How Brands Can Use Swiss Cheese to Prepare for Crises

Seleste MillsBlog, Crisis CommunicationLeave a Comment

The summer of 2018 was the summer of food recalls. Beloved brands and products – Goldfish, Ritz Crackers and Kellogg’s Honey Smacks Cereal, among others – fell victim. Significant media and consumer backlash resulted.

What caused these beloved brand giants’ product recall issues and, more importantly, what does that mean for the smaller brands? By understanding the cause of organizational risks and accidents, we can better understand how to prepare for and anticipate the inevitable.

What causes an organizational accident?

Crisis communications practitioners often say, “It’s not if, but when a crisis occurs.” While we may not know the exact details that led to the aforementioned crises, James Reason’s (1997) Swiss Cheese Model illustrates how organizational accidents and crisis events occur, despite our valiant attempts to combat them.

Key points of the Swiss Cheese Model:

  1. All organizations have defenses in place to manage errors and crises. Think of them as pieces of Swiss cheese – solid, but with some holes.
  2. All defenses are subject to errors (cheese holes), caused by system failures or human errors.
  3. Normally, individual defenses work fine, despite the errors.
  4. However, when the holes line up, you’ve got a clear trajectory for an organizational crisis!

Now what?

Because it’s a matter of when they occur, not if, there are proactive measures brands can take to reduce the number of holes for the crisis trajectory to pass through.

Embracing a culture of reflective learning helps to proactively combat organizational accidents and crises. This small cultural shift effectively lays the foundation for anticipating and responding to crisis events.

What is a culture of reflective learning?

Reflective learning means people are empowered to share their mistakes, understand their weaknesses and ask for help. Research suggests adults grow through reflection, which means looking back on and analyzing mistakes is an important part of the learning process (Boud, Keogh, & Walker, 1985).

Human errors are generally caused by any combination of multiple variables, including, personal (divorce), task-related (monotony-driven boredom), situational (working in the snow) and organizational (poor training). Recognizing imperfection as part of the shared human experience puts the situation in perspective.

We can’t avoid mistakes entirely, but we can help people, and the organization, learn and grow as a result.  If brands don’t encourage stakeholders to share and reflect, the holes in the cheese continue to grow and the potential for a crisis is heightened.

Blame thinking is the enemy of reflective learning.

Blame thinking occurs when an organization or its members are look we scapegoat or look for people to throw under the bus when something goes wrong. Avoiding blame is critical because once we create an organizational culture of blame, people begin working in fear. When people work in fear, they are less likely to share issues or ask for help — contributing to the creation of additional holes in the defenses in place.

While crisis plans are crucial to weather any storm (and part of our expertise), we encourage brands to carefully consider the power of organizational culture. The Swiss Cheese Model makes it clear that these cultural shifts can both reduce the frequency of crises and ensure the team is stronger to prepare for the next.


Boud, D., Keogh, R., & Walker, D. (1985). What is Reflection Learning? In Reflection Turning Experience into Learning. London: Kogan Page.

Reason, J. (1997). Managing the Risks of Organizational Accidents. Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Limited.

Seleste Mills

About Seleste

Seleste joined the Hahn Public team in 2017 as the company’s marketing research manager. Seleste specializes in survey design and research methodology.

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