The Boy In The Plastic Bubble

September 28th, 2015

In the 1976 film ‘The Boy in the Plastic Bubble’, John Travolta plays a character forced to live in a sterile bubble due to his weakened immune system. Any contact with unfiltered air may prove fatal, and so Travolta’s character goes through the movie interacting with the outside world from safely within his plastic cocoon.

When it comes to crisis management, many organisations take the view that if they shut themselves off from the world, then the world will leave them alone. However, unlike the boy in the plastic bubble, organisations cannot operate in a vacuum, and a crisis affecting one part of an industry can quickly spread to others.

The boy in the bubbleNowhere has this threat of crisis contagion been seen more vividly than the on-going saga of the Volkswagen emissions scandal. The crisis, which has its origins in the US, has since spread to Volkswagen’s European homeland and beyond, and shows no sign of confining itself to the German based manufacturer.   This morning, Brussels-based lobbyist group, Transport & Environment produced a report claiming that European car makers have routinely abused tests on fuel performance and Co2 emissions, and claims that, ‘the Volkswagen scandal was just the tip of the iceberg, and what lies beneath is widespread abuse by car makers of testing rules enabling cars to swallow more than 50% more fuel than is claimed.’

The phrase “tip of the iceberg” in relation to a crisis which is starting to spread from one company to an entire industry should certainly be worrying for all major car manufacturers both in Europe and worldwide.

The answer to the current crisis is to perhaps get ahead of the game. If you are a CEO of a car manufacturer who is confident that your vehicles are up to scratch, commit to an independent audit of your processes, involving government and EU agencies, before it is likely imposed upon you.

If any concerns are raised, companies need to work together openly and in cooperation with those officials to review the system and help to implement a new one.


Many organisations are confident in their ability to handle crises, and may feel that if they comply fully with the regulations then they will avoid scandal. However, companies do not operate in isolation, and a crisis affecting one part of an industry can very quickly spread. It is vital to ensure that as a company you have crisis management procedures in place to not only deal with crisis affecting your own organisation, but also crises affecting other organisations in your industry.

At the end of the movie John Travolta’s character is told by doctors that he has built up immunities which will enable him to survive in the real world, and leaves his bubble. Organisations shouldn’t leave it too late before leaving their own bubbles, and engage with the outside world.

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