The Role of PR in Crisis Management

By Parakram Hazarika PGDPC -XV

Crisis management is the process by which an organization deals with a major unpredictable event that threatens to harm the organization, its stakeholders, or the general public. Three elements are common to most definitions of crisis: (a) a threat to the organization, (b) the element of surprise, and (c) a short decision time Venette argues that “crisis is a process of transformation where the old system can no longer be maintained.” Therefore the fourth defining quality is the need for change. If change is not needed, the event could more accurately be described as a failure or incident.

In contrast to risk management, which involves assessing potential threats and finding the best ways to avoid those threats, crisis management involves dealing with threats after they have occurred. It is a discipline within the broader context of management consisting of skills and techniques required to identify, assess, understand, and cope with a serious situation, especially from the moment it first occurs to the point that recovery procedures start.

Public Relations (or PR) is a field concerned with maintaining public image for high-profile people, commercial businesses and organizations, non-profit associations or programs. Public relations (PR) concerns professions working in public message shaping for the functions of communication, community relations, crisis management, customer relations, employee relations, government affairs, industry relations, investor relations, media relations, mediation, publicity, speech-writing, and visitor relations. The first World Assembly of Public Relations Associations, held in Mexico City in August 1978, defined the practice of public relations as “the art and social science of analyzing trends, predicting their consequences, counseling organizational leaders, and implementing planned programs of action, which will serve both the organization and the public interest.”. Others define it as the practice of managing communication between an organization and its publics. Public relations provides an organization or individual exposure to their audiences using topics of public interest and news items that provide a third-party endorsement and do not direct payment Common activities include speaking at conferences, working with the media, crisis communications, social media engagement, and employee communication. It is something that is not tangible; this is what sets it apart from advertising.

PR can be used to build rapport with employees, customers, investors, voters, or the general public.Almost any organization that has a stake in how it is portrayed in the public arena employs some level of public relations. There are a number of related disciplines falling under the banner of Corporate Communications, such as Analyst Relations, Media Relations, Investor Relations, Internal Communications and Labor Relations. PR professionals focus on building relationships that help to establish rapport with publics. Public Relations professionals must know how to write clearly, speak clearly, and think analytically. These skills are necessary because in the field of PR there is constant communication between professionals and their publics. PR professionals also have to think critically so that they can come up with resolutions to problems their clients may face.

There are many areas of public relations, but the most recognized are financial public relations, product public relations, and crisis public relations.
• Financial public relations – providing information mainly to business reporters.
• Consumer/Lifestyle public relations – gaining publicity for a particular product or service (rather than using advertising).
• Crisis public relations – responding to negative accusations or information.

It is sometimes said that public relations is new, as if it had been invented during the last few years or since the second world war, or just this century. In countries, such as Botswana, which have gained their independence during the last thirty years, public relations may well seem new. Amongst those who associated public relations with the older industrialised world it is sometimes claimed that public relations is an American invention. The Americans may have invented Mickey Mouse, Coca Cola and Hollywood, but they did not invent public relations.

Perhaps the reason why there is a mistaken idea that public relations is something new, is because in recent years we have enjoyed so many new ways of communicating. Before the advent of newer techniques such as television, videos and satellite broadcasting, a vital part was played by press, radio and cinema. It has, as a result, become both easier and more necessary to explain and create understanding about so many more topics as the target audience becomes ever larger. Today more than ever, public relations has to deal with the facts as they are – good, bad or indifferent and in that sense public relations has to be as new as the world in which it operates.

Let us be clear about the meaning of public relations. Essentially, public relations is about creating understanding through knowledge, and this often involves effecting change. Public relations is therefore a form of communication. It applies to every sort of organisation, commercial or non commercial, in the public or private sector. Public relations consist of all communications with all the people with whom the organisation has contact.

How Does PR help in Crisis Management?

There have been countless public relations crises in the past and there are five steps that should be executed in order to properly manage a crisis. First, the corporation in crisis should be prompt, addressing the public immediately following the discovery of the crisis. Second, the corporation in question should maintain honesty because the public is more willing to forgive an honest mistake than a calculated lie. Third, it is important to be informative because the media as well as the public will create their own rumors if no information is given to them by the corporation in crisis. Rumors can cause significantly more damage to the corporation than the truth. Next, it is important to be concerned and show the public you care because people will be more forgiving if it is clear that the corporation cares about the victims of the crisis. Finally, maintain two-way relationships. This is important because the corporation can learn a lot about the status of public opinion by listening. These five steps are necessary in order to manage any crisis public relations situation.


With that having been said, each crisis situation is unique and, therefore, requires a tailored response. There are six types of responses and they range on a continuum from defensive to accommodative. First, corporations can attack the accuser attempting to eliminate the attacker’s credibility. Second, corporations can use denial claiming that no crisis exists. The third response is justification where the corporation claims no serious damage was done or that the victim was at fault. Fourth, the corporation can use ingratiation to appease the publics, such as giving away coupons. Next, corporations can use corrective action to right their wrongs. Finally, the corporation can give a full apology asking for forgiveness for their mistake. All six responses have been used in the past with varying results. If chosen properly, one of the six responses can help mitigate damage.

In March 2005, a woman bit into a finger while eating chili at Wendy’s. This crisis could have damaged Wendy’s image, but the corporation responded properly. They shut down the location, threw out the chili and had an investigation to discover the source of the finger. Wendy’s communicated with the public openly and honestly. As a result, very little damage was done to their image.

Other successful cases of crisis public relations include the well-known Diet Pepsi case and the Tylenol case. Diet Pepsi ran into trouble when consumers began “finding” foreign objects in cans of Diet Pepsi. A variety of different objects were found including a syringe, a bullet, and even a crack cocaine vial. The corporation knew that there was no possible way for these objects to be inserted during the bottling process. As a result, Diet Pepsi used a defensive strategy claiming its innocence. They communicated openly with the public, attacked the accusers, and allowed their bottling process to be shown on the news. Temporary damage had been done to Diet Pepsi, but they quickly rebounded from the situation. In a similar manner, Tylenol found itself in a crisis situation when people started dying from consuming cyanide laced Tylenol capsules. Tylenol acted quickly and pulled its product off the shelves without being forced to do so. They communicated openly and often with the public and had an investigation. Tylenol was found innocent at the conclusion of the investigation. Tylenol had a favorable brand image with the public because they pulled their product when they discovered the problem. Following the crisis, they even added safety seals to ensure the safety of its consumers.

While there are successful crisis public relations crises, there are a number of poor examples of crisis management. Ford and Firestone destroyed their images after mismanaging the crisis that occurred when many of their consumers died as a result of tire blowouts. Both companies claimed innocence and blamed the other. Ford and Firestone did not communicate openly or honestly with the public. Also, both corporations implied their lack of concern for their customers when they ignored the deaths and injuries of their customers to protect their bottom line. Ford’s and Firestone’s response to the crisis alienated their customers and caused significant damage to their image.

The Olympics always have their fair share of crises to handle. Athletes taking performance enhancing drugs has been an issue in recent times, not only in the Olympics, but major league baseball and other sports as well. During the Olympics in Torino, Austria’s ski team had their home raided by Italian police in an effort to discover drug use by the athletes. The police had probable cause to search because the team had been spending time with their ex-coach, Walter Mayer, who had been suspended for providing drugs to his athletes. Team Austria should have known that a visit from their ex-coach could have negative consequences such as this.

No matter how much planning goes into preventing crises, there are always crisis situations that can not be planned for.

Crisis public relations is changing. With new media, such as My Space and Facebook, crisis situations have occurred on the web. While products and services expand to new media, there are new ways for crises to emerge. At the same time, new media can be used to communicate with the public. Corporations no longer have to rely solely on tradition broadcast news or print advertising to properly manage a crisis. Corporations can now communicate with customers across the world using a number of different media such as e-mail, websites, podcasts, internet video, and more. With more ways to reach the public and the lower cost of reaching a higher number of people, crisis communications can communicate with the public in ways corporations never imagined during the 1980’s. While communication with the public is easier and cheaper than in the past, the original 5 steps to properly manage a crisis as well as the six types of responses continue to be at the foundation of any crisis public relations plan.

The Three C’s of Credibility

During a crisis, effective spokespersons must, primarily through their non-verbal cues, leave their audiences with the impression that they are:

Compassionate…Competent…and Confident

Think “Rudy Giuliani” on and after 9-11. It was his attitude, his non-verbal cues, which gave his audiences comfort. If he had delivered the same messages in a stereotypical governmental manner, the amount of fear and anxiety felt by listeners would have been dramatically higher. Instead, what they clearly felt, for the most part, was “However horrible this situation is, Mayor Giuliani is going to get us through it, he’s doing the right thing, in the right way.” He actually delivered little substance, initially, because so little was known. But he won over his audience (not to mention laying the groundwork for his future ventures).

If stakeholders perceive you as Compassionate, Competent and Confident, they are far more likely to believe your messages. In fact, if you’re really good at projecting the “Three C’s,” you can get away with some messaging errors and still win over your audience.

Examples of successful crisis management

Tylenol (Johnson and Johnson)


In the fall of 1982, a murderer added 65 milligrams of cyanide to some Tylenol capsules on store shelves, killing seven people, including three in one family. Johnson & Johnson recalled and destroyed 31 million capsules at a cost of $100 million. The affable CEO, James Burke, appeared in television ads and at news conferences informing consumers of the company’s actions. Tamper-resistant packaging was rapidly introduced, and Tylenol sales swiftly bounced back to near pre-crisis levels

Johnson & Johnson was again struck by a similar crisis in 1986 when a New York woman died on Feb. 8 after taking cyanide-laced Tylenol capsules. Johnson & Johnson was ready. Responding swiftly and smoothly to the new crisis, it immediately and indefinitely canceled all television commercials for Tylenol, established a toll-free telephone hot-line to answer consumer questions and offered refunds or exchanges to customers who had purchased Tylenol capsules. At week’s end, when another bottle of tainted Tylenol was discovered in a store, it took only a matter of minutes for the manufacturer to issue a nationwide warning that people should not use the medication in its capsule form


The Pepsi Corporation faced a crisis in 1993 which started with claims of syringes being found in cans of diet Pepsi. Pepsi urged stores not to remove the product from shelves while it had the cans and the situation investigated. This led to an arrest, which Pepsi made public and then followed with their first video news release, showing the production process to demonstrate that such tampering was impossible within their factories. A second video news release displayed the man arrested. A third video news release showed surveillance from a convenience store where a woman was caught replicating the tampering incident. The company simultaneously publicly worked with the FDA during the crisis. The corporation was completely open with the public throughout, and every employee of Pepsi was kept aware of the details. This made public communications effective throughout the crisis. After the crisis had been resolved, the corporation ran a series of special campaigns designed to thank the public for standing by the corporation, along with coupons for further compensation. This case served as a design for how to handle other crisis situations.

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