Crisis Communication and Crisis Management: An Ethical Approach


Burton St. John III & Yvette E. Pearson

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    The need for ethical crisis management and crisis communications continues to be as pressing as ever. As this volume goes to print, we see continual examples of the rapid-fire emergence of crisis. Take, for example, crisis eruptions that occurred within one week in the winter of 2015. Hispanic groups protest against NBC for inviting Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump to host Saturday Night Live. 1 Exxon faces increasing calls for a federal investigation as reports emerge that archival documents show the company knew, in the 1970s, the risk that fossil fuels posed for climate change but instead chose to communicate doubt about such a concern.2 Airlines around the world encounter anxiety about security measures in the wake of fears that a bomb brought down a Russian airplane in the Sinai Peninsula.3

    Clearly, when it comes to crises, there is no one typical example. From the aforementioned scenarios, we can see, however, one component that is in common: the need for a continual and concentrated focus on stakeholders affected by an organization’s decisions and actions. In particular, this volume shows that organizations faced with either warning signs of a crisis, or the actual emergence of a crisis, should incorporate an ethical awareness into how they attempt to manage such events. In doing so, this volume attempts to address what has been a common impediment to learning from crises: too much of an emphasis on key actors in a crisis management situation using certain processes and procedures to attempt to gain control and remedy the situation—what has been called a “modernist” view.4 In contrast, Bell observed, more optimistically, that broader understandings are arising gradually in the study of crisis management and crisis communications, as they comprise a field of “burgeoning research” that is explaining “its applied value.”5 Noticeably absent in her observation, however, is the value of philosophical inquiry, particularly ethical analysis, for the prevention and alleviation of crises.

    This volume was inspired by an interest in integrating ethical inquiry more fully into all stages of crisis management, something we see as a distinctive contribution among books that seek to address both the nature of crises and how to best prepare for and manage crises. In part this is accomplished by helping readers develop an understanding of their status as moral agents; for all of us, in virtue of our ability to reason, have the capacity for moral agency. Regardless of one’s career choice or station in life, he or she is fundamentally a moral agent. Arguably, most moral decisions are fairly straightforward and even mundane. For example, it takes little, if any, reflection to conclude that one should refrain from deliberately driving into a crowd of pedestrians in the crosswalk just so he or she can get to a business meeting on time. When it comes to more complex moral issues—and crisis management and crisis communications are certainly fraught with complexity—greater reflection is required. This in-depth examination is necessary not only for accurate identification of the relevant ethical issues but also for engagement in fruitful analyses of the problems requiring resolution.

    It should be understood that moral agents have the capacity to engage in moral examination even when there is variation in experience, skill, or willingness to do so. Also, as with most areas of human experience, there are ethical problems that may be more resistant to solutions than others. And there are times when one will reach the limits of his or her competence and must seek out others for consultation to identify, adequately analyze, and resolve a moral problem. People commonly acknowledge their limitations in other areas and reach out to others when, for example, seeking greater understanding or a solution to a problem in the context of law or medicine. Just as prudence dictates consultation with a lawyer or physician when there are legal or medical questions requiring knowledge or experience beyond one’s own, consultation with other moral agents, particularly those who have more experience grappling with ethical issues, is often useful in shedding light on the morally relevant elements of certain situations, including crises. This is not to suggest that only those who specialize in the academic discipline of ethics can address ethical problems; instead, immersion in ethical inquiry characteristic of those with academic training in philosophy brings to the table an important and useful skill set. Though specialists in ethics are subject to the same human frailties as anyone else, people with extensive academic training in ethical inquiry will likely identify ethical issues more readily and have more tools immediately available to deploy when faced with an ethical issue or set of issues. This is chiefly because they have studied multiple ethical theories in detail, engaged in logical analysis of arguments defending various positions on ethical issues, and examined numerous real-life and hypothetical scenarios.

    Much to the chagrin of people who study ethics in depth and take seriously the view that ethical inquiry is important, ethics is often distorted or ignored by individuals or organizations seeking to achieve goals deemed more important, such as preserving or bolstering one’s reputation, making money, or gaining power. Often, such self-interested motivations lead people to act in ways that are neither morally defensible nor remotely virtuous. Correspondingly, compliance with laws or organizational rules, routines, policies, and procedures is conflated with acting ethically. This is problematic, however, as it is erroneous to assume that all laws, policies, or work procedures have been informed by ethical considerations or subject to ethical analysis to determine whether they are consistent with moral rules. For example, laws are not necessarily morally sound, and it is neither practical nor desirable to legislate morality. There have been numerous U.S. laws that clearly fly in the face of basic moral requirements to treat people as autonomous beings, capable of making their own decisions regarding their lives, such as laws permitting slavery or requiring forcible sterilization of people. Additionally, it would not follow that committing actions currently prohibited by law, such as murder, would suddenly become morally permissible if laws prohibiting murder were repealed tomorrow. Furthermore, work routines, policies, or procedures may have been formulated without moral reflection and, instead, focus primarily on maximizing efficiency, pleasing the interests of dominant interests within and without the organization, or avoiding legal repercussions. In sum, as a crisis arises, deference to laws or the organizational rules provide an inadequate basis for the ethical examination needed to successfully address the crisis.

    An additional concern is consideration of ethical issues, if it emerges at all, often occurs only after something disastrous has occurred. Frequently, there’s a belated recognition that moral rules were violated and said violations likely contributed to the problem. There may be a temporary public discussion of what happened along with some expressions of indignation, allegations that a person or organization acted “unethically,” that such behavior is intolerable, and that the organization or stakeholders impacted by the organization will make sure such actions do not recur. An organization may also be punished legally if the ethically problematic behavior also involved violations of a specific law. This is an all-too-common story line of how crisis is addressed in these times. What we see less frequently is a meaningful integration of ethics into the culture of an organization or profession as it faces a crisis. People may give lip service by crafting a “code of ethics” that may rarely see the light of day or be read by anyone other than the person(s) who authored it. Even more problematically, countermessages might be communicated, suggesting that any “ethics training” or creation of a code of ethics was merely a matter of checking the ethics box before getting down to more important matters.

    As an antidote, this volume offers recent case studies that are designed to lead readers through the process of seeing that, as moral agents, all people have certain basic ethical obligations when encountering crises. We group crises cases by arenas of common practice in public relations (e.g., strategic communication, health communication, advocacy communication) that may also be useful as broader areas of study for a wide array of students in such areas as business and public administration, marketing, and allied health care professions. In doing so, this volume lays out cases that call on readers to examine the role of moral reasoning in crisis management. We emphasize this approach because, all too often, the modern, hyper-communicated environment that surrounds crises pushes organizations to respond before ethical issues have been fully identified or examined carefully. A more deliberative approach toward crises that inculcates awareness of ethical concerns can allow readers to develop a more anticipatory approach that respects the needs of multiple stakeholders and increases the odds of successfully resolving a crisis. Accordingly, across this volume, we offer several features to help spur such deliberation beyond standard discussion questions after each case study. Boxed items titled “Consider This” offer questions about significant elements of a crisis that need more reflection and then an articulation of ethics in action. “Decision Points” offer a hypothetical next-stage crisis, with questions provided to help guide the reader to think critically about ethical choices. “Stakeholder Inventory” boxed items provide key information about stakeholders affected by a crisis, along with questions about how to address those stakeholders’ interests in an ethically sound manner. Finally, in some case studies, a “Professional Voice” section provides additional valuable lessons from communications scholars about the role of ethics in managing a crisis. These features of the case studies reinforce that mindfulness concerning ethical facets of a crisis is integral to crisis prevention and ethically informed crisis management, which will better ensure protection of the morally legitimate interests of clients, their stakeholders, and society at large.

    Burton St. John IIIYvette E. PearsonJanuary 2016

    1. Zorthian, J. (2015). Protestors march against Donald Trump hosting “Saturday Night Live.” Time, November 8. Available at:

    2. Cama, T. (2015, November 9). Pressure builds to probe Exxon climate claims. The Hill. Retrieved from

    3. Townsend, M. (2015, November 8). Russian plane crash: Calls for new era of airport security after Sinai terror. The Guardian (UK). Retrieved from

    4. Mehta, A., & Xavier, R. (2012). Tracking the defining moments of crisis process and practice. Public Relations Review, 38, 376–382; Ihlen, O. (2010). Love in tough times: Crisis communication and public relations. The Review of Communication, 10(2), 98–111.

    5. Bell, L. M. (2010). Crisis communication: The praxis of response. The Review of Communication, 10(2), 142–155; see p. 142.


    This work has been long in the making and, as such, calls for acknowledgments to several who have, through their support and past encouragement, helped make it possible. Burton St. John thanks his family (Dana, Melissa, and Aaron) for their patient support. Stephen Pullen, chair of Old Dominion University’s Communications and Theatre Arts Department, has been a consistent source of support. Colleagues Carol Considine, Michelle Covi, Kirsten Johnson, and Wie Yusuf have been consistently helpful on insights concerning risk and crisis management. He also extends his thanks to individuals who have, across his career, provided insights during crisis management and crisis communications situations, especially Dianne Williams, Jim Mruk, Joseph Breckenridge, Larry Dingman, Diane Todd, and Paul Harrington. Yvette Pearson is grateful for constant encouragement, support, and vital humorous interludes provided by her husband, Peter. Several friends and colleagues have also been invaluable in providing moral, intellectual, and logistical support, especially Robyn Bluhm, Jason Borenstein, Jennifer Fish, Marcia Kennedy, Yuping Liu-Thompkins, and Dale E. Miller. Thanks are also due to students from past course offerings who provided helpful feedback on earlier drafts of case studies included in this text.

    The authors also thank Matt Byrnie, Theresa Accomazzo, Janae Masnovi, and Gabrielle Piccininni of SAGE and are thankful for the keen eye of editing and writing professional Tina Hardy. We are particularly grateful for Matt’s consistent encouragement of this project from its inception. Finally, we extend our thanks to the reviewers listed below for their reviews of our original proposal, which were helpful in bringing this volume to fruition.

    SAGE Publishing acknowledges the contributions of the following reviewers:

    Julie Davis, College of Charleston

    Barbara S. Gainey, Kennesaw State University

    Nick Linardopoulos, Rutgers University

    Lori Melton McKinnon, Oklahoma State University

    Sally J. Ray, Western Kentucky University

    John D. Stone, James Madison University

    About the Authors

    Burton St. John III, Ph.D., APR, is an associate professor of communication at Old Dominion University, where he teaches courses in public relations, crisis communication and communication theory. He co-edited (with Margot Opdycke Lamme and Jacquie L’Etang) Pathways to Public Relations: Histories of Practice and Profession, which, in 2015, was a first-ever public relations book finalist for the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication’s Tankard Book Award. He has 15 years of professional crisis management experience.

    Yvette E. Pearson, Ph.D., is the Chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. She is also a director of ODU’s Institute for Ethics and Public Affairs. Dr. Pearson has published in the fields of robot ethics, reproductive ethics, and ethical issues surrounding direct-to-consumer marketing of genetic tests, among other topics in bioethics. An award-winning teacher, she has over two decades of experience teaching a range of courses in applied ethics and other areas of philosophy.

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