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Posted by on Feb 17, 2013 in HowTo | 3 comments

HowTo Recognise A PR Crisis

HowTo Recognise A PR Crisis


What is a PR crisis?

A crisis is an event or accusation that can seriously damage reputation of a company, a brand, or an individual. It has to be dealt with effectively otherwise it can have a catastrophic impact on the future of a company or individual career (Morris and Goldsworthy, 2012).

Four types of PR crises

As a PR student it is important that you recognise different types of PR crises. There are four main types, which you should be aware of (Morris and Goldwsorthy, 2012).

Performance Crisis occurs when an organisation has not responded to a crisis properly (Morris and Goldwsorthy, 2012). One of the most well known examples is the relatively recent BP disaster. When the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, BP seemed to be totally unprepared. Given that the company is a core player in the field of offshore drilling and exportation, such catastrophe should clearly have been implemented in their PR crisis simulations. In this case, a wrong application of the potentially prepared crisis plan resulted in a damaging long-term ‘performance crisis’.

Disaster Crisis occurs as a result of ‘fate’, so it is virtually impossible to prepare for. An example of such a crisis could be a 9/11 World Trade Centre collapse. As Morris and Goldsworthy (2012) surely pointed out, even if the World’s Trade Centre crisis management team had has an accurate crisis plan in place, the actual management centre was inside the building. This example confirms that there are always extreme situations for which even the most experienced PR team cannot be prepared for.

Attack Crises occurs when a journalist or an activist group attacks or exposes an organisation (Morris and Goldwsorthy, 2012). Since there is always something to complain, i.e. just about every major organisation in the world, crisis plan for such situations should be prepared by every organisation. These kinds of crises are however, difficult to prepare for, since it would be almost impossible for a PR practitioner to know all about outside activities of senior management etc. An example of an attack crisis is the Lehman Brothers Bankruptcy.

Moral Crisis occurs when an organisation represents an ‘unmoral’ product or service e.g. tobacco companies, oil companies or pharmaceutical organizations. These companies have automatically attached, the ‘evil’ word to them because of what they produce (Morris and Goldwsorthy, 2010). The word ‘unmoral’, however, can be perceived in a different way by different organisations. For example, Greenpeace may consider Nestle unethical for buying palm oil, while Plane Stupid may campaign against Heathrow Terminal 5 being opened.

There have been countless public relations crises in the past. While there are successful crisis management examples there are also poor examples of crisis management. Here we are two unforgettable examples.

Johnson & Johnson. Tylenol was a well-known painkiller in the United States. After seven people were reported dead in Chicago after taking Tylenol capsules, the company had to deal with a serious reputation threat (Regester and Larkin, 2008). Johnson and Johnson reaction to this circumstances was immediate. The company ensured public safety first, so the entire product was recalled: 31 million bottles and more than 100 million dollars lost (Regester and Larkin, 2008). Eventually the product had been successfully re-introduced to the market. The company dealt with this crisis in a well-managed manner. This successful product recall and the re-introduction of Tylenol to market is often described by PR academics as a superior example of crisis management.

Costa Concordia. This recent example of a PR crisis was almost like a textbook example of what can go wrong whilst dealing with a crisis. On 14th of January 2012 ,the cruise ship (Concordia) sank after hitting a reef, more than 4,000 people had to be evacuated: thirty people died and more than sixty had been injured (Dunn, 2012). As Steve Dunne pointed out, the accident broke on Saturday morning, thus, the media were happy to deliver this news story to an usually difficult to occupy weekend newspapers. The tragedy itself took place next to the coast, so it was easy for the world’s media to record the evacuation process. Finally, the safety record of Costa Concordia had been put into question. Experts from the industry reported that the ship was too big, the evacuation process was wrongly managed, and the situation was almost ‘like a second titanic’. What is more, the cruise industry itself seemed unprepared to what had just happened. All these add up to one immense, wrongly managed, crisis management example.


Regester M., Larkin J. 2008. Risk Issues and Crisis Management in Public Relations. London: Kogan Page.

Morris T., Goldsworthy S., 2012. PR Today. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Dunne S. 2012. Costa Concordia and Public Relations Disaster For Cruise. [online] Available at:  <



  1. I went over this site and I think you have a lot of good information, saved to my bookmarks (:.

  2. Good article.

    Do you have any good examples for local businesses please?

  3. Hi Jamie, all four types of PR crises can apply to local businesses. An example of performance crisis from Eastern Europe: one of the local food shopping stores has been turning off fridges with frozen meat during the night to avoid huge gas bills. When local newspapers wrote about it, the store’s PR team failed to immediately respond and most importantly their spokesperson denied it (they had some kind of PR team as the brand was well known all over the country). The brand’s reputation is permanently damaged, I don’t know anyone who would go there (but suprisingly the store is still open).

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