Bird Watching: Crisis Punditry

Lately it seems crisis management experts have become quite comfortable publicly commenting on the crisis du jour.      

I’m not fond of drawing conclusions about a crisis while it’s ongoing.  The primary reason:  it’s tough to have a robust opinion based only on publicly reported information.  To me, that’s like a physician offering a second opinion based only on a description of symptoms by the patient’s mom.      

Yet, many crisis pundits (colleagues and competitors alike) give no such pause.  When a new crisis strikes, crisis management pros swarm like swallows to blogs, newspapers, magazines and broadcast news studios.      

I’ve begun watching this space closely like a birder, taking notes on different styles.  I now fancy that crisis punditry can be categorized along some ornithological profiles:    


Hawks hawk their books, seminars or services – using the news of the day as their bait.  Sometimes, hawks are alarmist and overly promotional, stretching to connect the current situation to their hovering sales pitch.  Examples:    

“…that car company needs to consider how the recall is affecting their brand impact in virtual worlds, as I suggest in my book ‘No 2nd Chances on Second Life,’ in bookstores next week.”     

“…we have a new software program – 2.0CrisisSocialDefender – that could have helped the Amish think about Facebook implications of this tragedy.”    

“… you better call us now or attend my seminar, or perish.”    


art by agevelez

Magpies are known to attack the nests of other birds.  They squawk about everything that’s being managed wrong, high above from their wire.  They’re usually the first to Tweet (no pun intended) about a new negative development in a crisis.  This species is also most prone to be contrarian – perhaps because those viewpoints provide the most media-ready sound bites.  Examples:    

“…they might cave in and offer corporate apology, but in the end that won’t help as much as everyone says.  It will weaken their stance in court.  And their brand will suffer because they won’t stick up for themselves.”    

“…shocker, there’s another twist in the story and this one’s a doozie.”    

“…people say that you need to maintain relationships through social media, but that’s only if you’re the branded clown who keeps hopping up on the chair in the dunking booth.”    


Peacocks are fixated on plumage and other superficialities.  The words, gestures, dress of a spokesperson.  The where of the venue.  The when of the interview.  These are the ritual dances of the peacocks.  Examples:    

“…that celebrity shouldn’t have looked into the camera during that question.  She shouldn’t have repeated negative language, nor should she have been so defensive.”   

“…the CEO would have done better on Oprah than on CNBC.”   


Parrots look to the past to provide context — echoing the well-worn strategies and tactics that have worked before.  Sometimes, parrots suffer from myopia – a tendency to hastily apply old lessons too new problems.  Examples:    

“…we are again reminded of the 1982 textbook medicine recall.  Even though this situation has to do with baby cribs, the same lessons apply.”

 “…we have been warning about train safety since the retirement of the brakeman.  This company should have seen this coming.”


Canaries provide insight on the future — emerging trends or upcoming warning signs.  Canaries are typically less mercenary than hawks when providing their points of view.  Examples:    

“…here’s how your company should plan for the next pandemic.”

“…here’s what new legislation means to reputation management through social media.”


Owls provide broader context and utilitarian lessons.  More than any other species, owls most often avoid specifically judging an organization’s handling of a crisis, but are comfortable applying lessons for others. While owls may attract the least media visibility, their wise hoots do get the ear of peers, trade organizations and academia. Examples:    

“…therefore, recent recalls could signify a wake-up call to the automotive industry.”

“…that scrutiny on Facebook should lead counselors to reconsider best practices in dealing with these networked audiences.”


Wonder why I provided three examples for hawks and magpies, and only two examples of the rest?  That’s because from this tower hide, I see more of those types of crisis pundits.  Perhaps all crisis managers are better served if we migrate towards canary and owl behaviors.    

Your feedback is welcome.  Please use the comments section below to provide your thoughts and reactions to any of the following sets of questions:    

  • Any bird types I’ve missed?  Doves?  Woodpeckers?  Mockingbirds?  Geese?  Chickens?  Loons?
  • Were any of these descriptions unfair?  Have I ruffled any feathers?  (Should I start running from Bodega Bay, like Tippi Hedron?)
  • Should crisis experts continue providing play-by-play commentary on the work of their peers (or future clients and prospects) while a crisis is ongoing?  Or should crisis experts adopt a “code” and frown upon public displays of second-guessing?

I look forward to hearing from you.  I’d also appreciate a “Digg” if you think it’s worthy — you can use the Share/Save button below.  Thanks.

Sept. 13 Update:  Bob Conrad does a good job highlighting the ill-effects of crisis punditry in this post.

16 thoughts on “Bird Watching: Crisis Punditry”

  1. JD-
    Great insight. I would have named the "hawk" group "vultures." They see carnage and swoop in to pick over the carcass for any bit of palatable business; even if it's hard to swallow. However, it's your blog so you get to pick the metaphors. The owls and canaries you describe know the limits of making judgements with minimal information. I think there can be real value in observing the events of others and applying them more broadly. The best pundits are the ones who encourage being prepared for a crisis rather than being terrified of a crisis.

    As for adopting a code of no second guessing…I would disagree with that. I think it would leave the debate to be dominated by fewer owls and a lot more vulture…er…hawks.

    Love the post.

    1. Bill,

      It's funny, I did first think of vultures — but decided that was a bit too disparaging. Plus, most companies in crisis are live prey…they're not dead yet!

      Very good point on the "code." The owls and canaries must provide counter-balance.

      Thanks for your thoughts and participation.

    1. Ha. I'd go easy on the counselors there. It's very tough to gauge the values of a person…much easier to gauge the values of an organization. (That's why I typically eschew celebrity counseling.)

      Thanks for participating.

  2. James, I love this piece, exceptionally accurate analysis and amusing. I also totally agree with the comments about judging personal values against organisational values. I think we as a profession sometimes get a little carried away with image/brand v reality/personal confusion and conflict.

    Cheers geoff

  3. Brilliant, glad someone finally exposed this cheap and useless behavior from too many so-called experts in the industry which regrettably many find impressive. The bird analogy is spot on! Well done

    1. Thank you, Caroline.

      Now, I think you may be referring to the hawks alone. There's probably some value in contrarian magpie behavior — it keeps our profession on our toes. And the peacocks' superficial look at communications coaching techniques are valued…I just get my feathers ruffled when media portrays this as the primary art of crisis management. Hope that makes sense.

  4. J.D., once more I think you are right on target. Although I am a little uncomfortable, having engaged in punditry in the past I can recognize my comments in several of these species. I was going to say you ruffled my feathers, but I'm glad for it and this insightful perspective will make me a bit more cautious.

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