed on themselves and are very difficult to revise or rebut …
  3. Third, … there is a pervasive mood of cynicism and distrust of government. Bad news – any type of bad news – can very easily and quickly be framed in that mental context and seen as evidence of rank incompetence, malfeasance, or corruption. A crisis can grow out of a simple error if that error gets magnified to the point where it becomes emblematic of systemic problems.
Steps for effective crisis management

Pal writes (pp 336-337):

“From a policy and management perspective, the key thing about crisis is responding to it and managing it as effectively as possible. Indeed the response itself – if badly coordinated – can become the crisis once the initial triggering event is over. …. A crisis gets resolved when it is managed well and overcome. Of course, the problem is that crises are typically unexpected, take place under strong time constraints and uncertainty, and usually have enough new elements that one cannot rely exclusively on prepared plans. Nonetheless, in reviewing experiences in dealing with crises and emergencies, it is possible to distill some useful lessons (Canadian Centre for Management Development, 2003). [The points below are excerpted and reformatted from pp. 337-339.]

  1. Perhaps the most obvious first step is to be mentally prepared to acknowledge the existence of a possible crisis. Managers should assume that crises will occur and that they can arise from almost any possible event, however innocuous.
  2. A second step involves ensuring the ability to respond quickly and accurately to the crisis and, most important, to the way the media handles the crisis. “Once the crisis has been confirmed, it is important to immediately establish a management team to oversee the response. The designated members of the response team and spokespersons must suspend their normal activities and devote themselves fully to the crisis. It is essential to ensure that team members are prepared to assume the responsibilities assigned to them” (Canadian Centre for Management Development, 2003, p. 26).
  3. A third step is ensuring that those who are tasked with dealing with the crisis know their respective roles and the lines of accountability and leadership. This recognition is important for a number of reasons. In government, there are usually several departments and agencies that can plausibly take a lead role, and not coordinating them can be disastrous – conflicting messages and contradictory communications are sure to make a bad situation worse.
  4. A fourth key step, possibly the most important of the list, is developing a good communications strategy, something that has several elements.
    • The right spokespersons should be designated early in the crisis, properly briefed, and properly trained to deal with media. It is often the case that the first messages that get out to the public as a crisis is developing set the frame for much of what follows, and are difficult to change or shift.
    • Information has to be circulated within the organization responsible for dealing with the crisis, in order to facilitate learning and organizational coordination.
    • To the extent possible, responses to the media and other external audiences should be complete and honest, and if information is missing or unavailable, it should be produced as quickly as is feasible.
  5. The fifth step, once the crisis has been resolved, is to draw lessons from the event and try to prevent a similar thing from happening in the future.”
Atlas topic, subject, and course

Managing Emergencies and Crises (core topic) in Implementation and Delivery and Atlas107.


Leslie Pal (2014), Beyond Policy Analysis – Public Issue Management in Turbulent Times, Fifth Edition, Nelson Education, Toronto. See Beyond Policy Analysis – Book Highlights.

Canadian Centre for Management Development. (2003). Crisis and emergency management: A guide for managers. Ottawa, ON: Canadian Centre for Management Development [now known as the Canada School of Public Service]. Available at, accessed 10 April 2017.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified 10 April 2017.

Image: University of Colorado Police, at, accessed 10 April 2017.