PR book On-line Readings in Public Relations by Michael Turney
Performing public relations during a crisis
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Regardless of how traumatic it seems while it's happening, the ultimate outcome of a crisis need not be bad. It can be either positive or negative.
What makes a situation "a crisis" is its uncertainty, and the circumstances that surround it are what determine whether extremely negative or positive consequences will follow. The medical definition of a crisis is the turning point in the course of a disease that determines whether the patient will recover or die. It is very often a good sign.


Will you have to do crisis communication?

Most of the literature about crisis management and crisis communication describes the increasing likelihood of most organizations eventually facing some sort of crisis. To support their view, they cite compelling statistics that reflect the growing number of news stories that have been reported about various types of "business crises" that have affected almost every type of organization.

Many of these articles admit that they are, at least in part, trying to scare public relations practitioners into preparing themselves to deal with such situations. That's probably a worthwhile goal, but the articles are often needlessly alarmist and filled with gloomy and pessimistic descriptions of the dire consequences that befall organizations which aren't prepared for a crisis.

But, crisis management and crisis communication need to be kept in perspective. While there do seem to be a lot of crisis situations confronting organizations today, we have to ask if there are really any more on a per capita basis than there have been in the past? Or, is the number of crises up simply because the number of organizations operating in society has increased? Another question to ask is if the number and/or ratio of crises have actually increased or if there's just more reporting of such incidents by the media? I haven't yet found definitive answers, but I think the questions are well worth asking.

Don't obsess about the possibility of a crisis.

The possibilities and probabilities of confronting a crisis situation certainly deserve some thought, especially if you're in a high profile organization or a high risk environment. But, public relations practitioners should not let crisis planning take over and become their central focus. If they do, they won't have time or be in the right frame of mind to maintain positive, healthy relationships with their organizations' key publics.

A while back, not too many years after the accidental discharge of poison gas in Bhopal, India, I served on an IABC/International committee with Robert Berzok, the vice president of corporate communication for Union Carbide and someone who had been heavily involved in Union Carbide's immediate response to the Bhopal situation and the corporate shakeout that followed. The committee's work had nothing to do with crisis communication, but the topic did come up during one of our group's casual, informal conversations.

One of the most surprising things Berzok told us about was the internal aftermath of the crisis and the number of people in his own company who became fixated, not on what had happened, but on what might happen the next time there's a crisis. As he described it, some of the managers did so much worrying and preparing for the next big disaster that they let everyday business matters slip through their fingers. They became so involved in meetings of special disaster preparation committees that they cut back on the amount of time they spent meeting and talking with their customers and, apparently as a result of this, the company experienced a rising number of customer complaints. Other managers eliminated regular staff meetings so they could devote more time to crisis drills. As Berzok described it, the situation was on the verge of getting out of hand before he and other upper level managers realized what was happening and began restoring a more appropriate balance.

You too need to take a balanced approach. Crisis communication is something public relations practitioners need to know about, but it should not be your primary concern, especially not at the start of your career when you're in an entry-level public relations position. Depending on the nature of its business and the environment in which it operates, your organization may or may not ever face a crisis situation and you may or may not be called upon to serve as a crisis spokesperson.

Crisis communication is not crisis management.

Public relations practitioners play a crucial role in crisis situations, but it is essentially the same role they have in the everyday life of the organizations for whom they work. In good times and in bad, they are responsible for maintaining and improving their organizations' relationships by effectively communicating with their target audiences. A crisis merely increases the intensity of the communication and induces stress in all parties and in their relationships.

Usually, public relations practitioners are NOT responsible for resolving the underlying problems that create crisis situations, nor do they determine what actions their organizations should take.--They do not, for instance, clean up oil spills or make reparations to victims' families.--Their role is to communicate with the organizations' publics about those decisions and about any subsequent actions that are taken. And, at the same time, they're responsible for keeping the organization apprised of its various publics' reactions.

Public relations' goal during a crisis is to get the organization through the situation with as little damage to its reputation, credibility, and key relationships as possible. In some instances,-- the well-known Tylenol tampering case, for example -- effective crisis communication can actually enhance an organization's reputation.

Return to
Crisis communication portal
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The Olympics of public relations.
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when a crisis hits.
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Six Steps to Preparing a Rudimentary
Crisis Communication Plan
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to a whole new level.
Don't be a crisis hypochondriac

5 Sept. 2020