Last June, the Coca-Cola Co. was faced with a major crisis: Some 250 people throughout Belgium and France became ill after drinking the popular soft drink. Of that number, 100 were Belgium schoolchildren who had to be hospitalized.

Although the situation was bad enough, the company made it much worse by denying that Coca-Cola could have been the problem. As a result, several European nations halted its sale and the company was forced to recall 14 million cases of the soft drink.

Company officials eventually issued an apology, but Coca-Cola continues to suffer the consequences of its delayed response.

While the company insists that its sales have rebounded, it does admit that consumer confidence in the product was damaged and that it has had far higher marketing costs in Europe due to the incident.

I have used this example because it illustrates how quickly a crisis situation can go from bad to worse. Clearly, Coca-Cola officials did not anticipate the consequences of their situation.

The company failed to act quickly to resolve the situation, and then it downplayed its responsibilities, angering a number of its important publics — consumers, stockholders, and government officials, among others.

Look ahead

Anticipation is one of the keys to effective crisis management. One must be ready to anticipate a chain reaction that will most likely occur as a result of a crisis. These “spin-off” crises can sometimes create more damage than the original crisis itself, as in the case of Coca-Cola.

When “it” hits the fan, one must be able to look further than the initial crisis and determine the chain of events that could occur. This foresight can be accomplished through a process called a what-if analysis.

What is a what-if analysis? In this analysis, you assume the role of a negative creative thinker and take a look at the domino effect that could occur as a result of a crisis. Creatively you envision the events and actions that could occur in conjunction with an identified crisis. You then ask yourself, “What else could happen?”

Remember, it is not necessarily the initial crisis that can deal your company a crippling blow; it could very well be an event that occurs as the result of the initial crisis. By conducting a what-if analysis, your company can identify and avoid the secondary crises because it has taken the time to anticipate possible spin-off events.

How is a what-if analysis conducted? This exercise is best accomplished in a non-crisis environment, when all possible spin-off crises can be anticipated without panic. It is especially effective when done with a number of employees as part of a training session.

To complete this exercise, the assumption should be made that the crisis has just happened and that you must quickly determine, as a group, what chain of events could occur as a result of the original crisis. As noted, each crisis can create a domino effect that can quickly get out of control.

The participants in each group should take the scenario and develop a what-if analysis by using any written form they wish — perhaps a wishbone diagram, a branched-tree diagram, or simply an outline. On each branch of the diagram, document the possible occurrence of an additional crisis. In developing the various scenarios, the main question to ask is “What is the worst thing that can happen?”

The what-if diagram becomes a graphic presentation of a possible crisis progression and helps to keep track of possible crisis developments.

Critical thinking

As you can well imagine, a what-if analysis can ask a number of provocative questions, but its true goal is to bring critical thinking into the situation to give you a chance to be ahead of the crisis instead of the target of all your audiences’ criticisms.

The what-if process is crucial and should be implemented immediately upon notification of an incident, so that any spin-off crisis can be anticipated and eliminated, or if elimination is not possible, the crisis can be minimized.