11/11/2010 12:30 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Tale of Two Eras

This Crisis Management History Lesson Remains Unlearned

Listen, children, while I tell you a story about a time long and long ago.

Back in 1982, when I first started using the Internet for business purposes (on an Atari 400), there were probably no more than 10,000 of us worldwide, most associated with one of the governmental entities that created the backbone of what ultimately became the World Wide Web (yes, that is where the "www" in URLs comes from) in the early 1990s. We exchanged information by email and virtual bulletin boards, using very slow dial-up modems. There were no Web browsers. Online research was possible by using a command system known as "DOS." The only portable devices we had played music. Period. If we wanted to contact someone quickly and we weren't in our home or office, we used these quaint devices called "pay phones."

When crises occurred, back in those ancient times, they were reported by local media if word even got to the media. Unless the crisis was truly immense in scope, in which case a national television network or wire service might start reporting on it. Then word-of-mouth would take over via something called "gossip." To some of you under 35 (unless you actually listened to your parents), this must sound really strange, eh?

At this moment, in late 2010, the International Telecommunication Union reports that two billion people -- a third of the world's population -- are Internet users. In the U.S., 77% of the population has Internet access. IMS Research reports that the number of Internet-connected devices is about to pass the five billion mark. But by 2013, says global technology leader Cisco Systems, Inc., the number of connected devices will grow to one trillion. That means there will be a two-hundredfold increase in connected devices in three years or less!

When crises occur now, someone is usually spewing the word globally via every available communications orifice -- Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, etc. -- ad infinitum. Everyone's a reporter, with no editorial controls. All but the most stubborn technophobes and luddites have the skill to launch a blog or website in minutes.

But most organizations still aren't ready to engage in crisis response that quickly.

As a song even older than my tale of the early Internet goes, "When will they ever learn, when will they ever learn?"