Crisis Management and Communicating Effectively

January 18, 2010

As public relation practitioners it is important that each person learns the necessary tools for communicating effectively and handling crisis situations. Crisis management is a critical component for organizations because failure to handle a crisis can result in serious harm to the organization and its stakeholders. According to W. Timothy Coombs, Ph.D, there are several components to crisis management and communications. The strategies provided by Coombs are effective tools for crisis management.

The first step to crisis management is to define the term “crisis.” There are several definitions based on the situation; however, Coombs defines a crisis as:

A significant threat to operations that can have negative consequences if not handled properly. In crisis management, the threat is the potential damage a crisis can inflict on an organization, its stakeholders and an industry.  A crisis can create three related threats:  (1) public safety, (2) financial loss and (3) reputation loss.

Effective crisis management can handle the situation making sure to address the three related threats. Public safety is the primary threat that must be addressed immediately. Failure to address the safety of the public can intensify the crisis. Once public safety is regulated, the next step is to approach financial loss and reputation.

Crisis management is designed to prevent or lessen the damage a crisis can cause on an organization and its stakeholders. According to Coombs, crisis management can be divided into three phases: pre-crisis, crisis response and post-crisis. The pre-crisis phase focuses on prevention and preparation. The crisis response phase is when the management responds to the crisis and the post-crisis phase addresses the strengths and weaknesses of how the crisis was handled. The post-crisis phase allows the organization to better prepare for the next crisis.

In the pre-crisis phase Coombs suggest that organizations have a crisis management plan that is updated annually and have a designated crisis management team. He suggests that organizations conduct exercises to test the plans and teams annually and pre-draft some crisis messages. The crisis messages should include statements by top management, news releases and dark Web sites, which are separate communication channels designed for crisis situations.

In the crisis response phase Coombs separates the response in two sections: the initial crisis response and reputation repair and behavioral intentions. In the initial response it is important to remember three points: be quick, be accurate and be consistent. In the reputation and behavioral intentions it is important that organizations accommodate and focus its response towards the needs of the victims instead of addressing organizational concerns.

In the post-crisis phase Coombs discusses the three best practices organizations should  follow once a crisis is no longer the focal point of management ‘s attention. First, Coombs suggest that all information promised to stakeholders be delivered as soon as the information is known. Second, it is important that an organization keeps stakeholders updated on the progress of recovery efforts. The third suggestion made by Coombs is to analyze the crisis management effort for lessons learned and to integrate those lessons into the organization’s crisis management plan.

A crisis can occur at any moment; therefore, it is important that organizations best prepare for one. The tools provided by W. Timothy Coombs, Ph.D, can help organizations minimize the damage from a crisis and in some cases help organizations emerge stronger than before the crisis. The next time you find yourself in a crisis, I suggest that you look back at the tools provided by Coombs to determine the best approach to the situation. Just remember that it is always better to be prepared than to not be prepared at all. A little work in the beginning for creating a crisis management plan can save your organization a lot of time and money when a crisis hits.


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