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Keeping Your Cool When It Matters Most

Posted At: April 9, 2008 12:41 PM
by Anna Catherine Roberson

We all have experienced that breaking point: the stress and tension build up and there is nowhere to go but down. You are at the point when you know a major crisis is on the horizon. Whether this crisis is a personal one or one that could potentially lead to the downfall of your company, preparation is key. Careful preparation for such an event will ensure that any crisis will be resolved in a smooth and quick manner.

Several types of crises plague our society every day. Whether it is a product recall, poor decisions made by a company CEO, sticky legal situations or a company rocked by scandal, the effects of a crisis can be devastating. But how does one even begin to prepare for a crisis that has not even happened yet? Welcome to the world of crisis management.

There is an old saying that says, “Hope for the best, plan for the worst”—a statement that clearly defines crisis management. According to Miriam Webster Dictionary, a crisis is “an unstable or crucial time or state of affairs in which a decisive change is impending.” More importantly, the word crisis comes from the Greek word krisis, which literally means “to decide” —the magic words of crisis management. Smart decisions in crises are crucial, and it is up to the public relations manager or team to decide what sort of action they should take in order to ensure the best results for the company.

Through carefully planned crisis management and communication plans, some companies have been able to not only survive but actually turn a major crisis into an opportunity. Tylenol is one such company. According to, in 1982, seven people in Chicago died from taking extra-strength Tylenol capsules. It was later discovered that these capsules were tainted with cyanide, a deadly poison. The capsules had been altered after they had reached the store shelves. Immediately, Johnson & Johnson, the distributor of Tylenol, had a national recall of 31 million bottles of Tylenol.

This was a devastating blow to Tylenol’s image and reputation, but the message the company wanted to portray to the public was that the safety of people is far more important than profit. The recall resulted in a loss of $100 million for Johnson & Johnson, and advertising for Tylenol extra-strength capsules was halted indefinitely. However, four years later, a woman died of cyanide poisoning from taking a Tylenol capsule. After this incident, Johnson & Johnson removed the product temporarily. Later, Tylenol reissued the product with tamper-resistant bottles.

Tylenol could have suffered major problems and effects from experiencing such a crisis. However, they responded quickly and immediately placed the safety of the customers as their number one priority and reiterated that continuously. Tylenol had an effective plan in place and was prepared for any crisis that came their way.

After 25 years, people still look at the Tylenol case as a benchmark in crisis management history, because it was truly the first of its kind. Not only did it set a new standard for corporate public relations, but it also provided an example that will be followed for years to come. Tylenol truly had the “dream team” for crisis management. The seven-member strategy team knew how to keep consumers informed without releasing too much information. The team set up a 1-800 line where concerned consumers could call with questions and even provided daily updates through this line. Most importantly, Tylenol provided answers and consumers trusted these answers, which has, in fact, saved the company’s reputation.

When all else fails, however, the best plan of action is to always be prepared by having an effective crisis management plan. According to Abbe Ruttenburg Serphos of ABR Communications, there are six steps in an effective crisis communication plan.

Step 1:  Preparation is key.
Step 2:  Make sure you have all the facts.
Step 3:  Take immediate action to minimize danger to human life.
Step 4:  Tell the truth.
Step 5:  Show you care and be sincere.
Step 6:  Never overlook the power of common sense.

Crisis management can either make or break a company, product, person, event or anything involved in a crisis and it is up to the public relations practitioner to prevent this from ever happening. In a world in which the media relish any scandal, crisis management is essential when a reputation is on the line.


“Companies in crisis: What to do when it all goes wrong.” (2008). Retrieved March 31, 2008, from

What company situation would you cite as an example of good crisis management and why?

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