Crisis communications looms large in the public
relations body of knowledge, and theories abound about what constitutes
a crisis and how crises differ from other challenges with which
the PR practitioner must cope.
We are told that when the presence of trigger points, panic or
a sense of loss of control grips an organization and the prospect
of dire consequences co-exist, a crisis has occurred. My 1984 edition
of The Oxford Dictionary of Current English defines "crisis"
as a "decisive moment; time of danger or great difficulty."
But are this description and this definition of a crisis truly
useful tools for the communicator?
My answer is "no" for this reason: They do not serve
to effectively prepare an organization to overcome the very real
threat that crises may pose; they do not enable the public relations
department to fulfil its mandate to enhance the organizations
Its not that trigger points (such as a deadly explosion,
an accusation of immoral or illegal conduct or a product recall)
or visible panic or a clear and present danger are not valid signs
that a crises has occurred. It would be absurd to argue otherwise.
But defining a crisis by the existence of these phenomena gives
rise to the inference that a crisis exists only when these phenomena
are present. This can make it difficult, if not impossible, for
communicators to function effectively, since it provides a rationale
for keeping information about crises from ever reaching the PR department
or anyone else within the organization. It can serve as a catalyst
for internal cover-up.
Even though your organization may enforce a strict policy that
employees are to report all crises forthwith, those whose negligence
may have precipitated a threatening situation may use the standard
definition of a crisis as an excuse to keep quiet.
"I dont have to report the chemical spill into the river
to the public relations department," the employee responsible
for the leak rationalizes, "since it does not constitute a
crisis. While my failure to properly close the valve may have been
a trigger point, the valve is now shut. The situation is under control.
Theres no panic. Hence, theres no crisis. Ill
just keep my mouth shut, nobody will be the wiser, and I wont
get into trouble."
So you, the Director of Public Relations, the Media Relations Manager
or the Communications Coordinator dont know that a threatening
situation has occurred.
But, of course, the media find out about it (perhaps they were
alerted by complaints from people living downstream, or environmental
watch-dogs that regularly monitor the local water courses discovered
the spill and went public with that knowledge). Youre caught
unawares by accusatory media questions. The resulting news coverage
is misleading and harmful to your organization. You respond to that
coverage with your side of the story, which is reported along with
the counterclaims of your accusers. What might have started out
as a manageable crisis, has ended up as a public relations disaster.
The purpose of crisis communications planning is not to prevent
crises. They will occur no matter what you do. It is to prevent
crises from becoming disasters.
An essential part of this process is to counter the propensity
of people to cover up their own negligence or wrongdoing; it is
to maximize the likelihood that you, the communicator, are informed
of any and all crises as soon as they occur.
This is where crisis definition comes into play. The purpose of
that definition is not to make the public relations department aware
that a particular situation might be a crisis; it is to increase
the likelihood that the department will be told right away that
the situation, itself, exists. That definition should not be judged
by linguistic standards but rather by the degree to which it enhances
the flow of information within the organization.
Consequently, my proposed definition of a crisis is "any situation
that might result in unwanted publicity." This tells
anyone who has done something wrong that his or her desire to keep
it secret because the reaction would be unfavourable or unpleasant
is proof that a crisis has, in fact, occurred and must be reported
to the public relations department.
Could this result in a flood of reports to the PR department about
occurrences of little or no apparent consequence? Probably not.
And that would be unfortunate; for it is from this kind of minutiae
that the public relations practitioner builds a body of knowledge
about and a sensitivity to the organization that are vital to effective
Ed Shiller is President of Toronto-based Shiller & Associates,
Inc., which specializes in media training, media relations, crisis
communications and strategic public relations. He can be reached
by telephone at 416-496-2243 or E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
and Thriving in a Crisis
Times of Crisis