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Crisis Communication: What Is It?

The online Master of Business Administration program with an Emphasis in Strategic Communication at Southeastern Oklahoma State University includes a fascinating course on Crisis Communication. This PR discipline, according to Business Dictionary, is the “effort taken by a company to communicate with the public and stockholders when an unexpected event occurs that could have a negative impact on the company’s reputation.” It can also refer to the communications of governmental entities such as the FBI, police departments or the Centers for Disease Control to inform the public of a crisis.

The course explores the planning, creation, deployment and critique of risk communication. Competing theoretical perspectives and rhetorical strategies that convey crisis communication to the public are also addressed for a thorough understanding of this discipline. In an age of weekly major crises — executive scandals, cybersecurity breaches, political shockers, natural disasters, plane crashes, ill-advised public comments, and badly planned products — crisis communication is an area of immense career opportunity, making this one of the most compelling courses in the program.

Orders of Magnitude. Waves of Pressure. Phases of Planning.

A crisis happens fast and requires immediate action. It differs from an ordinary event in order of magnitude and in the pressure for leaders to act and implement solutions, and for communicators to address the public in smart ways that maximize the potential for positive outcomes. Without effective crisis communication management, panic can set in and snowball into disaster.

Consider any major recent troubling issue, from the Matt Lauer #MeToo workplace sexual harassment scandal and the Facebook Russian election meddling to the data breaches at Target and Experian. In each case, teams of internal and PR agency communicators immediately went to work and devised a plan to mitigate the damage. These plans included holding statements and crisis alerts.

Actually, crisis management planning begins with the anticipation of a problem. For example, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and its crisis management team have already considered hundreds of possible situations and crafted a response outline, leaving room for the specifics of a particular crisis to amend. The planning occurs in three phases:

  1. Before the crisis
  2. During the crisis
  3. After the crisis has passed

What Types of Professionals Need Crisis Communication Skills?

Leaders in business and government should be well-versed in crisis management and have quick access to internal and external teams of PR professionals trained to respond. Here are just a few of the typical positions involved:

Crisis management specialists develop and implement emergency plans for their organizations. Titles may include emergency manager or operations manager. These professionals may work for a business, a PR agency or a public organization.

Emergency management directors work with law enforcement and other public officials to coordinate emergency response programs and distribute information to media channels. These personnel may work for a business or public organization.

Public relations specialists assigned to crisis communications write press releases. Press secretaries perform this function for government entities. These professionals may work for a business, a PR agency or a public organization.

The larger the crisis, the more complex the team required to handle it. Predetermined levels of authority, advance training, a pre-established chain of command, and speakers designated for different roles hold the key to effective handling of crises by the team.

No one knows when the next crisis will strike, but every organization should prepare for worst case. Crisis communicators will always be needed when it matters most.

Learn more about Southeastern’s online MBA program with an Emphasis in Strategic Communication.


Talkwalker: 11 Steps for PR Crisis Management

Business Dictionary: Crisis Communication

O’Dwyer’s: The Importance of Communications in a Crisis Jobs in Crisis Management: Career Options and Requirements

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