Bonus Tactics article: Crisis communications planning — the missing steps

May 3, 2007

Copyright © 2007 PRSA. All rights reserved.

By Lynette M. Loomis, MA, MBA, APR

No organization is immune from crisis. The question has never been “if.” Realistically, it’s about “when.”

While crises vary in magnitude, they are similar in that they disrupt business, seemingly stimulate the interest of the public and the media in the organization’s affairs and put a knot in the communications manager’s stomach.  A poorly handled crisis can result in lost revenue or financial contributions, lessened productivity and morale, and the demise of the company’s senior leadership, possibly yourself included.

A wealth of articles and books discuss how to anticipate and manage crisis communications, but an issue often overlooked is how difficult it is for you as the crisis communications manager to “keep your own emotions out of it” and remain objective. Use Emotional Intelligence to manage your emotions — and those of your boss and co-workers — during a crisis.

What is Emotional Intelligence?

Emotional Intelligence is the ability to recognize and manage one’s emotions in a productive manner, to use emotional information to enhance reasoning and problem solving and to positively influence the emotions of other people.
In the most thorough crisis communications plan the PR professional has anticipated possible crises, rated the likelihood of occurrence and evaluated the possible impact on the organization. Key publics have been identified; message points have been cleared with the legal department for the press, the Web site, call center, etc.; and you have conducted mock media interviews.

Then a real crisis hits and it may seem that every message point on which you had agreed has evaporated. The CEO has the infamous “deer in headlights” look. The color has drained from the COO’s face, and her features have become so rigid that she looks like a marionette. Perhaps the CFO has become loud, his face is red from a dramatic spike in blood pressure and he is aggressively defensive. Or maybe one of those reactions is your reaction, despite your carefully rehearsed responses as spokesman.

What happened? Was your plan ill-conceived? Was senior leadership unprepared? More likely, the debriefing and evaluation would show that the plan did not fully account for human nature.

In a crisis, the key is to make your emotions work for you. When you use Emotional Intelligence, you are attuned to your emotions and can use them to channel your behavior for the best possible outcome.

The enraged COO

For example, your COO is angry; she is yelling at her team and implying that everyone, you included, is incompetent. You have some options. You can yell back at her, pout, cry, slam your fist on your desk or vow to quit. Or you can keep your own feelings in check, not react to her anger and “listen” to the root cause of her emotions. What do you know about her? How does she react when she feels overwhelmed or like her judgment is being questioned? How does she respond when she believes a situation is out of control? Does she yell, withdraw or take names?

Once you have identified what you believe to be the source of her outbursts, you can regain control of the situation. How can you reduce her anxiety or anger? Maybe her style is to “get to the bottom line” quickly. Did your own need to appear thorough and on top of the situation lead you to present her with a 50-page document? Would a table of the high points of the crisis communication plan and their status better fit her style?

You, your plan and the pit of your stomach

Let’s say you are going to be the spokesperson for this corporate disaster. When do you begin your own self management? Now!

1. Identify and direct your thoughts

Most PR practitioners will feel anxious in a crisis communication situation. Is everyone is looking to you for guidance? Are some of your colleagues saying “Now let’s see if he can really earn his salary.” Do some people assume that you can “get us out of this” with a few carefully worded phrases?

Identify what messages you are playing in your head. Constructive? Destructive? Are you thinking “I can never do this,” or “I have been waiting for this opportunity for my entire career and I am ready”?  If you can steer your thoughts in a positive direction, you can calm your physiological reaction.

2. Listen to your body

Sweaty palms, increased blood pressure, nausea and dry mouth are all familiar symptoms of anxiety.  Eye rolling, clenched fists and exaggerated hand gestures can signal frustration. If you experience these symptoms, what do they mean to you? Plan how you will manage these physical symptoms and diminish your reactions. Do you find deep breathing calming? Does a jog around the parking lot expel nervous energy? Can you transport your mind to a relaxing environment to lower your heart rate? Think about the classic fight or flight response, adjust your thoughts and manage your body.

3. Manage your behavior

Use your physical manifestations to guide your behavior. Once you have your physiological symptoms under control, your mind will be clearer to take appropriate action. If you recognize your own symptoms as anxiety, take logical steps to reduce it. Do you have all the available facts? Is your media list current? Do you need to rehearse your responses one more time? If your body’s reaction suggests frustration, how can you manage it? If you are frustrated because your team isn’t “getting it,” change your approach. Put your message in words that reflect their style and vested interests, not yours. (Remember it’s a crisis, not a contest.)

In applying the concepts of Emotional Intelligence to crisis communications management, the point is not to avoid your emotions, but to use them to guide you to a more productive outcome for you and your company.

Lynette M. Loomis, MA, MBA, APR is a marketing consultant, business coach and writer. She is the former chair of PRSA’s Health Academy and is a co-author of the newly released “101 Great Ways to Improve Your Life, Vol 3.” She may be reached at


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