Crisis Communication in Organizations


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Crisis is the truth of today’s fast-paced business world (Coombs, 2007). Rapid organizational change, volatile economic conditions, personnel management-related problems, unexpected technological changes, and the dynamics of politics cause instability in modern-day business world (Coombs & Holladay, 2015). Before delving into crisis communication and multi-stakeholder integration, it is therefore pertinent to identify and discuss some key concepts that improve understanding of the relationship between organizational leaders and their role in resolving crisis within and outside the organization — that is, organization-stakeholder relationship (OSR) (Claeys & Coombs, 2020).

Importantly, the environment is also one of the factors that affect the crisis. If the crisis is not controlled or managed properly, it will escalate and create a chain of crises (Seeger & Sellnow, 2019). Thus, leadership and crisis concepts will be discussed to improve understanding of how leadership in crisis situations is implemented. It is worth noting, too, that crisis leadership is an optimal and timely assessment process of analysing and controlling adverse condition effects no matter the triggers (Coombs & Holladay, 2015). Therefore, an effective leader in a crisis situation should: (a) possess honest and uncompromising morals (b) focus on individuals, not numbers (c) promote excellence (d) show commitment to a purpose (e) infuse clarity in complex matters (f) leverage creative thinking, innovation and technology (g) focus on change (i) promote divert (j) understand the value of listening, and (k) collaborate to achieve more (Lundgren & McMakin, 2018).


There are many definitions of crisis but within the context of an organization, crisis is defined as a significant threat to operations that can affect work efficiency, productivity level and competitiveness if not handled properly. A crisis can create three related threats: (1) public safety, (2) financial loss, and (3) reputation loss (Murty & Subramanian, 2014). In the same vein, Fener & Cevik (2015) noted that a crisis is an unpredictable state that disrupts normal operations of the organization thereby requiring immediate response from top management. As stated, crises cannot be predicted and they deactivate and destabilize normal processes. At this point, it is safe to say that crisis is the process of unexpected negative operations or outcomes of events that can destroy or dent the image of an organization if not managed properly (Claeys & Coombs, 2020).


Communication is an integral part of human interaction; it manifests in symbolic and verbal forms. Sambe (2008) argues that communication is vital to the success of any organization, therefore, it must be effectively handled to ensure attainment of the organization’s objectives (Coombs, 2007; Ulmer et al, 2015).

Broadly categorized, there are two main types of communication in organizations – formal and informal communications. Both are equally important. Formal communication refers to the exchange of information through official channels established by an organization while informal communication involves use of unofficial and sometimes illegitimate channels of communication (Coombs & Holladay, 2015).

Understanding Crisis Communication

A deliberate merge of these two concepts – ‘Crisis’ and ‘Communication’ has over time, metamorphosed into what social scientists, scholars, and business experts call Crisis Management (Claeys & Coombs, 2020). According to Murty and Subramanian (2014), crisis management is a process designed to prevent or control damage that can negatively affect an organization and its stakeholders. According to Ulmer et al (2015), crisis management as a process is a multi-phased intervention commonly divided into three stages:

(1) pre-crisis stage

(2) crisis response stage, and

(3) post-crisis stage.

The pre-crisis stage is concerned with prevention and preparation, the crisis response phase is when management must respond to a crisis, and the post-crisis stage looks for ways to better prepare for the next crisis and fulfil commitments made during the crisis stage, including follow-up information. The tri-part view of crisis management serves as the organizing framework for this study (Coombs & Holladay, 2015).

In line with the above views, Fener & Cevik (2015) define crisis management as the process where the indicators of crisis are obtained and assessed for the risk of a potential crisis, and where necessary, measures are taken and applied to experience minimum loss in a state of crisis. Thus, within the context of an organization, crisis management can be described as the strategic process of communication carried out by stakeholders within and outside the organization with the sole aim of resolving conflicts that have arisen or may arise and are capable of tarnishing the image of a company and in the long run, lead to the recording of multiple or several business losses (Coombs, 2007; Lundgren & McMakin, 2018).

Multi Stakeholders Processes (MSP)

Hemmati et al (2002) opine that the term multi-stakeholder processes describe processes that aim to bring together all major stakeholders in a new form of communication, decision-finding (and possibly decision-making) on a particular issue. They are also based on recognition of the importance of achieving equity and accountability in communication between stakeholders, involving equitable representation of three or more stakeholder groups and their views. They are based on the democratic principles of transparency and participation, with the aim of developing partnerships and strengthening networks among stakeholders (Coombs & Holladay, 2015).

MSPs cover a wide spectrum of structures and levels of engagement. They can comprise dialogues on policy or grow to include consensus-building, decision making, and implementation of practical solutions. The exact nature of any such process will depend on the issues, its objectives, participants, scope and timelines, among other factors (Claeys & Coombs, 2020).

Organization-Stakeholder Relationship (OSR)

To understand OSR, it is pertinent to define who these stakeholders of an organization are. In 1963, the Stanford University Institute for the first time made a clear definition of stakeholders: “Stakeholders are such groups, the organization cannot survive without their support”. In contrast, Qingchun (2017) provided a more comprehensive definition. He holds the opinion that stakeholders are “those who can affect the achievement of corporate goals, influence changes in the work process of enterprises, and empower workers (individuals and groups) to gain job satisfaction.” Further, the renowned scholar analysed twenty-seven types of stakeholder delineations and proposed the conditions that stakeholders must have: first, influence, whether a group has the status, ability and corresponding means to influence enterprise decision-making; second, legitimacy, whether a group is legally and morally had ownership of enterprises; third, urgency whether a group of requirements can immediately arouse the attention of business management (Coombs & Holladay, 2015).

On this background, Slabbert & Barker (2011) defined OSR as the result of the management of common interests between the organization and strategic stakeholder(s) over time, to achieve mutually beneficial goals through a high degree of reciprocity and continuous two-way symmetrical communication.  In other words, Stakeholders are those who have an interest in a particular decision, either as individuals or representatives of a group. This includes people who influence a decision or can influence it, as well as those affected by it (Coombs, 2007).

The Role of Leadership in Crisis Communication

Leadership plays a major role in crisis communication (Lundgren & McMakin, 2018). During a crisis, the emotions of the population usually run very high, and leadership must convey messages that answer their expectations (Seeger & Sellnow, 2019). It is also essential to disseminate some important messages to the public at risk for its safety, and this requires appropriate crisis communication techniques and tools. Traditional crisis communication involves communicating messages on the status of a crisis, its impacts, the actions, and measures that have been mobilized. It is usually meant to feed the media with facts thereby demonstrating to citizens that the government is managing the incident with result-oriented strategies. Political leaders are often called upon to intervene in front of the media –that is, analyse the situation and solutions being applied—with full confidence, reassuring commitment and empathy. This role-playing activity therefore requires specialized training and experience in communication and/or public speaking (Claeys & Coombs, 2020).

In the age of digital technology and Internet penetration where both key information and false rumours are easily shared and digested from a large number of contact points, crisis managers need to integrate and maximize social media platform as an effective, modern IT innovation that improve the efficiency of communication as well as an widen sources of relevant information (Seeger & Sellnow, 2019). Dedicated social media response teams are very useful for sharing crisis information with citizens and stakeholders in the crisis management ecosystem (Coombs, 2007).

When a crisis reaches such severity that trust in the organization is severely challenged, crisis communication enters into a new phase, where the effectiveness of leadership becomes crucial. Behind this sequence, the objective is to convince the public that they should trust the organization at a very critical moment, one in which the level of trust may have significantly declined. Finding the right wording or the capacity of “persuasion” sometimes requires taking a step back from the event to tailor key messages that focus on the values and expectations of the society (Coombs & Holladay, 2015).

Reflection of Group Performance

Reflection on Individual Performance

Conclusion / Recommendation

Leaders are critical to the crisis management process and several factors influence their ability to lead. It is important to recognize that crisis response strategies can involve functional communication and actions, including information that helps stakeholders avoid harm, in addition to more symbolic management efforts that attempt to manage the organization’s public image.

Every organization is vulnerable to crisis and an organization that fails to prepare is sure to incur damage. In the past, many organizations failed to address the many communication issues related to crisis/disaster response. However, there are basic steps of effective crisis communications that are not difficult, but they require advanced work to minimize damage. The slower the response, the more damage is incurred. So, if an organization is serious about crisis preparedness and response, read and implement the 10 steps of crisis communications, as developed by Bernstein (2013). These ten steps are divided into two phases namely, pre- crisis and post crisis.

Pre-crisis – (1) Anticipate crises (2) Identify your crisis communications team (3) Identify who to train as spokespersons (4) Spokesperson training (5) Establish notification and monitoring systems (6) Identify and know your stakeholders (7) Develop holding statements;

Post-crisis – (8) Assess the crisis situation (9) Finalize and adapt key messages (10) Post-crisis analysis.


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Claeys, A., Coombs, W.T. (2020). Organizational Crisis Communication: Suboptimal Crisis Response Selection Decisions and Behavioural Economics, Communication Theory, 30(3) 290–309.

Coombs, W.T. & Holladay, S.J. (2015). Handbook of Crisis Communication. Wiley.

Coombs, W.T. (2007). Ongoing Crisis Communication: Planning, Managing, and Responding. Sage.

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Hemmati, M., Dodds, F., Enayati, J. & McHarry, J. (2002) Multi-stakeholder Processes for Governance and Sustainability; Beyond Deadlock and Conflict. Earthscan Publications [Online]. Available at:

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Murty, A. V. N. & Subramanian, K. S. L. N. S. (2014) The Role of Communication in Crisis Management (An organizational perspective), International Journal of Human Resource Management and Research (IJHRMR) 4 (5), pp. 33-44 TJPRC [Online]. Available at:

Sambe, J. A. (2008) Introduction to Mass Communication Practice in Nigeria. 2nd edn. Ibadan: Spectrum.

Seeger, M. & Sellnow, T. (2019). Communication in Times of Trouble. Wiley-Blackwell.

Slabbert, Y. & Barker, R. (2016) A Sequential Integrated Sustainable Organisation-Stakeholder Relationship (SISOSR) Process for Building Organisation – Stakeholder Partnerships: A Conceptual Framework, Research Gate [Online]. Available at:

Ulmer, R. R., Sellnow, T. L., & Seeger, M. W. (2015). Effective Crisis Communication: Moving from Crisis to Opportunity (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks: Sage.


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