Tip Sheet: What Research Can Teach Us About Crisis Communications

"Most major crises start with a bad idea." That from a slide used by Gary Sheffer, executive director of Communications & Public Affairs at General Electric. But how much of what we think we know about crisis communications is borne out by high quality research?

Dr. Tim Coombs of Eastern Illinois University has authored a new paper for the Institute for Public Relations Web site that synthesizes research-based knowledge in this area. The paper, "Crisis Management and Communications," reviews best practices from pre-crisis to post-crisis with links to the original sources. Here's a sampling of major findings:

1. The accepted common wisdom in crisis communication is often right. Especially when it comes to the basics, organizations do better when they have a crisis management plan and update it annually. They also need to appoint a crisis management team, run exercises to keep the team in shape and prepare generic crisis statements in advance.

2. A quick response shows that an organization is in control and builds credibility. This is clear in research going back to the early 1990s and continuing into this decade. But don't believe it if you've heard that one person must speak for the organization to maintain control. That's simply impossible when a major crisis lasts for days or weeks or more. More important is to have relevant experts speak for the organization while the public relations department takes responsibility for preparing spokespersons, making sure the story is consistent, and doing the followup.


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