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Communicating effectively through a crisis

Many professional communicators take a crisis communications course during their studies. These almost always reference the Tylenol crisis of 1982, when seven people died after taking Tylenol capsules that had been tampered with. The manufacturers of Tylenol—Johnson & Johnson—and its executives took quick and definitive action, and went to great lengths to tell the media what it knew and when. As a result, the company and brand recovered from the crisis and is generally acknowledged to be one of the most successful cases of crisis management.

Sadly, since then many other companies and organizations have had to respond to crises. Perhaps the most recent example was from last year’s bombing of the Boston Marathon. Recently, the Boston-based Publicity Club of New England and the Public Relations Society of Boston hosted a panel discussion, “Code Red: Crisis Communications and The Boston Marathon.” This event featured communications practitioners from Mass General Hospital (MGH), Spaulding Rehabilitation Network, the City of Boston, the Red Cross, and 451 Marketing (representing Forum restaurant.)

Two divergent themes came out that evening. First, organizations such as MGH, Spaulding, the Red Cross, and the City of Boston relied on agreed-upon and practiced crisis communications plans. Second, in the case of Forum restaurant, the communications firm needed to quickly change gears from “announcing a new spring menu” to handling a complex and evolving crisis. 451 Marketing quickly identified which managers and staffers of Forum were best equipped to provide information to and interviews with the media. All of the organizations needed to persuade the media and public that the situation was under control as best as possible, and that everyone was working to communicate clearly what was going on.

These professionals had to assess what their communications priorities were, what needed to be responded to immediately, and what could wait. They also had to determine the priority of media by type—broadcast, print, and digital.

Traditionally, certain types of organizations have established crisis communications plans—government and municipal organizations, non-profits ranging from hospitals to services such as the Red Cross. But many public and private companies give little thought to having a crisis communications plan. Quite frankly, it’s hard to convince the average high-tech firm that they might have a need for—and therefore invest in—a crisis communications plan.

Regardless, nearly every organization should have a leader who is proficient in communicating effectively. And the closer they are to the situation, the more authentic they are perceived to be. For example, 451 Marketing could have easily had one of their team members speak with the press, but “spokespeople” carry much less authority than someone who works for the organization. So, they smartly turned to a handful of employees of the restaurant.

Executives should ask themselves: do I have the skills needed to communicate effectively for both routine business and a crisis? If not, they need to determine if they should invest in honing their communications skills, or they need to identify someone within their company that does have that skill set.


MIT Sloan Executive Education recently launched a new program for 2014, Communication and Persuasion in the Digital Age.” This program is taught by Edward Schiappa, Professor of Comparative Media Studies and JoAnne Yates, a Sloan Distinguished Professor of Management.


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