Crisis communication is a sub-specialty of the public relations profession that is designed to protect and defend an individual, company, or organization facing a public challenge to its reputation. The communication scholar Timothy Coombs defines crisis communication as "the perception of an unpredictable event that threatens important expectancies of stakeholders and can seriously impact an organization's performance and generate negative outcomes."
Meaning can be socially constructed; because of this, the way that the stakeholders of an organization view an event (positively, neutrally, or negatively) is a major contributing factor to whether the event will become a crisis. Additionally, it is important to separate a true crisis situation from an incident. The term crisis “should be reserved for serious events that require careful attention from management.”
Crisis management has been defined as "a set of factors designed to combat crises and to lessen the actual damages inflicted." Crisis management should not merely be reactionary; it should also consist of preventative measures and preparation in anticipation of potential crises. Effective crisis management has the potential to greatly reduce the amount of damage the organization receives as a result of the crisis, and may even prevent an incident from ever developing into a crisis.
Categories of crisis management
- Pre-crisis: preparing ahead of time for crisis management in an effort to prevent a future crisis from occurring. This category is also sometimes called the prodromal crisis stage.
- Crisis: the response to an actual crisis event.
- Post-crisis: occurs after the crisis has been resolved; the efforts by the crisis management team to understand why the crisis occurred and to learn from the event.
Inside the management step, Bodeau-Ostermann identifies 6 successive phases: - reaction, where the group behaves on first sight, - extension, because the crisis dilutes itself and touches neighbours, - means (material and human), which constitutes an overview of success/failures of emergency reaction, - focus, stands as a concrete action or event on which the team leaders concentrate to fight crisis, - retraction, is the moment where the group diminishes means involved, in accordance with its aims, - rehabilitation, where, as a last step, result is, for the group, emergence of new values, stronger than the older. Article published on RIMS (Risk Management), New-York, May 2004.
Crisis communication tactics
Crisis communication tactics during the pre-crisis stage may include the following: researching and collecting information about crisis risks specific to the organization; creating a crisis management plan that includes making decisions ahead of time about who will handle specific aspects of a crisis if and when it occurs; preparing press release templates for the organization’s public relations team in the event of a crisis; and the chain of command that all employees will follow in the dissemination of information to all publics during a crisis situation. A rapid response crisis communications team should be organized during the pre-crisis stage  and all individuals who will help with the actual crisis communication response should be trained.
Crisis communication tactics during the crisis stage may include the following: the identification of the incident as a crisis by the organization’s crisis management team; the collection and processing of pertinent information to the crisis management team for decision making; and also the dissemination of crisis messages to both internal and external publics of the organization.
Crisis communication tactics during the post-crisis stage may include the following: reviewing and dissecting the successes and failures of the crisis management team in order to make any necessary changes to the organization, its employees, practices, or procedures; and providing follow-up crisis messages as necessary.
Landmark crisis communication case studies
- The Tylenol-Tampering Crisis – 1982 & 1986
- The Exxon-Valdez-Oil Spill Crisis — 1989
- The Bridgestone/Firestone & Ford-Tire Crisis – 1990s
- The McDonald’s-Hot Coffee Crisis – 1992
- The Pepsi-Syringe Crisis - 1993
- The Dominos-YouTube Crisis - 2009
- The BP-Gulf Oil Spill — 2010
- Barrera, Andria. "When Public Scrutiny Requires Crisis Communications". Gutenberg Communications. Retrieved 28 February 2014.
- Coombs 2007.
- Maines, David R. (2000). "The Social Construction of Meaning". Contemporary Sociology 29 (4): 577. doi:10.2307/2654557. Retrieved 28 February 2014.
- Coombs 2012, p. 19.
- Coombs, W. Timothy (2004). "Impact of past crises on current crisis communications: Insights from: Situational crisis communication theory". Journal of Business Communication 41: 265–289. doi:10.1177/0021943604265607.
- Coombs 2007, p. 5.
- Finks 1986, p. 21.
- Coombs 2012, p. 20.
- Alfonso, González-Herrero; Smith, Suzanne (2008). "Crisis Communications Management on the Web: How Internet-Based Technologies are Changing the Way Public Relations Professionals Handle Business Crises". Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management 16 (3): 143–153. doi:10.1111/j.1468-5973.2008.00543.x. Retrieved 28 February 2014.
- Coombs 2012, pp. 20-21.
- Benson, James A. (1988). "Crisis revisited: An analysis of strategies used by Tylenol in the second tampering episode". Central States Speech Journal 39 (1): 49–66. doi:10.1080/10510978809363234. Retrieved 28 February 2014.
- Stockmyer 1996.
- Benoit, William L. (1997). "Image repair discourse and crisis communication". Public Relations Review 23 (2): 177–186. doi:10.1016/s0363-8111(97)90023-0. Retrieved 28 February 2014.
- Williams, David E.; Treadaway, Glenda (1992). "Exxon and the Valdez accident: A failure in crisis communication". Communication Studies 43 (1): 56–64. doi:10.1080/10510979209368359. Retrieved 28 February 2014.
- Blaney, Joseph R.; Benoit, William L.; Brazeal, LeAnn M. (2002). "Blowout!: Firestone’s image restoration campaign". Public Relations Review 28 (4): 379–392. doi:10.1016/s0363-8111(02)00163-7. Retrieved 28 February 2014.
- Sherowski, Elizabeth (1996). "Hot Coffee, Cold Cash: Making the Most of Alternative Dispute Resolution in High-Stakes Personal Injury Lawsuits". J. on Disp. Resol 521. Retrieved 28 February 2014.
- Jacques, Amy. "Domino’s delivers during crisis: The company’s step-by-step response after a vulgar video goes viral". The Strategist. Retrieved 28 February 2014.
- Veil, Shari R.; Sellnow, Timothy L.; Petrun, Elizabeth L. (2012). "Hoaxes and the Paradoxical Challenges of Restoring Legitimacy: Dominos’ Response to Its YouTube Crisis". Management Communication Quarterly 26 (2): 322–345. doi:10.1177/0893318911426685.
- York, Emily Bryson. "What Domino's Did Right -- and Wrong -- in Squelching Hubbub over YouTube Video". AdAge. Retrieved 28 February 2014.
- De Wolf, Daniel; Mejri, Mohamed (2013). "Crisis communication failures: The BP Case Study". International Journal of Advances in Management and Economics 2 (2): 48–56. Retrieved 28 February 2014.
- Chen, Stephanie (2010). "Crisis management 101: What can BP CEO Hayward's mistakes teach us?". CNN. Retrieved 28 February 2014.
- McCarthy, Elizabeth. "Crisis Management Case Study: BP Oil Spill". The PR Code. Retrieved 28 February 2014.
- Coombs, W. Timothy (2007), Ongoing Crisis Communication: Planning, Managing, and Responding, Los Angeles: Sage
- Coombs, W. Timothy (2012), Parameters for Crisis Communication in "The Handbook of Crisis Communication" Eds. W. Timothy Coombs & Sherry J. Holladay, West Sussex, UK: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., ISBN 978-1-4051-9441-9
- Fink, Steven, "Chapter 3: Anatomy of a Crisis", Crisis management: planning for the inevitable (New York, NY: American Management Association), pp. 20–28
- Stockmyer, John (1996), "Brands in Crisis: Consumer Help For Deserving Victims", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, eds. Kim P. Corfman and John G. Lynch Jr., Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research, pp. 429–435
- Crisis Management and Communication Entry Essential Knowledge Project from the Institute for Public Relations
- International Research Group on Crisis Communication Publications and crisis institutions database at Ilmenau University of Technology (English pages available)