Crisis management has been a vital point of focus for businesses for a century, but as we look toward the decade of the 2010s, organizations will find that they need to redefine their concept of the term “crisis” to incorporate new types of threats.

Traditionally, the crisis plans of manufacturers and service companies have revolved around product failures and recalls, customer service complaints and protests, mishandling of dangerous substances, sabotage, natural disasters and financial or other scandals.  While these potential crises certainly remain areas of concern, a greater danger may lurk in situations that are distinctively 21st century phenomena.  These new entries in the annals of crises relate as much to reputational damage as to physical and fiscal harm, and they may be much more difficult to repair if they are managed poorly.  Here are five potential new crises for the coming decade for which every communications manager and CEO should prepare.

Firing during firings: Workplace violence has long been a threat to businesses.  Most often it has resulted from feuds that have been brought on to the plant floor or into the lobby from the outside—generated by everything from domestic disputes to road range.  Recently, however, a series of violent acts have come about from employees recently or about to be terminated.  Human resources managers and others involved in dismissing employees have become targets in locations from a beer distributorship in Connecticut to a truck rental business in Atlanta to a cookie factory in Philadelphia.  HR will need to work more closely with local police departments—many of which offer to provide plainclothes officers at employee termination meetings—and develop new, much stricter policies that ban guns from both company buildings and parking lots surrounding them.

Techno security:  Reliance on computer systems and networks has become so critical to human existence that global opponents in the Middle East are now fighting cyber wars to cripple the economies of adversaries, and a single electromagnetic burst released over the United States could knock out everything that runs on electricity, transporting our lives and livings back 100 years.  IT departments may well become the first line of defense as technological soldiers seek the right armaments to prevent an electronic Armageddon.

Job training: Today, millions of well- trained American workers are looking for jobs—and chances are they will keep looking futilely for some time to come because they are trained for yesterday’s jobs, not tomorrow’s.  This mismatch has the potential to reach crisis proportions as crucial jobs go unfilled and the frustrated jobless begin invoking Second Amendment methods in attempts to retaliate against former employers and government agencies.  Educational institutions and businesses must assemble a much more massive retraining effort and prepare to manage the ferment that may erupt in the meantime.

Becoming a social failure: Failure to participate in or to properly manage chatter in social media will become increasingly dangerous for businesses.  Recently Qantas was critiqued harshly for failing to respond to chatter on Twitter that incorrectly presumed one of the airlines’A380 jumbo jets had crashed, when in fact it landed safely after an engine exploded.  The next day an engine fire on a Qantas B747 drew more flames on Twitter.   Monitoring and correcting misrepresentations in social media will become absolutely crucial to avoiding crises of reputation and lost business.

Healthcare: The United States has never faced such a potential healthcare disaster, with the historically large Baby Boom generation now beginning to retire while living longer, with Medicare and Social Security trying to fend off seemingly irresolvable deficits and budget hawks at the same time, and with healthcare reform under fire from half the Congress.  The mounting need for healthcare coupled with the dwindling resources available for it appears to be a problem for which no one has yet offered a viable solution.  It can lead to crises generated by battle between backers and detractors of reform, as well as between labor and management within companies. 

The world ahead may be one of green highways and computing in the clouds; but down-to-earth, highly contentious issues are likely to push crisis communicators against new walls.  They’d better be well-armed with knowledge, data and a full understanding of the emotional state of their publics.

—Steve Friedman