Module 8 – The Crisis Response Mechanism
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On completing this module you should be able to:
• explain the process involved in crisis communication response;
• explain the concept and importance of key messages in crisis communication; and
• be able to list some of the basic principles of effective crisis communication response.
Heath, Chapters 9 and 10.
8.1: Newsom, D., VanSlyke Turk, J. & Kruckenberg, D. 2000, ‘Crisis’, chapter 15 in This
is PR: The Realities of Public Relations, 7th edn, Wadsworth, Belmont, pp. 479–516.
8.1 Crisis Communication Response – the
In the previous module we saw that crisis communication is about:
• anticipating risk and planning for it; and
• communicating quickly and honestly with stakeholders in the event of a crisis, so as to a
safeguard an organisation’s reputation and its relationships with those stakeholders.
In this module we will discuss crisis response and in the next, we will discuss crisis planning.
Some of the basic principles that make for effective crisis communication response are as
• communicating quickly and honestly with the right people (i.e. the organisation’s
• containing the situation immediately and being seen to do so;
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• implementing an organisation-wide strategic response to the crisis which is ethical,
responsible and appropriate in the minds of stakeholders;
• planning and managing the messages around which all communication with stakeholders
• getting relevant opinion leaders ‘on board’;
• anticipating and negating negative public comment;
• being seen to place a high priority on the containment and management of the situation;
• ensuring the organisation is seen to be open about the situation.
8.2 Communicating with Internal and
We have discussed the importance of initiating and maintaining ongoing timely
communication with stakeholder groups throughout a crisis situation.
One of the most important stakeholders with whom an organisation must communicate
effectively in a reputation-threatening incident is its own staff.
Particularly in situations involving accidents, injury or fatalities, staff must be kept fully
informed of such things as the situation itself, plans for, and results of, investigations, the
organisation’s stance on the situation and the care being received by those involved and their
That said, even in crisis situations where no staff member has been injured, staff remain an
essential stakeholder, not least because word of mouth is still one of the most powerful means
When family members, friends, neighbours and acquaintances ask an organisation’s staff
members about the current situation and the organisation’s response to the crisis, as they
inevitably will, staff must be in a situation to dispel rumour, outline – and feel comfortable
with – the organisation’s actions.
That is not to say that members of staff, beside the appointed spokesperson, should ever
speak to the media. However, it is essential that, in a crisis situation, every representative of
an organisation is conveying the same messages, whether formally or informally, knowingly
Regular information updates, to keep members of staff informed and in a position to feel
comfortable with the organisation’s actions, are therefore critical.
Another important internal stakeholder for many organisations, particularly those that are
publicly listed, is board members. It is essential that members of the Board are aware from
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the earliest possible time of the organisation’s strategic response to the crisis (i.e. whether it
is publicly taking responsibility for the organisation, the extent and expense to which its
logistical response extends etc).
If this does not occur, dissent can quickly impede the actions the organisation is free to take
and the messages it can communicate as part of its response to the crisis.
8.3 Managing the Messages
Literature on crisis management regularly emphasises the importance of communicating
quickly and honestly with stakeholders in a crisis situation.
This assertion is absolutely correct. However, it cannot be taken at face value. In a crisis
situation, one of the most important challenges which faces an organisation is the challenge
of managing the messages which stakeholders receive.
A crisis response which simply informs stakeholders of every detail of the situation which
has occurred, every concern and suspicion held by the organisation involved and every
drawback encountered as part of that organisation’s response to the crisis situation is destined
to end in damage to that organisation’s reputation.
An effective crisis management response involves the careful planning of those messages the
organisation involved most needs its stakeholders to receive.
In the mid 90s, for instance, a Queensland nursing home found itself face-to-face with a crisis
situations of seemingly enormous proportions. A staff member at the nursing home was
accused of murdering patients. The accusations became the subject of a police inquiry and the
story leaked to national media. Within hours, sensational, high profile media coverage was
In preparation for communication with the media and other stakeholders, the nursing home
formulated three key messages around which it based all communication throughout the first
stages of the crisis situation:
The wellbeing of our residents, their families and our staff is our first priority
These accusations are a terrible shock to us and we are doing everything we can to help the
police with their inquiries
As we have more information we will share it with you.
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In media interviews the spokesperson for the nursing home used a variety of facts and
comments to illustrate each of these key messages in answering every question he was asked.
All written material issued to the media was based exclusively around the same messages.
In contact with industry associations, residents’ families, staff and other stakeholders, all the
nursing home’s communication was based around the three key messages.
The use of key messages like those used by the nursing home, is a critical tool in all crisis
communication planning and response. It allows organisations to manage perceptions and to
ensure that stakeholders’ awareness of the situation is based around the themes that are most
important to the organisation.
8.4 Illustrating the Importance of the
We mentioned earlier in the module how important it is that an organisation responding to a
crisis is seen by stakeholders as placing a high priority on resolving the situation.
One of the most effective ways to achieve this goal is for the organisation’s most senior
executive (e.g. the Managing Director, Minister, Director General, Chief Executive Officer or
Chairman) to act as media spokesperson on the issue.
Another of the most important ways an organisation can illustrate that containing and dealing
with a crisis situation is its highest priority is to be seen to react immediately.
In all the case studies you read as part of this unit management teams are notified quickly.
Organisation’s relevant response teams are in place and implementing the organisation’s
response in very short time periods.
8.5 Working with the Media
Following are some important principles for working with the media in a crisis situation:
• Be aware that media scan emergency services two-way radio frequencies. If emergency
services are contacted to respond to a major incident or accident, it is highly likely that
the media will immediately become aware of the situation.
• Journalists work to tight deadlines. If they cannot source the story through the
organisation concerned, they will use other sources. In order to manage the messages
surrounding a crisis situation, it is therefore essential to meet media deadlines, and then to
provide regular updates on the situation and the actions of the organisation concerned.
• These tight deadlines make it essential for the organisation’s spokesperson to be
constantly available for media comment.
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• Written statements and fact sheets provide important information to journalists and help
to ensure that the facts of the situation do not become confused.
• Television journalists require footage – face to face interviews, footage of the situation.
Radio journalists require sound – again, face to face interviews. If the organisation
concerned cannot provide this, journalists will need to source these elements elsewhere
and the opportunity to manage the messages will again be lost. It is however, important to
manage the messages that footage and sound convey. Where possible, manage the content
of footage by carefully considering all elements before granting media access. Ensure
your spokesperson is confident, practised, and has received media training.
• Any perceived attempt to hide the facts will guarantee loss of support and an escalation of
the ‘news-worthiness’ of the story. It is essential to ensure your spokesperson knows all
the facts throughout the crisis situation.
• One of the basic principles of successful crisis response is ensuring the consistency of
messages. This is best achieved by ensuring that, if possible, only one spokesperson
makes comment to the media.
• Spokespeople need to be mindful of the types of media outlets with whom they are
conducting interviews. This has an important impact on the language used (e.g. industry
jargon may be appropriate for a trade publication but not for a daily newspaper) and the
length of their responses (i.e. responses need to be short and precise for radio and
• Issuing media statements too broadly, too early in a crisis situation can sometimes make
the crisis bigger than it otherwise would have been. By the same token, not distributing
media statements to all media outlets which are aware of the situation can mean the
opportunity to manage the messages is lost. Careful judgement needs to be used when
deciding how broadly initial media statements should be distributed.
8.6 Legal Adviser and Communication
Adviser – Adversaries or Two Sides of
the Same Coin?
Kiely (1992) outlines the careful balance that must be reached in incorporating legal and
communication perspectives in crisis management.
It is important to note, however, that in any crisis situation where an organisation might
conceivably be exposed to legal action, a legal adviser must form part of the team of advisers
responsible for that organisation’s crisis response. The need to safeguard the organisation’s
legal position and the need to safeguard its reputation must then be balanced.
Remember, a legal adviser’s first priority is to limit the organisation’s exposure to legal
action. The crisis communication adviser’s first priority is to implement communication
which will ensure stakeholders understand its position and response.
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The two priorities need not be diametrically opposed. Both can be achieved as long as legal
and communication advisers are brought on board from the outset and both realise the
importance of the other’s priorities and perspectives.
8.7 The Crisis Management Team
The central management team charged with masterminding and carrying out an
organisation’s crisis management strategy in the event of a crisis is known as the crisis
management team (CMT).
This team should:
• consist of no more than five or six members for any particular category of crisis;
• include all major areas of expertise within the organisation (e.g. operations, human
resources, finance, environment, communication etc);
• be headed by the organisation’s most senior executive who should also, ideally, act as
• be authorised to issue statements to stakeholders without having to gain approval from
any outside party; and
• include a senior, trusted administration person who can carry out the many administration
duties the team will require in responding to a crisis situation.
Business, mobile and home contact details for every member of the team should be readily
available to every other member of the team, as should the contact details for a nominated
alternate for every member.
8.8 Third Party Endorsements and
Scan any newspaper’s coverage of a crisis situation and you will see that one of the first
things any journalist does is to approach ‘expert’ third parties for comment.
One of the most powerful tools available to the crisis communication adviser is the creation
of ‘third party networks’.
This simply involves having an awareness of those people and organisations who are likely to
be called on for public comment or looked to as opinion leaders in the specific categories of
crisis to which an organisation is most exposed.
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The planning process should involve establishing relationships with those people so that they
can be called on to convey the organisation’s key messages to the media and other
stakeholders in a crisis situation.
Similarly, the organisation should give careful consideration to those groups and individuals
who are likely to make negative public comment in a crisis situation. As part of the crisis
communication response process, these people should be contacted early and given
information about the organisation’s response to the situation. If at all possible, they should
be consulted and encouraged to take ‘ownership’ of the solutions being put in place by the
This helps to achieve two important things:
• opponents are less likely to spread unfounded, and potentially damaging, rumour; and
• the ‘venom’ of their comments may be lessened or even negated.
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Case Study: Sanitarium Recall
(Case study provided by The Rowland Company; reproduced with permission)
On Monday 29 June 1998, the Sanitarium Health Food Company in Australia received a
letter alleging contamination of its ‘liquid products’. The company’s emergency response
team was convened within an hour of the threat being received and Sanitarium’s
communication consultancy, The Rowland Company, was called in immediately.
Assessing the threat was the first priority. This procedure took place over a 24 hour period.
The threat was apparently a grievance against the Seventh-day Adventist Church, owners of
Sanitarium, however, the company had no way of knowing whether the threat was real. There
was no supporting evidence to demonstrate that the threat had been carried out and there was
no demand for money.
The Police and the Department of Health were consulted for their expert opinion. Their initial
assessment was that the risks of the threat being carried out and the consequent danger to
public health were remote. Nevertheless, there was a risk and in light of the company’s policy
of putting consumer safety first, it was not a risk the management were prepared to take.
Moreover the risk to reputation, had Sanitarium been seen to be covering it up, would have
The company identified various possible scenarios, weighed up all the various factors taking
into account the perceptions of its key stakeholders, and concluded that in the interest of
consumer safety to institute an immediate national recall of all its beverage products.
The immediate objectives of the recall were to minimise the threat to consumer safety by
ensuring that product was removed as swiftly as possible and that consumers were notified of
the recall and any action they needed to take. Longer term goals included resolving the crisis,
rebuilding sales to pre-crisis levels, and maintaining consumer confidence.
Instituting the recall
The next challenge was to mobilise retailers into removing product from supermarket
shelves. A fax was sent to the Australian Supermarket Institute shortly before midnight on
Day One. The ASI acted immediately to communicate the information provided by
Sanitarium to its members. Follow-up calls were made to the major chains who completed
the recall. This entire process was completed within 24 hours of the threat being received.
In the interests of speed, a media release was issued to the wire services rather than hold a
media conference. Sanitarium CEO Robert Smith then conducted interviews with individual
Managing consumer enquiries
An ‘overflow’ facility had to be established to cope with the huge influx of telephone calls,
5,000 in the first two days.
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Controlling the flow of information
Rowland established a working relationship with the Police Media unit. The Police were
concerned that media reporting of certain aspects did not hinder the investigations or provoke
any “copycat” acts.
The key audiences identified and targeted were:
– The Seventh Day Adventist Church (owners of Sanitarium)
– The Health Department
– Industry bodies such as the Australian Supermarket Institute and ANZFA (Australia New
Zealand Food Authority)
The principle concern for Sanitarium was to stop the public from consuming potentially
contaminated products and to recall the products. Retailers and consumers were priorities.
Simultaneously, Sanitarium had to ensure that employees were informed of the situation and
reassured that their jobs would not be affected by the crisis. Experts, health and safety
officials and police had to be informed and updated. Finally, the company had to work
closely with the Church, which was implicated in the threat. Throughout, the company
maintained a policy of being as accessible as possible to the media within the constraints
advised by the police (who were concerned that too much information could hinder their
investigations and even provoke ‘copycat’ crimes).
The strategy needed to cater for different stakeholders with different expectations and
concerns. It involved two-way communication – listening (through research) as well as
communicating a limited number of key messages consistently. The overall theme was
constant – ‘consumer safety is our number one priority’.
Communications were divided into three main phases – the announcement of the recall,
managing stakeholder interest while investigations were continuing, and planning for ‘back to
Staff were kept informed of developments by the issue of internal memos. Radio and
television news bulletins were relied on heavily to deliver updates to consumers, and print
media to provide follow-up information. Video news releases were used to demonstrate
inspection, testing and disposal of recalled product.
Advertising played an important role during the ‘back to market’ stage, with CEO Robert
Smith demonstrating his confidence in the product by drinking it during media interviews.
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As outlined earlier, due to police concerns, the flow of written information had to be limited.
In total, only three media releases were issued: one to recall the product on 30 June 1998, one
to update the public on the situation 9 July 1998, and one to announce that Sanitarium
products were back on supermarket shelves on 17 July 1998. A video news release was also
made to demonstrate that Sanitarium products were being tested and were now safe to drink.
In between these media releases there was a great deal of media contact on specific questions
To ensure a consistent and credible message was delivered, the CEO, Robert Smith, assumed
the mantle of spokesperson and was the public face of the company throughout the crisis.
Although Smith was not a naturally slick media performer, he came across as a very sincere
and credible person who epitomised Sanitarium’s values.
To maintain contact with consumers, Sanitarium’s Consumer Services team was briefed on
how to handle all public inquiries. The 1800 toll free number was promoted extensively
through the media. Consumers waiting on the line heard a message explaining the issue,
reassuring them, apologising for the inconvenience and thanking them for their support.
Some 12,000 calls were received over the first four days, many of which were encouraging,
asking when the product would re-appear on supermarket shelves. A dedicated resource was
established to liaise with the trade.
Sanitarium used formal product recall notices in the major metropolitan and national
newspapers to back up the editorial that had already appeared. Controlled media became
more important in communicating with consumers leading up to the Back to Market
campaign. Advertising was developed by Sanitarium’s incumbent agency Saatchi & Saatchi.
To integrate with other communication activities, the ads featured CEO Robert Smith in print
and on TV.
To move towards resolution, Sanitarium had to demonstrate that it was taking appropriate
action. It therefore instigated media coverage of the process of inspecting and testing and
disposing of the 300,000 items of recalled product.
Back to Market
A team was established to focus on the marketing and logistical requirements for ensuring a
successful return to market. This had a separate focus but reported into the Emergency
Extensive market research, qualitative and quantitative, was conducted to ensure the
messages were reaching the public, and were being understood and acted upon. The use of
weekly tracking research (via Newspoll) provided one avenue to obtain this information:
– 85% of the general population were aware of the product recall.
– 85% correctly identified Sanitarium as the company that recalled its products.
– 96% agreed that consumer safety was the main reason Sanitarium recalled their products
– 92% trusted Sanitarium
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– 95% thought Sanitarium handled the product recall well.
A qualitative study on trust in brands commissioned by Belgiovane Mackay and conducted
by Celia McAndrews in Research March 1999, nearly a year after the recall, showed that
Sanitarium was one of Australia’s most trusted brands.
List of References
Fearn-Banks, K. 1995, Crisis Communications: A Casebook Approach, Lawrence Erlbaum,
Haywood, R. 1994, Managing Your Reputation, McGraw-Hill Book Co, London, New York.