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CRISIS MANAGEMENT PLANNING FOR THE INEVITABLE by Steven Fink (Amacom: $17.95; 255 pp.)

March 23, 1986|Ian I. Mitroff | Mitroff is the Harold Quinto Distinguished Professor of business policy at USC. His most recent book, with Ralph Kilmann, is "Corporate Tragedies, Product Tampering, Sabotage, and other Catastrophes." and

Every major executive in America ought to read at least one book on crisis management. In this way, he or she might be better prepared to deal with the disasters striking organizations at an ever-increasing rate: product tampering (Tylenol), product defects (Rely Tampon), industrial catastrophes (Union Carbide in Bhopal), financial crises (Ohio S&Ls). The question is, "Is Steven Fink's book one that busy executives should read?" The answer is a resounding yes.

Fink's book could not be more timely. The space shuttle disaster is still fresh in our memory. The deep hurt it has left will not be easily healed. And as if to illustrate the fact that tragedies now occur so frequently they leave almost no recovery time between them, Johnson and Johnson, the maker of Tylenol, has just suffered its second major trauma. J&J must be feeling like a cancer patient who thought the dreaded disease had been licked two years ago only to have it recur.

Fink's book is well-written; it reads almost like a novel. It contains fascinating in-depth stories and analyses of such major disasters as Three Mile Island, Bhopal and the first Tylenol crisis.

Most important, it offers much-needed practical advice on what to do before, during and after a major crisis. For instance, Fink notes that before most disasters occur, there are warning signals--what he calls prodromes , from the Greek for "running before." If one can "read," better yet, be constantly alert for prodromes, then one has mastered one of the key lessons of crisis management.

Fink's book is valuable because he addresses clearly such vital issues as how to set up a crisis management unit, how it should function, to whom it should report, who should staff it.

He also demonstrates the effectiveness of crisis planning through some powerful figures. Apparently those corporations that engage in crisis management recover about 2 1/2 times faster than those that do not. The reason is not that crises follow one's plans perfectly. On the contrary, actual crises always deviate from the best-laid plans.

But crisis management better prepares one to roll with the punches. One has, in effect, worked through three critical emotions--denial, anger and depression--which, if not attended to before a crisis strikes, can be immobilizing.

Fink's book has some critical but not fatal flaws. Its biggest defect is poor organization. Fink could have better served the reader if he had showed that, as crude and tentative as it is, a typology of disasters is emerging. For instance, product tampering catastrophes are not the same type as industrial ones, although they can overlap. A more systematic categorization would have helped the reader to see that what can be done in the face of some types of disasters cannot be done for others. Fink is also weak in explaining why disasters are occurring more frequently. They are not random aberrations but characteristic features of the kind of civilization we have constructed.

Still, Fink's book is important if only for pointing out that the worst can and will happen to any organization. It is no longer a question of if , but when and how many will be affected. The most critical lesson is this: Even though one cannot prevent all tragedies, something can be done to blunt their effects.

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