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Overview of Crisis Communication

Communication during a crisis requires a rhetorical skill set focused on establishing communicator credibility to the affected public as well as understanding the audience. Crises are events that create large amounts of uncertainty and stress. These events are often unexpected, disrupting and confusing (Littlefield & Quenette, 2007, p. 29). From a public relations standpoint, risk communication is how an organization prepares for a potential crisis. Crisis communication occurs after the onset of an issue and has much to do with reputation management. While risk communication tries to anticipate crises and warn an audience of risks, crisis communication takes place during or after an event (Seeger, 2006, p. 234).

Crisis Communication Ethos: Defining Organizational Ethos in a Crisis

In the midst of crises, it is critical that organizations present themselves as credible and trustworthy sources of information to the public. Effective communication thus relies heavily on ethos, defined by Aristotle as a speaker’s “character” (Kennedy, 1992, p. 28). Ethos is how an audience regards a speaker—whether the speaker is believable or a valid source of knowledge; in a crisis situation, ethos refers to the communicator’s credibility in the eyes of the public. See also:

Organizational Reputation (Creating Trust)

An organization’s reputation is not created during the crisis situation itself, but emerges from a combination of existing reputation and current actions. Seeger (2006) writes that an audience’s established perception of an organization will be especially important during the crisis, because “Such credibility translates into believability and trust between the public and those seeking to manage the event” (pp. 8-9). Audiences dealing with disasters need to have confidence in communicators so they can make rational and educated decisions. Existing reputation, however, is only part of establishing a strong ethos in a crisis. As discussed in further sections, organizations also need:
  • Honest and frequent communication
  • Consistent and accurate messages
  • Delivery through credible media

Credibility and Pathos in Crisis Communication

When an emergency occurs, the need to communicate is immediate. If business operations are disrupted, customers will want to know how they will be impacted. Regulators may need to be notified and local government officials will want to know what is going on in their community. Employees and their families will be concerned and want information. Neighbors living near the facility may need information—especially if they are threatened by the incident. All of these “audiences” will want information before the business has a chance to begin communicating. FEMA. (2012).
To effectively communicate with stressed audiences, organizations must have an empathetic rhetorical strategy that also portrays a trustworthy spokesperson, such as a public relations professional. Several case studies highlight this type of communication. These case studies illustrate that for effective communication in a crisis situation, organizations must establish credibility. This is often accomplished through honesty, accuracy, and use of trustworthy media, all of which appeal to audiences through pathos.  To communicate effectively before, during, and after a crisis, public relations practitioners (or spokespeople elected by an organization) should always be transparent. Communicating honestly with the public through the media prevents any future confusion or mistrust. Establishing such pathos, or developing trust with an audience allows them to understand the problem and anticipate a solution. See also: Crisis Communication Pathos.

Effective Steps of Crisis Communication

Once a crisis situation occurs it is important to communicate with ones team. The team can then take the right course of action. In most cases there are more than one possible solution, but not every solution is a good solution without consequences. Being able to make the right decisions in crisis situations can be key in avoiding disasters, and any further damages. Every team should have its own individual game plan to use in case of a crisis. Having a game plan before a crisis can make communication easier, this way, there could be stronger collaboration within the team. -Bell, Leeanne M. (2011).Crisis Communication. Review of Communication. To communicate successfully, an organization's spokesperson or public relations department must initiate a dialogue with the public. To do so, a team will first be established. This team will handle all communication about the issue. Further, specific spokespeople should be elected to speak on behalf of the organization. This team of people should identify their key audience, meaning stakeholders and those who hold interest in the conflict. Teams will then assess the seriousness of the situation and identify goals publicly. After a crisis has been resolved, an organization may engage in reputation management to recover any lost clients and to restore their previous image. Suggestions provided by Hooshang Kuklan in Managing crises are as follows:
  1. Never deny the crisis.
  2. Avoid a defensive stance.
  3. Identify decision alternatives.
  4. Analyze factors underlying the crisis.
  5. React to crises quickly.
  6. Develop procedures to prevent the crisis from recurring.

Examples of Crisis in Health Situations

For a person struggling with an alcohol addiction, AA would be an appropriate form of risk communication to help resolve the issue. Food safety is a issue that's dealt with carefully by the FDA using Risk Communication strategies. With foods many health issues can surface such as Ebola, and salmonella. Successful risk communication is necessary to handle these outbreaks to the public. Health issues such as these can cause panic in the public, and must be handled carefully- FDA. (2012). Strategic plan for Risk Communication. Retrieved from See also: Crisis Communication Case Studies.