Five ways to know whether it’s an issue or a crisis

When is a problem an issue, and when it is a crisis? Often these terms are used loosely and interchangeably. Anyone who has experienced both knows they are vastly different things and, as a result, there are different ways to manage an issue versus a crisis.

There is no doubt that a badly managed issue has the ability to turn into a crisis, while a well-handled issue can potentially avert a future crisis.

And that’s why it’s important to know which one you are dealing with.

So how does one spot the difference between an issue and a crisis? Ask yourself these questions:

1. Has the situation stopped normal operating activities?

2. Is the nature of the problem unclear and potentially still unfolding?

3. Is there a need for immediate decisions to be made to ensure the safety of people or infrastructure?

4. Does the problem require the immediate diversion of resources to address whatever event is occurring?

5. Is action or a response required in an urgent manner, as opposed to having time to devise an action plan to implement?

If you answered yes to most of these questions, it’s very likely you have a crisis on your hands.

If that’s not simple enough then try this. An issue is when a pilot realises the plane’s undercarriage has a problem after take-off but there is still hours of flying time in which the problem can be sorted. A crisis is when the pilot realises there is a problem when he starts the descent and people’s safety is in jeopardy.

You get the drift. If you have identified a problem facing your organisation but there is still time to gather information, investigate what is happening and go through a normal consultation and decision-making process, then you’ve got an issue on your hands.

If, however, you need to assemble people rapidly to address an internal or external problem; people or assets are at risk, and there are immediate demands from stakeholders for information and updates – you’ve got a crisis.

So what does it matter?

The most important thing to understand is that you can’t address an issue using crisis management techniques, and you can’t handle a crisis effectively with an issues management process.

So you need the skills and support to do approach both effectively in their own specific way.

At Clarity we have a defined issues management process that helps our clients identify the parameters of an issue, assess and prioritise the potential risks and impacts, and work out the best possible response and the communications process required.

Similarly, we have a tried and tested crisis communications process that supports our client’s crisis management or emergency response teams. This ensures the combination of speed and effectiveness required when handling a crisis.

More importantly, can your organisation see the difference between an issue and crisis and does it have processes and support in place for handling both.


Anthony Hasluck

Anthony is the majority owner of Western Australia’s largest independent public relations agency, Clarity Communications. In addition to his managerial and consulting activities connected with Clarity, Anthony is a Director the Racing and Gaming Authority.