University Marketing & Communications

April 24, 2017

Combating crises using communication

Kenneth Applewhaite

“Crisis” is usually a scary word. But what does it mean in a professional setting? In short — according to Traci Feller, communications instructor at the University of Washington — a crisis is an unexpected incident that causes disruptive uncertainty and threatens an individual’s, a community’s or an institution’s goals and reputation. Professional crises can range from an incident of workplace violence to a natural disaster.

Even if you don’t work in public relations, you can still help resolve this type of crisis by understanding what crisis communication is and how it works.

Think of crisis communication as a conversation between an organization and the public that occurs during and after a crisis. The organization must start this conversation by explaining what took place; the public, including the media, will demand all the details and facts of the crisis while and after it happens. The public will expect and value honesty at this first stage.

Once the organization has given this initial explanation, it should follow the “4 R’s” approach, one of the most effective and accepted forms of crisis communication:

  • Regret –– show that you are sorry about the situation, though this does not necessarily mean you are responsible for the incident.
  • Resolution –– explain what specific action you are taking or will take to resolve the crisis.
  • Reform –– give some form of assurance that the crisis will never occur again.
  • Restitution –– offer forms of compensation, if appropriate.

Let’s take Domino’s as an example: In 2009, two Domino’s kitchen employees decided to post a prank video online that showed them performing unsanitary acts while making sandwiches. This prompted a storm of rage from the public.

Right after the incident, Domino’s President Patrick Doyle made a statement that followed the 4 R’s approach. He began with an explanation of what happened, then apologized for it. Next, he talked about the specific actions Domino’s had taken to resolve the problem and to prevent similar incidents from happening in the future. Doyle closed by thanking those who had showed support for his company, and he emphasized how Domino’s valued its customers and hoped to regain their trust. His speech was simple yet strategic — a solid example of crisis communication. It did not resolve the crisis right away, but it was a steady first step toward resolution.

Any type of crisis can be overwhelming, but dealing with one in the workplace puts even more pressure on us. A better understanding of the 4 R’s approach gives organizations — and individuals — more confidence in using crisis communication effectively.