PRSSA National Conference: Lessons in Crisis

By: Leah Comins

In a world where a company crisis seems like it could happen at any time, understanding how to communicate during a crisis is a valuable skill for any young professional. PRSSA’s 2018 National Conference hosted a variety of sessions regarding crisis communications. Crisis sessions focused on managing the issue, determining a message and handling the aftermath of a crisis. Many lessons were taught through lenses of recent tragedies such as the Florida International University bridge collapse and the Austin Bombings, as well as preventable business crises such as harassment and discrimination claims.


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The first lesson is that communicators should be proactive. Many crises are man-made and “smoldering,” meaning they are predictable. A smoldering crisis may include situations such as The Weinstein Company or Papa John’s. In these cases, the incidents had already occurred and were likely to be made public sooner or later. Squashing smoldering crises before they happen is especially important when considering the costs of modern crises. In a study presented by Deborah Hileman of the Institute for Crisis Management, the average number of news headlines signaling corporate reputation risk is going up and major penalties paid by corporations for U.S. regulatory infractions are going up. Hileman also noted that one of the foremost obstacles to corporations handling a smoldering crisis is denial within upper management. Upper management is often reluctant to acknowledge “man-made” crises or questions the likelihood that the crisis will be made public. Dr. Raquel Perez of Florida International University adds that another major mistake is organizations don’t realize they are in a crisis. Not recognizing a crisis when it happens makes it much more likely the crisis will get out of hand and the organization’s reputation will be increasingly difficult to recover.

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Being proactive as often as possible may allow organizations to catch crises before they happen and will greatly minimize damage. Dr. Perez said “monitoring is as important as planning.” Organizations should always be considering possible conflicts by scanning their environment, tracking issues, managing issues and planning for a crisis. Once an issue is identified to be an emerging conflict, communicators can take action to manage the conflict before it gets out of hand.

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Finally, relationships are crucial for the success of a crisis communicator. Know who in the organization will be helpful to you when an issue occurs (think company lawyers, human resources, etc.), and make yourself known to these people. During a conflict, having existing relationships with key people will establish trust and give you an ear-to-the-ground. Also, know your team. Who can field media calls? Who can run social media? Knowing your team’s strengths will allow you to efficiently delegate tasks. External relationships are also important. In situations such as the Austin Bombings, the city’s communicators worked with local law enforcement, the FBI, the ATF and the media. Knowing which organization would handle certain aspects of the case was important when releasing information and to the overall management of the situation.


However, some crises are not smoldering. These true tragedies you never see coming. When being proactive isn’t an option, your goal becomes “putting out the fire” and repairing your reputation. In these cases, David Green of the City of Austin stresses processes and procedures rather than plans. In Green’s words about the Austin Bombings, “Bombings are rare. We don’t have a plan that says ‘break glass for serial bomber.” An organization likely does not have specific plans for every possible situation, but rather has processes and procedures that can be applied to many active situations.

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In the reaction stage of a crisis, organizations must quickly develop a message. A good message should be clear, informational and reassuring, yet can’t compromise confidential information or details of an active investigation. You should be cautious of placing blame and careful not to overpromise. Anything you say you can or will do, you must be able to actually execute. Overall, the message should be honest and authentic.

Most importantly, a message must be consistent. Because of the fast-moving and constantly changing nature of a crisis, misinformation is likely. In the case of the Austin Bombings, national news outlets had reported that a bomb was found at South by Southwest (SXSW), an international arts festival happening in Austin during the time of the bombings. These reports were untrue but still created a public frenzy. Anna Sabana of the Austin Police Department said, “In any critical situation, there’s going to be misinformation. You just have to own it, accept it and move on.” You can’t refute all misinformation, but having a clear, consistent and often-repeated message will help combat misinformation. Communicators should also consider how to get their message out. They may use websites, social media, press conferences or a combination of methods. Having an official source for information will help direct the media and public to accurate information.


During a crisis, communicators often work round-the-clock to release messages to the public and work with the media. However, communicators shouldn’t forget those inside the organization. Internal communications is often overlooked during a crisis, yet crises impact everyone. In Austin, the city had employees such as garbagemen or park employees who faced fear every day they went to work. City employees also had friends and family who lived or worked in the city whose everyday lives were unsettled because of the bombings. Dr. Perez said, “When a crisis impacts an organization, it impacts its people, no matter their relationship to the organization.”

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All of these lessons are valuable, but most importantly, communicators must stay human. In the Austin Bombings session David Green commented, “In a crisis, sometimes the easiest way to decide your key message is what you would tell your family.” This is my ultimate takeaway from the crisis sessions. Whether they’re crafting messaging or speaking to the media, a communicator’s goal is to protect their organization. But, communicators are human and their messages need to reflect that. Understanding that they are still human is a fundamental part of a communicator’s job.