Crisis PR – The Path Less Traveled

  James Donnelly

A number of years ago during an agency/client report-card session, a client called me “an adrenaline junkie with a hero complex.”  To this day, I’m not sure if she meant to be derogatory.  Nonetheless, I’ve grown fond of the description.  It’s a great sound bite for anyone seeking part of what it takes to succeed in a career in crisis communications.

Allow me to share the pros and cons of this career path, then provide some tips.  Staying in character as a “paid pessimist,” let’s begin with the cons.


  • Kiss your Friday nights goodbye.   The rumor is true.  Crises most often occur at the worst possible times.  Key client contacts are on vacation?  That’s a perfect time for hell to break loose.  You just hired a Safety Manager yesterday and the manufacturing plant is on fire?  Of course we can help.  The gunman is an employee of yours?  Oh, and he’s the head of the conflict resolution team?  Yep, we’re on it.  Sadly, these situations always seem to break on a weekend, or just before a holiday.  You have to remain flexible.
  • “Waving the flag of victory” is uncommon.  In this career, you have to set a different kind of bar for success.  Many of your PR colleagues get to trumpet victories more often, because most PR programs lead to a tangible “win.”  For example, “we got a zillion impressions” or “we won 28 Silver Anvils.”  In crisis communications, “losses” are obvious for they lead to front-page tabloid skewerings, massive protests, loss of sales, etc.  In contrast, most victories are so subtle you have to remind yourself they were victories. That takes a certain amount of self-confidence.  Also, if you like winning awards, be ready to have to shelve most of your best work in the interest of client confidentiality.
  • You grow to appreciate Cassandra.  In Greek mythology, Apollo gave Cassandra the ability to see the future but later added a curse so that her prophecies wouldn’t be believed.  Such is the too-common fate of crisis communications pros.  Monitoring and risk assessments enable us to harbinger oncoming danger and offer advice to minimize risks.  Too often, those warnings go unheeded because of lack of resources, paralysis of analysis, or just general hesitation that is compounded by corporate bureaucracy.  To stomach a career here, you have to get used to bringing the horses to water and sometimes watch them dehydrate.


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