When your organization encounters a crisis, say a fire, you’ll of course take immediate steps to put it out. But depending on how big the fire is, it could mean a prolonged crisis, and you’ll want to have some way of measuring its seriousness so you can act accordingly.


Just as a doctor doesn’t want to under- or over-treat a sick patient, effective responses to a crisis must be similarly gauged. Under responding will worsen the situation – think of a doctor who mistakenly under-treats a serious condition with aspirin. Over-responding to a crisis could also worsen the situation, like applying a tourniquet to treat a paper cut. The crisis response must be proportional to the degree of severity the crisis actually presents.

So the first thing for the crisis response team to do when a crisis limps its way into its ER is to, first of all, stanch the bleeding – put out that fire. But then you’ll want to slip a thermometer under the crisis’ tongue to get its temperature. Just as a doctor is pledged to first do no harm, the crisis team has to likewise restrain itself from acting precipitously.

Let’s say your organization has suffered an IT security breach affecting only a small number of customers. Low temperature. You could probably make personal calls to those customers; soothe their hurts, while keeping your organization beneath the radars of unaffected customers and the news media.

But what if several hundred thousand of your customers were impacted? That’s a high temperature indicating a much more serious disease requiring a comprehensive treatment regimen.

Every organization will require its own customized thermometer, and it should be included as part of the crisis plan. A temperature can be determined by answering a few basic questions: How many people are affected by the crisis? 1-10? 10-100? 100-10,000? How many could be affected? How much money is at risk? More than $10,000 but less than $50,000? More than $1 million but less than $5 million? For how long might this crisis go on? A day? A week? Longer? Can you continue to operate? How might your reputation be impacted? What are the chances of your actions working or not working? Are the media knocking? Lawyers? Regulators?

By answering such questions, a temperature value can be assigned, say, between 0 and 100 degrees. For the more systematically inclined, you could assign a temperature value between 1 and 100 to each answer and then take an average of the values to arrive at the crisis’ overall temperature. Either way, you can use the assigned temperature of the crisis to measure its seriousness. And just like an illness, things can change quickly and the temperature your team is assigning to the crisis will rise and fall as the situation unfolds, indicating the progress of your crisis response.

There will likely be disagreement among the crisis team members as to the temperature of the crisis. After all, many of the questions you’ll be asking can only be answered subjectively. But those are valuable discussions to have where different perspectives will be exchanged and consensus built.

So, what’s the temperature?thermometer

  • 75-100 degrees? Code Red. A highest-priority, severe crisis requiring full crisis response attentions and resources. The CEO may need to be front and center.
  • 50-75 degrees? Code Orange. A medium priority crisis. Various corporate-level actions may be required.
  • 25-50 degrees? Code Yellow. A minor crisis. Can be handled locally or by lower-level managers.
  • 0-25 degrees? Code White. Probably not a crisis at all, but an issue that needs to be addressed before it can become a crisis.

The reality of an actual crisis is complex, nuanced, rapidly changing and confusing — precisely why you should be periodically testing your plan, and your response team, through realistic, simulated crisis exercises. The thermometer is a simplifying contrivance. But when a crisis does occur the thermometer works to model messy reality in a way that can help make your responses to the crisis more effective, without over- or under-responding. When the temperature goes down, you’ll know the patient is getting the right treatment.

David Kalson

David Kalson

David Kalson is an expert in issues and crisis management. He has more than 25 years experience providing strategic communications counsel, on-the-ground assistance and highly targeted media relations and “new media” programs to manage issues and crises as well as reputation enhancement for both profit and not-for-profit organizations. Business sectors he has counseled include energy, food and beverage, financial services, healthcare, consumer products and technology. He has designed and implemented communication / media relations programs, often emphasizing Web-based strategies, to address issues including data security breaches, environmental accidents, product recalls, financial problems, high-profile lawsuits, corporate governance issues, criminal behavior, attacks by opposition groups, government/regulatory challenges, competitive challenges and labor disputes. Companies he has counseled in relation to crisis drills, plans and crisis management include Cargill, Dunkin’ Brands, Cadbury Schweppes, Staples, Entergy, Eli Lilly, Canaport LNG and the American Automobile Association (AAA)