Is There a Difference Between a Crisis and a Disaster?

By Gerard Braud, CSP, Fellow IEC 

Technically, a disaster is a crisis. However, your organization can experience a crisis that is technically not a disaster.

In crisis communications and in your crisis communication plan, your organization should plan for two types of crises.

  1. A sudden crisis
  2. A smoldering crisis

What is the difference between a smoldering crisis and a sudden crisis?

A sudden crisis happens without warning. An explosion is a great example of a sudden crisis. By definition, that explosion can be a disaster.

A hurricane or a tornado can be both. They have an element of being a sudden crisis, but in reality, both are preceded by weather forecasts that warn the public of a possible strike. Absent is true predictability of exactly when and where they will strike, so that part of the crisis skews to the sudden side of the definition.

Executive misbehavior is a classic smoldering crisis.

How is a “crisis” defined?

Many public relations experts think a crisis is something that damages your organization’s reputation. This is true. But a good way to define a crisis is to think of it as any situation that escalates to the point of damaging both an organization’s reputation and its revenue.

Why is this distinction important? Executives and leaders view reputation management as a soft skill. When you begin to address a crisis as a situation that can affect revenue, you are likely to gain more respect and more attention.

When you position yourself as a strategic partner who is looking out for the organization’s bottom line, trust me… you’ll earn a seat at the table.

Many organizations wrongly focus on only crises that rise to the level of an emergency. That leaves a gaping hole in your level of preparedness and response.

In the 5 Steps to Effective Communications, Step 1 focuses on your Vulnerability Assessment. Your assessment, when done correctly, must include all sudden crises, such as emergencies, but also all smoldering crises.

Many organizations will tell you they have experienced far more damage to reputation and revenue by smoldering crises than they have to sudden crises.

Don’t create your own disaster by having a single crisis communications plan focus on disasters and emergencies. Expand your crisis communications plan and crisis communications strategies to include the smoldering events.

To learn more about how you can prepare for both a sudden and a smoldering crisis, we invite you to take a free deep dive into the 5 Steps to Effective Crisis Communications. Just click here to receive your 5 short videos that outline the 5 steps.

Crisis communications and media training expert Gerard Braud, CSP, Fellow IEC is based in New Orleans. Organizations on five continents have relied on him to write their crisis communications plans and to train their spokespeople. He is the author of “Don’t Talk to the Media Until…”

More crisis communications articles:

How to Use Social Media for Crisis Communications

The Biggest Lie in Crisis Communications

4 Steps Every Company Needs to Take in Order to Avoid the Default Spokesperson


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