Ron Smith's Teaching Notes on ...



Crisis Communication

Updated Spring 2016 as a supplement to Professor Smith's textbooks, Strategic Planning for Public Relations and Becoming a Public Relations Writer, (Routledge/Taylor and Francis).


Problems are irritating annoyances that are commonplace in all organizations. Problems often focus on individual and on interpersonal conflict. Don't confuse problems with crises, which are full-blown interruptions in an organization's routine that can negatively and severely impact its success and its reputation.


A crisis is ... 
... a major, negative, public, sudden, and unpredicted event 
that can seriously disrupt an organization's activity
and potentially hurt its "bottom line" or mission


Because a crisis occurs in a public environment, even private businesses and nonprofit organizations cannot shield themselves from the expectation of being accountable. By its nature, a crisis invites outside scrutiny and jeopardizes the organization's reputation.


How a crisis is managed reveals the true character of an or nonprofit group may find itself in the role of either culprit or victim in a crisis situation. Regardless of the cause, if a crisis is handled properly, it offers the organization with an opportunity to create a positive impression on its key publics.



Types of Crises

Disaster (Violent) 
Natural occurrence such as earthquake, flood, etc.
Immediate damage


Disaster (Nonviolent)
Natural occurrence such as drought, epidemic, etc.
Delayed damage


Accident (Violent) 
Mishap involving people or equipment
Immediate damage


Legal/Ethical Failing (Nonviolent
Unfortunate personal action violating legal/ethical/moral standard
Immediate or delayed damage


Mismanagement (Nonviolent) 
Bad professional judgment impacting on an organization's operations and procedures
Immediate or delayed damage


Opposition (Violent) 
Negative impact by outside forces, including product tampering, terrorism, etc.
Immediate damage


Opposition (Nonviolent) 
Negative impact by outside forces, including competition, erosion of public trust, protests, recalls, lawsuits, new regulations, etc.
Delayed damage


Another way of categorizing crises is sudden v/ smoldering. 
Sudden crises burst upon the scene without warning. But this is seldom the case. 
Smoldering crises are much more common.


Note that many crises are unpredicted, suddenly bursting onto the scene. Yet they seldom are unpredictable unpredictable. A good program of environmental monitoring usually can identify potential hot spots, often problems that were unnoticed but could have been prevented or minimized.  


Case 1. Consider Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the tragedy in New Orleans. The devastation was sudden in the sense of the details of the storm. But for years, there had been warning of potential weaknesses in the levies, inadequacy of evacuation plans, flaws in the emergency communication systems, and politicization of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Three years later when Hurricane Gustav hit the same area, some of the levies had been improved, evacuation plans were in place, the communication system had been shored up, and FEMA operated more effectively.


Case 2. Consider any number of accidents, from radiation leaks in nuclear power plants to coal mine cave-ins, from bridge collapses to sinking ships. The headlines frequently tell of unexpected accidents that ultimately turn out to have been anticipated, with warning unheeded. Collapsed bridges have inadequate inspection records. Crashed airplanes have maintenance records that were ignored. Organizations have inadequate plans and training in sensitive areas including discrimination, abuse, financial accountability, and so on. Often it is human error, frequdntly outright mismanagement, that is a contributor to an accident.


Lesson to be learned: Even natural disasters and accidents often have a trail of clues and predictions that were unheeded. The crisis smoldered long before it burst forth. During the smoldering period, if the organization had implemented a program of monitoring the internal and external environments, steps can be taken to prevent or significantly minimize the eventual damage.


Stages of Crisis Management

Pre-Crisis (Prodromal Stage, earliest symptoms)
Anticipation & Prevention

· Crisis Forecasting (worst-case scenario)

· Vulnerability Audit (warning signs)

· Crisis Planning, w/ message & messenger

· Media Training


Crisis (Acute Stage)

Effective Response

· Containment

· Involvement of regulators & outside authorities

· Investigation

· Confirmation


Continuing Crisis (Chronic Stage)
· Ongoing containment


Post-Crisis (Resolution Stage)


· Return to normal

· Assessment

· Preventative Planning


Crisis and Reputation

A crisis shows what an organization is made of, by making visible under adverse situations its values, priorities and commitments. 
It brings out the best ... or the worst.


Reputation is the external and public perception of an organization's values, principles, quality and practices. It is the sum of the organization's intentional or unintentional presentations through visual, verbal and behavioral means. Reputation is the most important element of crisis communication because it is so valuable to an organization with impact on its consumers, donors/investors, suppliers, employees, etc. Reputation takes years to build up, but poor handling in a crisis situation can destroy it overnight. 


Self-perception is the reality that an organization knows about its values, principles, quality and practices. This may compare favorably or unfaborably with its reputation. The extent to which reputation and self-perception are out of harmony constitute a public relations problem, either because the reality is better than the perception, or because it is worse. Either way, adjustments are needed.


Visibility is the extent to which an organization is seen and known by its publics and what the publics know about its values, principles, quality, and practices. Problems of visibility may be misdiagnosed as problems of reputation.

- A strategic plan for public relations and marketing communication seeks to build and maintain an organization's reputation.
- A crisis plan seeks to defend that reputation in adverse situations.


Crisis Planning & Reputation Management

Crisis management is both a proactive and reactive process of planning strategically to anticipate crises and to handle them effectively at each stage: detection, prevention or preparation, response, and recovery.


Issues Management & Environmental Monitoring
Part of the on-going public relations research program of any organization is the anticipation of important issues and problems – internal or external – before they burst onto the scene. This allows an organization to prevent problems or minimize their impact by being prepared to deal with them.


Crisis Management Team
Every organization should identify a small group of senior and strategic managers to serve as a Crisis Management Team. This group should initiate and supervise issues management, develop a crisis plan, see that appropriate training and resourcing is available, and continually press the issue of crisis preparedness and management.


Crisis Plan
Every organization should have an up-to-date crisis plan to anticipate problems, identify and provide resources to Crisis Management Team, and be prepared to handle crises as they occur. For this to be effective, it must be tailored to the specific needs of each organization.


Worse-Case Scenario Drills
Public relations managers and other organizational leaders should regularly consider what could go wrong (plausible crises), how the organization would deal with such a crisis, how severe its impact might be, and how it might have been prevented. Current crises involving other organizations are a good place to begin such drills, in terms of learning how an organization might react in a similar situation.

Training of Spokesperson
One task of public relations is to provide training for organizational leaders in how to handle themselves in their role as spokespersons in situations such as media interviews, news conferences, consumer meetings, stockholder meetings, and other public presentations. This often is a task for an outside consultant/trainer experienced in three areas: journalism, public relations and training.


Principles for Crisis Communication

Crises are inevitable with every organization. You can minimize their occurrence, but you can't prevent them entirely. Rather, you try to exercise control in the way you manage the crisis, impacting on whether the outcome is positive or negative. Here are several principles for crisis communication.


Principle of Existing Relationships
In crisis, communicate with employees, volunteers, stockholders, donors, and other constituent groups, as well as with colleagues. Minimally, keep them informed, because their continued support will be important in your rebuilding process following the crisis. Ideally, use them during the crisis to communicate credibly and effectively.


Principle of Media-as-Ally
In crisis situations, organizations are best advised to treat the news media as allies that provide opportunities for the organization to communicate with its key publics and constituents. In situations in which the media are intrusive and/or hostile to the organization, this often is because the organization has not been forthcoming in providing legitimate information to the media and its other publics. A good existing program of media relations and a positive reputation can minimize media hostility.


Principle of Reputational Priority 
Your top priority after safety issues is to shore up your own reputation. Remembering this can help you focus on doing what's best for your customers, employees, and other key publics. Set objectives that deal with maintaining (or if necessary, restoring) your credibility. Use the crisis as an opportunity to enhance your reputation for social responsibility with your various publics.


Principle of Quick Response 
Become accessible to your publics as quickly as possible. The one-hour rule applies here: Within one hour of learning about a crisis, the organization should have its first message available to its publics, particular the media, which generally is the most significant public in the early stages of a crisis.


Principle of One Voice 
A single spokesperson should be designated to represent the organization to the media. If multiple spokespersons are needed, each should be aware of what the others are saying, and all should work from the same set of facts and the same (or at least a coordinated) message.

Principle of Disclosure 
Silence is not an acceptable response during a crisis. On the other hand, full disclosure may not be strategically warranted or legally possible. Disclosure is not an all-or-nothing situation. The approach to disclosure should be made on the presumption that everything the organization knows should be available to the public, subject to specific justification for not releasing certain information. Without admitting fault, the organization should provide as much information as possible, particularly to safeguard public welfare or minimize additional damage.


Principle of Message Framing
Framing the message (or managing the agenda) means that the organization maintains some level of control over the way the unfolding story is told. This can be accomplished by seizing an opportunity, in the early hours of a crisis, by being accessible and providing information that sets the tone for subsequent reporting. The premise is that, if the organization does not tell its own story, its story will be told by others, by people who probably have less knowledge of the facts and certainly less knowledge of the organization itself. Link to Teaching Notes on Framing.


Crisis Objectives

During a crisis, organizations seldom have time to develop detailed strategies. However, the following objectives should be kept in mind during any crisis situation.


Maintain (or restore) credibility
- with the media
- with employees and volunteers
- with investors and donors
- with government and professional authorities


Maintain (or restore) your reliability
- with consumers


Maintain (or restore) your reputation for social responsibility
- with employees 
- with volunteers 
- with the wider community


Crisis Message Strategy

Your friends and supporters can tolerate error, but they will not tolerate being lied to or being treated arrogantly. Your crisis communication must show that your value their support and that you will communicate with them honestly and respectfully. In addition to specific facts and attention to legal concerns, keep the following message points in mind.


  • Identify your top objectives: maintain trust, restore confidence, guard reputation

  • Gain control of situation within first 24 hours

  • Identify a single corporate spokesperson

  • Reassure publics about key points, including safety and security, as well as likelihood of recurrence

  • Don't attempt to shift blame

  • Show concern and compassion for injury, death, other loss

  • Stick to the facts; avoid speculation

  • Be candid and honest

  • "No comment" isn't an option; if you can't comment, indicate why silence is necessary at this time and when you expect to have a comment

  • Balance the data content of your message with its symbolism



Lessons Learned from Actual Crises