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Happily Married: Crisis Communication and Ethics

Published on November 4, 2019, at 4:40 p.m.
by Justine Groeber.

Crisis communication and ethics are two keystones of the public relations industry. Every PR professional is ingrained with the knowledge of how to communicate effectively during a crisis and how to behave ethically in one’s public relations practice, but how closely related should these two things be?

Crisis communication can be defined as the “dialog between the organization and its public(s) prior to, during, and after the negative occurrence,” while ethics refer to “the process you follow to decide what is right or wrong.”

Photo by Robert Bye on Unsplash

When a crisis arises, it can be easy to fall into unethical practices due to the high-stakes, fast-paced environment. However, ethical communication during a crisis is particularly crucial due to the widespread implications that crises often have. More often than not, what is morally correct might not be clear, and therefore organizations must consider what ethical communication looks like before, during and after the crisis.

When an organization integrates ethics into everything it is doing, ethical behavior comes naturally when a crisis emerges. Pat Philbin, CEO of Crisis1, said, “If that’s not part of your approach pre-disaster, it won’t be second nature during the disaster, and so all it’s going to do is create another disaster.”

Similarly, Dr. Suzanne Horsley, assistant dean of assessment, accreditation and diversity at the University of Alabama College of Communication and Information Sciences, stated, “If it’s already part of your training and your practice, it would be like anything else that you have to talk about.”

While the emphasis on ethics in the public relations profession may lead some to believe that ethics and crisis communication are two separate entities, Philbin and Horsley agree that both should be treated as one and the same. Specifically, both professionals believe that training on ethics and training on crisis communication should be integrated with one another. Dr. Horsley explained, “The concepts of ethics need to be just as obvious in any type of training or guidance on crisis communication as the terms media relations or social media.”

Photo by Cytonn Photography on Unsplash

Being committed to ethics doesn’t only mean speaking honestly and openly during a crisis, but also acting as an advocate for every person one represents. Dr. Horsley noted that PR professionals must always use an inclusive perspective to avoid an ethical mistake later on. “When that crisis hits, if you don’t already have inclusion in place, then the groups that you excluded before, whether on purpose or not, are going to be further excluded,” she said.

PR professionals should also be aware that Warren Buffet’s well-known quote, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it,” has never rung truer. Social media and the advancements in technology have created an even faster-paced environment for those in the PR field. “We are being monitored frequently, so if you don’t want it out there, don’t say it or write it,” Philbin advised.

Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash

Those on social media expect organizations to be immediately responsive during a crisis due to the constant flow of information on these platforms. This expectation not only creates implications for crisis communication plans but also creates an unpredictable lifespan once a crisis breaks.

It’s important to note that, even in an attempt to have a civil conversation, “people can look at the same situation and walk away with completely different interpretations of what they saw,” Philbin stated. Likewise, when information is being transmitted through several different channels online, it can quickly become skewed and inaccurate. That is why integrating ethics into an organization’s framework is so important, because “even when your time is compressed, you aren’t going to have to stop and think about it as much,” Horsley said.

Emphasizing ethics is crucial to the public relations profession and should be more thoroughly integrated into crisis communication training. However, if you are in a situation where a crisis does break, remember that “the truth defends itself,” Philbin advised.

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