Improving media relationships in times of organizational crisis

July 22, 2015

Lucinda Austin and Yan Jin

Our research funded by the Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communication at Penn State suggests that public relations professionals can enhance media relationships in times of crisis through providing more complete, timely and accurate information to media professionals.

Through 40 in-depth interviews with media professionals (i.e., reporters, journalists, bloggers, etc.), we examined how these professionals define ethical crisis communication, how they engage stakeholders in crisis situations, and how these views differ from public relations practitioners’ views. Interview participants, who had on average 20 years of professional media experience, reported on a variety of crises (e.g., organization, health, natural disasters) at regional and national outlets, and had been the primary reporter for at least one crisis during the past year by the time they were interviewed.

The media professionals reported ethical obligations and guidance from their own moral compasses, organizations or newsrooms, schooling, professions, and communities and stakeholders. The major ethical guidelines for crisis reporting were: respect, objectivity/neutrality, sensitivity, empathy/compassion, accuracy, timeliness, verification of facts/sources, honesty, and transparency, with a strong focus on public interest. Study findings revealed that crises represent unique situations for ethical communication and stakeholder engagement, due to the highly emotional nature of crises, the need for timely information, and the high stakes involved.

Our research suggests that organizations increasingly need to be aware of the gaps between how media professionals and public relations practitioners approach ethical decision-making and crisis communication goals. While media professionals focus on informing stakeholders about the crisis situation with information from multiple sources (including organizations involved), public relations practitioners serve as organizational advocates, protecting and repairing reputation and image in the full cycle of organizational crisis communication. Media professionals’ crisis reporting is primarily for the general public to be informed about what happened and what to do to protect themselves; whereas, organizations send and share crisis information with media professionals and stakeholders to shield damage from threats such as rumors, and, when possible, work with stakeholder groups to engage in crisis recovery together.

Public relations practitioners can utilize common ground shared with media professionals in crisis coverage to build mutually beneficial and trusting relationships with media professionals. Specifically, in providing crisis information regarding the organization, public relations practitioners must show respect to multiple stakeholders involved, who might or might not have shared interests or whose goals might even be in conflict with each other. To establish source and information credibility, information disseminated via organizational websites and social media channels should contain accurate and timely information about the crisis situation. Although engaging emotionally charged stakeholders could be risky and have the potential to escalate a conflict, empathy remains an important component that adds a human element to organizations in crisis situations in the eyes of both media professionals and stakeholders.

One question remains: How should crisis communicators (i.e., both media professionals and public relations practitioners) address crisis situations or issues when multiple stakeholders are involved and their ethical principles are in conflict with each other? Regardless, we recommend that to be ethical and responsible to stakeholders, media professionals and public relations practitioners alike need to be mindfully equitable and empathetic in creating and communicating what is being presented to audiences of multiple media channels. Educators and professional associations in the fields of journalism, media, and public relations could also benefit from examining existing educational programs in crisis communication. A need exists for more cohesive education and training programs for media professionals and public relations practitioners to mindfully co-create effective and ethical crisis information for stakeholders in need.

Our paper, “ Approaching Ethical Crisis Communication with Accuracy and Sensitivity: Exploring Common Ground and Gaps between Journalism and Public Relations ,” was published in the Spring 2015 issue of Public Relations Journal, an open-access electronic research journal published by the Public Relations Society of America. The journal focuses on the fields of public relations and communications and aims to aid the transfer of knowledge from the educational community to the professional community.

  • Lucinda Austin, assistant professor at Elon University, and Yan Jin, associate professor at the University of Georgia, presented their research at the International Communication Association preconference titled Ethical Stakeholder Engagement: A Showcase of Projects from the Arthur W. Page Center.