Crisis Communication

When handling a crisis, it is important to classify what kind of crisis it is. This can help you determine your course of action and manage the crisis.

Here are several different systems of classification from p. 47 of Communication and Organizational Crisis by Seeger, Sellnow, & Ulmer :

Meyers & Holusha, 1986

  • Public perception
  • Sudden market shift
  • Product failure
  • Top management succession
  • Cash crises
  • Industrial relations
  • Hostile takeover
  • Adverse international events
  • Regulation/deregulation

Coombs, 1999

  • Natural disasters
  • Malevolence
  • Technical breakdowns
  • Human breakdowns
  • Challenges
  • Megadamage
  • Organizational misdeeds
  • Workplace violence
  • Rumors

Miroff & Anagnos, 2001

  • Economic
  • Informational
  • Physical – Loss of key plants and facilities
  • Human resource
  • Reputation
  • Psychopathic acts
  • Natural disasters


Seeger, M. W. , Sellnow, T.L., & Ulmer, R. R. (2003). Communication and Organizational Crisis.


The first theory I read about in Communication and Organizational Crisis by Seeger, Sellnow, & Ulmer was about sensemaking. According to the book, “This process is inherently retrospective as members look back on events and construct their meanings,” (p. 22). Essentially, people involved in organizations will try to reduce uncertainty through sharing their interpretations and ideas of what happened, why it happened and what they can do to solve the problem.

The book says, “Weick (1979) identified specific phases or stages to organizing, including enactment, selection, and retention.”

This is the first action taken. For example, Facebook listened to the complaints of the users. The company had to at least recognize and respond to the complaints.

An organization goes to the next step, selection, in an effort to solve the problem. In crisis situations, “organizations are usually forced to offer explanations of cause, blame, and responsibility…that will cause the least legal and economical liability,” (p. 23).


Previously used methods that prove successful become part of the organization and are reused when another incident occurs.

Sensemaking can help organizations “see the cause of crisis, to avoid them, and to reduce their intensity,” (p. 28).


Seeger, M. W. , Sellnow, T.L., & Ulmer, R. R. (2003). Communication and Organizational Crisis.

Looking at the news today, one crisis situation sticks out the most to me: Murder-suicide at college.

My first thought is that all colleges are affected by situations like this one. As a college student, my immediate thought is “this could happen here too.” I can’t imagine how a parent might feel.

A student was shot at Henry Ford Community College last Friday. The shooter then shot himself.

The school quickly used its emergency cell phone and e-mail system to alert students. Classes later in the day were cancelled.

Having worked for a university’s public relations department, I know how important student safety is. Central Michigan University has an emergency alert system that students can sign up for to receive e-mail, text or a phone call in the case of an emergency. At the beginning of the fall semester, we had computers in the university center and encouraged students and their parents to sign up.

The front page of the HFCC Web site. The first two paragraphs conscisely explain what happened. Below it is the “important information” section about classes resuming, grief counseling, the closing of the building that the shooting took place in, and information about contributions to the funeral. This is followed by a two-paragraph message from the president.

At the 2008 PRSSA National Conference, I sat through a session with Jeffrey Douglas, who handled the Virginia Tech shootings and have written a blog post about it.

Although this is a much smaller event, I recall Douglas’ discussion about the school’s Web site. It was one of the most important places to have information available for the students. I think this school has done a great job with it.

I haven’t been able to find much additional information about the crisis yet. It seemed to have been handled efficiently at HFCC. But, I think other schools are going to be doing their own crisis communication to reassure students and parents that their campuses are safe and that there are systems in place in case of emergency.

The chairman and CEO of Mattel, Inc., Robert A. Eckert, speaks at the University of Arizona about his crisis communication with toy recalls in this recorded lecture. I think it gives an interesting view on how companies handle crises.

First of all, skip to 5:12 (unless you want to hear the dean speak and then hear about the speaker’s summer vacation).

Lead paint and powerful magnets are two things that have caused dangerous problems to children in the toy industry.

If you don’t want to watch the entire lecture, below are the subjects and times. If anything, at least watch 29:00 to 33:25 about the lessons Mattel learned about the recall crisis.

  • About the failure of a routine lead paint test and what they did (12:50)
    – Recalled 83 toys
    – Followed by another recall two weeks later
  • Recalled magnet toys that did not meet standards (15:20)
    – Newspaper ads, letter from Eckert to reach publics and video from Eckert
    -The media coverage about the 9 million toy recall (18:40-25:15)
  • Regulators and Legislators (25:16)
    – Public hearing conclusion by Senator Durbin (27:05)
  • Scope of the situation (28:25)
  • Lessons learned (29:00-33:25)
  • Results  (33:26)
  • Q&A (35:10)

Seven people died in 1982 after taking Tylenol capsules, which had been tampered with and contaminated with cyanide. According to Effective Crisis Management, Tylenol’s market share quickly went from 37 percent to only seven percent.

Johnson & Johnson faced a huge challenge. Not only did the company have to manage the crisis communication of just Tylenol, but also of the entire company’s reputation.

J&J recalled approximately 31 million bottles of Tylenol from across the country and stopped all advertising.

On the first day of the crisis, the Tylenol poisonings were the top story for all three broadcast outlets. By the end of the crisis, there had been more than 100,000 news stories run in newspapers.

According to an analysis on the University of Oklahoma’s Department of Communication Web site, a seven-member team was put together by James Burke, J&J’s chairman. His first focus was to protect the people and his second focus was saving the product. The company also used the media to issue alerts and held several press conferences at the corporate headquarters with a live satellite feed. There also was an 800-number available for consumers.

Some say J&J set a standard for crisis communication when they “assumed responsibility by ensuring public safety first and recalled all of their capsules from the market,” despite the fact that the bottles were tampered with after reaching the shelves.

Tylenol was reintroduced into the market with triple-seal tamper-resistant packaging, offered coupons for the products, created a new discounted pricing program, new advertising campaign and gave more than 2,250 presentations to the medical community.

According to Managing Crises Before They Happen (Mitroff, 2001), J&J actually increased their credibility during the crisis because of the candidness of the executives.

Notre Dame expert Professor Patrick Murphy said J&J set a “gold standard” in regards to business ethics as well because J&J was proactive and transparent.

What I think

Although J&J handled this crisis well, I think it would be a totally different situation if it happened today due to social media and the immediacy of communication.

What I believe was most effective how J&J kept the media informed and was transparent.  It also was good to have the strategy team set up, although it would have been better if a team was already planned in case of situations like this.


Check out this short video, Corporate Advisory Insight: Crisis Communications, by Thomson Reuters for tips and pointers on handling a crisis.

Here are a few points I learned from Arzu Cevik :

  • Be proactive
    Know how things work within your organization and start building relationships with the media before a crisis hits. Also, have a team of people ready to delegate important tasks to.
  • Know what is going on
    What is actually happening? What can we tell people? How does this affect the public and other stakeholders?
  • Be consistent
    Convey one simple, consistent message and be prepared to answer the tough questions.

Dell Inc. Battery Recall Case Study
Silver-Anvil Award Winner

From tgdaily.comIn 2006, Dell voluntarily recalled 4.2 million lithium-ion batteries. The batteries, under certain conditions, could overheat and cause fire. The media had previously noted a Dell laptop going up in smoke and another that had melted.

It was the “largest recall in the history of consumer electronics,” (Case Study, PRSA Silver-Anvil Award Winner). According to Time Magazine, the recall affected 15% of laptops sold from 2004 to 2006.

Following a leak to the press, Dell launched its communication plans about 12 hours early. According to the case study, “Dell became a model for how a company could rapidly and accurately respond to its customers.”

Dell provided a Web site – – with details and instructions for customer. There also was a customer service line available.

Although Dell handled the crisis, the batteries were actually manufactured by Sony.

Time Magazine quoted Richard Shim, a PC industry analyst:

“Shim says that Dell, hit by bad publicity that could harm consumer sales, took this opportunity to reach out to its customers. ‘It’s part of a long-term strategy to build back the trust of consumers,’ he says.”

Dell’s credibility was negativly affected with headlines such as “Dell laptop become a flamethrower.”

But, the open dialogue and effectiveness of the recall probably helped Dell’s image. Dell was the first company to address the issue of the Sony batteries. According to the case study, “Dell initiated the recall on the basis of six incidents among almost 20 million batteries in the marketplace.”

Picture from