Crisis? What Crisis?

By Bergman, Eric | Communication World, April 1994 | Go to article overview

Crisis? What Crisis?


Bergman, Eric, Communication World


Is there overuse and abuse of the terms crisis communication and crisis management? If so, what are the implications for communicators?

Like many people in our profession, I hadn't really given much thought to the term crisis communication. About a year ago, however, I was asked by the managing partner of the company I work for to develop a media training program that would complement the company's existing communication training.

I hadn't spent more than two afternoons in the reference library, reviewing past and current information on the topic, when it struck me that, if you were an outsider looking in to our industry, you could easily obtain two impressions from the literature we generate on the twin topics of crisis communication and crisis management.

The first is that they are the greatest tools to hit our industry since the press release. And the second is that virtually everything today is a crisis.

But is that really the case?

'Excellence' study gives little mention of the subject

I was asking myself that question one afternoon last summer when I returned from the library and reached for two books from my office bookshelf. The first was a dictionary; I had been reading so many references to the word "crisis" that I was no longer sure of its meaning. The second book was "Excellence in Public Relations and Communication Management." If crisis communication and crisis management are such hot topics within our industry, I thought, it would be reasonable to assume that the excellence study would have something to say.

In the dictionary, I rediscovered that a crisis is a turning point for the better or the worse. And, when I consulted the Excellence study -- which is arguably the definitive source of intellectual information about our business -- I was surprised to discover that it devotes less than 30 words in nearly 700 pages to the term crisis communication. And it doesn't mention crisis management even once. On page 13 of the study's overview, Professor James Grunig writes: "Organizations that wait for issues to occur before managing their communication with strategic publics usually have crises on their hands and have to resort to short-term crisis communication."

What did this tell me? It started me thinking that, as an industry, we should perhaps focus a little less on the "crisis" and a little more on the "management" and "communication."

An opportunity to present the concept

This past November, I had the opportunity to speak at an IABC/Edmonton professional development luncheon. I felt the event would be a perfect forum in which to test my ideas toward crisis communication.

To explain my perspective, I developed a medical analogy to which I felt virtually everyone could relate. At the start of my speech, I referred to research that indicates the number one fear of most people is public speaking. Their number two fear is death. "Let's suppose for a moment that my worst fear -- standing here in front of you today -- causes me so much stress that I almost realize my second-worst fear, and I collapse from a heart attack," I said. "I don't know about you, but I'd be tempted to call that a crisis in my life."

But if we examine that crisis, I explained, we'd find it's made up of two components.

The first is an emergency. Upon my collapse, a few members of the audience would rush to the front to find out why. How did it happen? What are the consequences? Perhaps someone administers cardio-pulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and someone else calls for emergency assistance. With help, I make it to the hospital. And there, under the care of professionals, I become well enough to return to Toronto.

When the emergency is over, the issues begin to emerge. "When I get home," I explained to the audience, "my doctor and I will examine those issues with the goal of ensuring that a similar emergency never happens again."

I must apologize for using a slightly morbid example; my intent during the speech -- and here in this article -- is not to offend. …

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