Public Relations and Crisis Communication: Getting Ready for the Storm

A relatively new practice in public relations is crisis communication. Probably the most high-profile example of this is the tragic disappearance of the young high school graduate, Natalie Holloway.

This young girl was celebrating her passage from childhood to adulthood with her classmates on the tropical island of Aruba when she disappeared. All of the public relations personnel in the entire country were not equipped to deal with the damage that could be done by a grieving mother who wanted answers. Tourism, Aruba’s number one source of income, dropped dramatically.

There are two sides to the practice of crisis communication – issues management and crisis management. One deals with a perceived crisis while the other handles the real thing.

What da’ heck is Issues Management?
In issues management, the PR consulting professional’s job is to correct an unfavorable public perception. A great example of this is Wal-Mart, a giant corporation with an amazing success story that must work daily to overcome a controversial reputation.

Books have been written about Wal-Mart and how poorly they allegedly treat their employees, including a news report several years ago about a class action lawsuit by female employees for gender discrimination. The retail giant has worked diligently at counteracting these claims by running television commercial s with employees extolling the virtues of their employer, the wonderful opportunities given them, and how much they love their jobs.

In issues management, the PR team is continuously monitoring the news media, their publics, and internet chat rooms and blogs searching for any derogatory or incorrect information that is being disseminated so they can immediately squelch the rumors.

Getting real with Crisis Management
Unlike issues management, crisis management deals with very real crises, such as the finger in the Wendy’s chili. Although it turned out to be a hoax, Wendy’s stock plummeted and hundreds of employees were laid off as a result. The partial meltdown of the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in 1979 and the accident at the Perry Nuclear Plant in 1993 are both public relations nightmares for the nuclear energy industry. In all of these cases, crisis management teams worked overtime to undo the damaged reputation of nuclear power.

Failing to Plan vs. Planning to Fail
The key to success in public relations and crisis communications lies in establishing a plan, in the case of the latter doing so before a crisis occurs and putting that plan into action immediately when disaster strikes.

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  • While I applaud the attention you’re paying to the field of crisis management PR, I have to respectively differ with the claim that it’s a “relatively new practice.” I’ve been engaged in it for 27 years and I’m a long way from the first!

    Best regards,

    Jonathan Bernstein, President
    Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc.

    • Hi Jonathan,

      Thanks for stepping up and correcting this. Indeed it does seem that the practice of handling problems and challenges
      as they arise and preparing for them before they even happen is nothing new. I’d have to dig into the research and
      get back on this, but I wonder if it was called by a different name 50 years ago or so? Maybe PR was too.

      Would welcome any more thoughts you have on this topic, as it clearly looks like your area of expertise!

  • Fully agree on the lack of planning comment, however, too many companies spend too long getting bogged down in defining their problem instead of getting on with it. The whole “is this an issue or is it just a problem or maybe it’s a full blown crisis?” debate has delayed many companies from taking action before it was too late.

    The “Golden Hour”, that precious sixty minutes you could expect between the event hitting the public arena and having to deliver a holding statement, is now down to a “Golden Twenty Minutes”.

    If you don’t have a plan in place, with people who are able to implement that plan, you might just as well pack up the shop and say “bye”.

    Just a little of what the past 21 years in the business, and as the former NATO Spokesman (Bosnia), has taught me.

    All the best

    Chris Kinsville-Heyne
    Managing Director
    C3i Strategic Solutions