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A crisis by any other name . . .

By Ed Shiller

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 organization’s well being.

It’s 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 don’t 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. There’s no panic. Hence, there’s no crisis. I’ll just keep my mouth shut, nobody will be the wiser, and I won’t get into trouble."

So you, the Director of Public Relations, the Media Relations Manager or the Communications Coordinator don’t 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). You’re 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 communications.

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

See also:

Crisis Communications
Crisis Communications Checklist
Surviving and Thriving in a Crisis
In Times of Crisis