Sunday, 7 March 2010

Communication - the key of managing any crisis

"When written in Chinese, the word 'crisis' is composed of two characters -- one represents danger, and the other represents opportunity" - John F. Kennedy
Communication, the key element of human existence, represents the basis of any activity and of any system, playing a vital role within the complexity of our contemporary societies. These societies' structures, dominated and influenced by mass media communication, generate a favourable setting for the appearance and evolution of an unlimited number of different types of crises. This is why crises have become common phenomena in the field of activity of all types of corporations or NGOs.

For organisations to truly exist in the public sphere they need to be in the attention of public opinion; to raise the interest of public opinion, organisations have to be visible; to be visible, they have to communicate. But, more than this, organisations have to know how and what to communicate to gain the public's trust and sympathy. Open, honest and constant dialogue, with all categories of public, is the vital formula which insures organisations' success in their activities and helps them avoid or better manage crisis situations.

Crises are complex phenomenon, dysfunctions that can affect, at a macro level the entire society, or at a micro level various areas of the social system (economic, political, cultural, financial etc.) That is why they have been defined and analysed by representatives of vast scientific domains, like economy, sociology, psychology, politics, history and last, but not least, public relations (Robert Ulmer, Timothy Sellnow& Matthew Seeger, Charles Hermann, Thierry Pauchant, Ian Mitroff, Laurence Barton, Kathleen Fearn-Banks).


It is essential for any organisation to know how to identify a crisis, what its characteristics and typologies are, and how it can be attenuated or even eradicated by communication. Crisis communication has become, more and more, the art of re-establishing reputation and rebuilding public image; and this art can be mastered through the willingness to learn from ones mistakes, through the accumulation of practical experience and receptivity to the public's feedback, needs and desires.

At the basis of any successful crisis management process we encounter an efficient communication strategy. Crisis communication stands out as one of the most innovative, complicated and provocative communication practices and a key crisis management component. An efficient crisis communication strategy has the capacity to barricade negative reactions from the stakeholders and to attenuate the potential harmful impact on the organisation.

Crisis communication, according to Kathleen Fearn-Banks (2007), is "the communication between the organisation and its audiences before, during and after the negative events. This communication is designed to reduce the dangerous elements that might affect the organisation's image." It contains strategy, message, time and distribution channels management activities for an efficient communication with the press, the employees, customers, communities and other decision factors.

Social media is transforming the way we communicate with each other, how we discover information and how we share it. Moreover, social media's impact has modified, to some extent, what we see today as a crisis and how we handle crisis communication. But I will come back to this in more detail is a future post.

Coming back to the traditional views on crisis communication, according to Newsom, VanSlyke Turk & Kruckeberg (2009), there are three key elements that insure its success: the existence of a communication plan, the existence of a crisis team and the use of a sole spokesperson throughout the crisis. Some of these principles may not apply anymore to the digital environment, as they were designed for dealing with mainstream media and “offline crises” For example, it becomes unrealistic and even unproductive to say that you can only use one spokesperson: communication during an online crisis needs to come from every direction, from every platform, from every channel, from every medium – in order to cover the increasing flow of negative content generated. On the other hand, it is realistic to say that any crisis should be managed by a crisis team, which Timothy Coombs (2007, p. 66) defined as “a functional group that contains those persons in the organisation designated to deal with the crisis.”

This team should be as small as possible and its members must be given the necessary authority to make important, on the spot, decisions. The team’s roles and functions, as identified by Coombs, involve designing the crisis management plan, applying it – both in simulated situations and real-life crises – and dealing with any additional problems that might appear during the crisis, that are not covered by the initial plan. The team members must be chosen from different departments, depending on the nature of the crisis, and they should give up performing their daily tasks during the events of the crisis.

According to David Guth and Charles Marsh (2000), crisis communication involves four types of activities: evaluating the risks, planning the crisis communication (drafting the plan), responding (applying the plan) and rebuilding the organisation. The crisis communication plan must be drafted in a flexible manner, so that it can easily apply to any type of crisis that might arise for the organisation.

Kathleen Fearn-Banks (2007) identifies some of the main elements of the plan as being: the cover-sheet, the introduction, the objectives and goals, the members of the crisis team, the press releases, a list of different types of stakeholders and audiences that might be affected, the channels used to communicate and inform the stakeholders, the name of the main spokesperson, the location of the crisis control centre, databases and files with key messages.

James Grunig (2001) and Ulmer, Sellnow & Seeger (2007) offer some of the main crisis communication principles and rules. They are meant for "traditional" crises and need to be adapted in order to work in the online environment. The most well-known and used crisis communication strategies are those formulated by William Benoit (1995, pp 63-71) and Timothy Coombs (1995). Benoit’s Image Restoration Strategies include: denial, evasion of responsibility, reduce offensiveness, corrective action and mortification. Coombs’ Reputation Repair Strategies are: attack the accuser, denial, scapegoat, excuse (which includes: provocation, defeasibility, accidental, good intentions), justification, reminder, ingratiation, compensation and apology. However, the strategies must been seen and used in a flexible manner as they only represent a starting point in tackling a crisis and should be adapted to the features and particular evolution of each crisis


Communication represents not only an indispensable activity for the human kind, but also the key element in managing any crisis, on which all other factors depend and which permanently orients the publics' attitudes and reactions towards the negative events. Two-way communication with the public should not end as soon as the crisis is resolved. It must become a continuous and permanent process, which will help avoid future similar situations. A good crisis communication strategy can make the difference between the next market leader and the organisation on the verge of bankruptcy. What is more, it is essential to remember that any threat, such as a crisis, can represent an opportunity for the organisation to reposition itself as caring, socially responsible and ethical, turning a bad event into a beneficial situation.


  • William L. Benoit, Accounts, Excuses and Apologies: A theory of Image Restoration Strategies, Albany, State University of New York Press, 1995
  • W. Timothy Coombs, Ongoing Crisis Communication, Thousand Oaks, Sage Publications, California, 2007
  • W. Timothy Coombs, Choosing the Right Words: the Development of Guidelines for the Selection of the Apropiate Crisis-Response Strategies, in „Management Communication Quarterly”, no. 4, 1995
  • Kathleen Fearn-Banks, Crisis Communication, New Jersey, Lawrence Erlbaum Publ, 2007Robert Ulmer, Timothy Sellnow, Matthew Seeger, Effective Crisis Communication. Moving from Crisis to Opportunity, Thousand Oaks, Sage Publications, 2007
  • David Guth, Charles Marsh, Public Relation: A Value-Driven Approach, Boston, Allyn and Bacon Publ., 2000
  • Charles F. Herman, Crisis in Joel Krieger (ed.), The Oxford Companion Politics in the World, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1993
  • Doug Newsom, Judy VanSlyke Turk, Dean Kruckeberg, This is PR: The Realities of Public Relations, Wadsworth Publishing, 2009
  • Thierry Pauchant, Ian Mitroff, Transforming the Crisis-Prone Organizations. Preventing Individual, Organizational and Environmental Tragedies, San Francisco, Jossey- Bass, 1992
  • Robert Ulmer, Timothy Sellnow, Matthew Seeger, Effective Crisis Communication. Moving from crisis to opportunity, Thousand Oaks, Sage Publications, 2007

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1 comment:

Ralu said...

I did not know about the Chinese translation. Nice:)
The crisis communication team is formed, as you mentioned, by people from various departments. They form the so called "cross-functional team". The question is: how many people should it include? Does "the smaller the better" rule is to be applied in online crisis as well? As you said, during online crisis companies have to respond through so many media. In this case perhaps the team should be enlarged compared to an offline crisis communication team. Which makes me realize once again the high number of people required to do online PR.
Since you also mentioned about two-way communication I have to admit online media provides the best opportunities to achieve it (versus traditional media) with Twitter and Facebook to name a few.

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