How Does the Aurora Tragedy Affect Your Business? Crisis Response Lessons in a Volatile World

By Dan Weedin, CIC, CRM

There are two truisms to crisis management. First, crisis will happen. No matter how hard you work to avoid it, it is inevitable. Second, history repeats itself. From that, you must learn its lessons. Not doing so is negligent.

Last week’s tragedy in Aurora, Colo. leaves us with another crisis to contend with. It’s a crisis not solely to be faced by the movie theater, Aurora Police Department, and the community. It’s one that deeply affects all of us. The similarity between this violence and others like Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Fort Hood need to be analyzed by risk managers of any organization or business.

Your immediate response may be, “Why? How does this affect me?” You may be thinking that your business has no risk of maniacal shooters filling the air with bullets and causing terror to all in their path. You’re probably right, although at some point I doubt that the Aurora movie theatre or other places that have seen such violence thought they were likely candidates, either. The real issue revolves around how you are prepared to respond to crisis, not manage it. 

What are the similarities of crisis? By answering this question, we are better prepared to have a response. I contend there are three major ones…

  1. They require that you make a quick and decisive response. Crisis can be expected (hurricanes, tornadoes) or unexpected (Aurora shooting, Penn State University). Regardless, a fast response is expected. If that response is not well thought out before it’s needed to be made, it probably will be poor.
  2. They leave people in a state of shock and uncertainty. There are several layers to this shock depending on the crisis, but a basic need to be led out of it is always present.
  3. They provide opportunity. Out of every crisis comes an opportunity to rise from the ashes and be better than you were. Those who suffer crisis, because they are too busy trying to live through it, often miss this.

So how does a business, organization, or even a family learn from the crisis lessons of others?

  • Accept that crisis is going to happen. You just don’t know when, where, or how. Being complacent or naïve to this will only set you up for poor judgment in real time. I’ve seen too may business leaders think, “It’s never going to happen to me.”
  • Determine who will be in charge. It may not be the CEO or Executive Director. In one of the school districts I worked with, it was the Assistant Superintendent who was given that role to lead and make decisions. Who is your designated crisis leader?
  • Practice. Do you remember those fire drills in grade school where you had to practice putting everything down, getting in a single-file line, and calmly walking out the door while pretend flames were all around you? It may seem hokey, but those drills work. I’ve taken CPR for over 25 years. One night, while having dinner at my parent’s house a few years ago, my mother started choking and I had to give her the Heimlich maneuver. I responded just like I had practiced all those years and it saved her life. Taking time to practice and test response is perhaps the most missed element of this process.
  • Develop a “plug and play” plan. Almost any crisis can be responded to in the same way, regardless of the event. For example, after a crisis event the order of triage may look something like this…
  1. Ensure safety of people and premises
  2. Communicate to everyone (more on this later)
  3. Set up a “war room” where leaders will convene
  4. Make a decision based on your past decisions.
  5. Communicate again.

Communication is essential in any crisis response. Unfortunately, many times that communication is bad and makes things worse. BP’s Tony Hayward is a perfect example of communication gone horribly bad. In order to be effective, communication must be quick, empathetic, and acknowledge any fear and uncertainty. Warner Brothers had to respond to crisis after the Aurora shooting. After all, it was their blockbuster movie and people were looking for a response from them. They acted quickly. They responded with shock and sorrow for the victims and their families. They quickly pre-empted showings and trailers of movies in respect for the victims. They acknowledged the gravity of the situation, while staying in the background.

In a business setting, your employees are the ones who need the most communication. They may have fear of losing their job; or uncertainty as to what the company will look like in the future. Acknowledging that fear, being honest, and being consistent with your message will ultimately lead to better morale and increased loyalty.

I remember thinking to myself, “How would I have responded if I were in the that theater with my wife and daughters? Would I have ducked under the seats, tried to crawl out, or made a run for it?” Good crisis leaders, whether they are the CEO, business owner, or risk manager, must ask those same type of questions for their business; then in conjunction with their team determine responses; practice and test the responses; and finally communicate those responses with the entire organization.

Crises occur every day and I fear that we are becoming too impassive as a society. The shooting in Aurora was a horrible tragedy and shattered lives. It was the focus of all the news for 24 hours. And then we moved on to another day and another crisis. Crisis leaders need to take note of how others responded and how they might respond when it’s their turn. By observing how others have responded to their own crises, leaders can juxtapose their own situation to ensure that not only will their organization survive, but find opportunity to improve.


Dan Weedin, CIC, CRM is a risk and crisis management consultant based out of Seattle. He has over 25 years experience in the industry and helps his clients create, develop, and implement crisis and disaster recovery plans. His work has been featured in Best Review, American Express OPEN for Business, The Street, and The Risk Report. He is an award-winning international speaker on the topic and is available for conferences or other events. To learn more about Dan and how he helps clients improve their crisis response programs, visit