What is Crisis Communications?

Crisis Communications

Crisis communications in the public relations world can have many different interpretations depending on who you ask, but here’s the fundamental definition: you’re trying to mitigate damage to your company’s reputation by third party sources. It’s the reverse of traditional public relations, where you’re trying to acquire the attention and approval of third parties, earning media through your good works, your brand, your insights. Crisis communications turns that on its head by dealing with negative earned media.

In many ways, it’s analogous to putting out a fire (though nowhere near as dangerous as what actual firefighters do, and for that we salute them). A fire requires three things to burn – heat (energy), fuel, and oxygen or a catalyst like oxygen (speed). Take away any one of those elements and the fire goes out. Firefighters most often deny fire its heat through the use of water, taking away its energy. For smaller fires, we can choke its ability to burn quickly with carbon dioxide (in many fire extinguishers) or cut off fire’s access to fuel (dry powder fire extinguishers).

In a crisis communications situation, something has gone wrong and your brand is on fire. There’s the something you did or something you’re responsible for – the fuel. There’s the tide of public opinion – the heat, the energy. There’s your speed of reaction to it – the catalyst. As with real fires, if you deny the fire any one of these sources, you break the chain reaction that causes fire and it burns itself out.

SHIFT Crisis Communications Strategy
Click the image to download a printable PDF

The three ways to fight these brand fires are similar to the ways we put out their real world fire counterparts:


The crisis communications equivalent of denying fuel for the fire. By providing correct knowledge and information, you take away the rumor mill and word of mouth. Very often in a crisis, people fill in gaps of knowledge with their own suspicions. Take away that speculation with facts, and there’s less for their minds to imagine.


The crisis communications equivalent of denying oxygen for the fire. The faster you react and respond, the quicker you deny a crisis the chance to ramp up and get out of control. Speed is critical in most crises and what could be an explosive backdraft if allowed to build up can instead be controlled to a slow, manageable burn by being ahead of the news cycle and turning a juicy story into “old news”.


The crisis communications equivalent of denying heat for the fire. Taking responsibility or ownership of a situation, being out in front of the crowds, and being forthcoming about either what you did or what you’re going to do to prevent the problem from happening again. This pre-empts the blame cycle where others can pile on to assign blame – by being in front of it and owning it, the most they can do is agree with you.

Finally, as with real world fires, the more effective you are in implementing these crisis communications methods, the smaller the fire will grow and the faster you can put it out. Deny a fire just one of the three factors and it will go out, but it may take a while and still do damage. Deny a fire all three factors and it will vanish nearly instantly. In your crisis communications, be in front with acceptance of responsibility and delivery of knowledge with stunning alacrity, and you may intercept the fire while it’s still just a few sparks.

You are welcome to download and print out the crisis communications chart above and freely distribute it, unaltered, wherever you choose, under the Creative Commons By Attribution, Non-Commercial Usage, No Derivatives 2.0 US License.

Christopher S. Penn
Vice President, Marketing Technology

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Posted on December 20, 2016 in Crisis Communications, Public Relations

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About the Author

Christopher S. Penn is an authority on digital marketing and marketing technology. A recognized thought leader, author, and speaker, he has shaped three key fields in the marketing industry: Google Analytics adoption, data-driven marketing and PR, and email marketing. Known for his high-octane, here’s how to get it done approach, his expertise benefits companies such as Citrix Systems, McDonald’s, GoDaddy, McKesson, and many others. His latest work, Leading Innovation, teaches organizations how to implement and scale innovative practices to direct change. Christopher is a highly-sought keynote speaker thanks to his energetic, informative talks. In 2015, he delivered insightful, innovative talks on all aspects of marketing and analytics at over 30 events to critical acclaim. He is a founding member of IBM’s Watson Analytics Predictioneers, co-founder of the groundbreaking PodCamp Conference, and co-host of the Marketing Over Coffee marketing podcast. Christopher is a Google Analytics Certified Professional and a Google AdWords Certified Professional. He is the author of over two dozen marketing books including bestsellers such as Marketing White Belt: Basics for the Digital Marketer, Marketing Red Belt: Connecting With Your Creative Mind, and Marketing Blue Belt: From Data Zero to Marketing Hero.
  • Quirkster

    Great piece, but is there such a thing as preparing for a a crisis??? As you know, ships sink, buildings lose power and websites crash and email communication fails.  Every good sailor knows how and what to do when his boat capsizes before even thinking about setting sail. Carefully crafted plans, messages and a few ‘dry runs”  makes crisis communications a part of ever good communications platform vs the after thought.

  • I really enjoyed this post. I’m a strategic communications major at Ohio State and while I love my classes I don’t think enough of a focus is put on crisis management. 
    At a recent PRSSA meeting, our guest speaker and OSU alum said the same thing. He also went on to say that his company has a “go-to” guy when it comes to dealing with situations threatening the brands reputation. 
    I think, especially now when social media has the ability to amplify the magnitude of a crisis, it is important for all PR professionals to have the knowledge and ability to respond to negative media attention or to address issues before they are brought into the public eye.

  • AmberNicoleG

    I think this is a great piece. Crisis communication is a huge part of handling your name and your clients name well. I think that you can never be prepared enough for a crisis to happen and it is so important to have a plan in place so you are not scrambling at the last minute. Good crisis communication is all about speed, knowledge and ownership like you stated in the post.

  • Blake Soper

    The crisis
    communications post is great in describing how to extinguish a crisis, but the
    difficult part comes with rebuilding the reputation.Often times, reputation cannot easily, if at
    all, be regained. Combining knowledge, speed and ownership as a metaphor to
    describe fire control could also be used to describe fire prevention or crisis
    prevention.Never wait to start using
    knowledge, speed and ownership as concepts described in the post. As PR
    professionals, we should already be proving correct knowledge and information
    to the public. We should already be providing quick, new information, and we
    should already be taking responsibility and ownership by being open with the
    public.If you are not already implementing
    these concepts, then you are just creating the fire hazard.

  • Michelle Griffith APR

    Quirkster is correct with the sailing analogy. Develop a crisis communications plan while it’s all blue skies and sunshine. It isn’t a question of if we will have a crisis, it is always a question of when will we have a crisis. What kind of crisis is possible and who and how will we respond? Having a crisis communications plan in place will allow you not only to act with speed as Christopher correctly explains, but also with proper preparation. If there is any opportunity for litigation, the legal team is going to have a very different take on the action and words used. PR professionals have to remind the lawyers that we practice in the court of public opinion and they practice in the court of law. How we communicate with the public can have a positive or negative impact on a legal case. Thanks Shift Communications for starting a great conversation.

  • Very interesting and clever post! I think PR can benefit from adapting more crisis management tools and policies into its crisis communication practice. Why not combine this with knowledge, speed and ownership as mentioned in the post? Like for example mapping potential crises related to a planned campaign and rate them on probability, and them make a plan on what to do if these crises occur. This definitely covers the speed aspect!  Again, very clever to use these metaphors, so easy to remember and I imagine, easily implemented.

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