The Crisis Within

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A crisis striking an organization can be analogous to a person having a heart attack; what happens immediately following will profoundly affect the patient’s ability to recover, if not survive.

When an organization makes a mistake, far more is at stake than a brand or reputation. The nature of the response could have real implications for public safety and wellbeing. A massive data breach compromised the private financial information of millions of Target customers. Manufacture and installation of defective Takata airbags jeopardized the safety of millions of drivers. The BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill threatened the
environment in the Gulf of Mexico and the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people who lived and worked in the region.

To be effective, the organization’s response to the crisis, in word and deed, must be timely, decisive and credible. Typically, it will convey an apology and acceptance of responsibility, acknowledgement of those adversely affected, explanations of what happened and why, reassurances as to the public’s safety, and steps to be taken to make sure the problem does not happen again.

Accepting responsibility for mistakes has been proven to be beneficial to the organization. The University of Michigan Health System reduced the incidence of medical malpractice suits filed against it in half after adopting a policy to proactively disclose known medical errors to patients who may have been harmed, and offering them corrective treatment or compensation (O’Connor, E., 2011, p. 9). Addressing the public’s safety and wellbeing and describing decisive action to correct the error and ensure that it is not repeated are also established best practices in crisis communications (Piotrowski, C., Gray, R., 2010, p. 97).

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Portraying sincerity and integrity is also vital. In the aftermath of the infamous Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska in 1989, the company received widespread criticism for downplaying the severity of situation, waiting ten days after the incident to apologize, and signaling its intent to raise gas prices to pay for the clean-up. Despite management’s efforts to demonstrate good faith and sincerity, the public did not trust Exxon’s motives, which contributed to huge and long-term legal, financial and reputational damage to the company (O’Connor, E., 2011, p. 11).

Organizations may signal their acceptance of responsibility for a mistake and response plans in myriad ways. For prominent corporations, a tried and true tactic is publishScreen Shot 2015-08-01 at 3.43.19 PMing a full-page advertisement in mass print media. Leaf through a copy Screen Shot 2015-08-01 at 3.42.47 PMof The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times on any given day and you are likely to see an example directly linked to a breaking story of high public interest, such as an industrial accident, act of corporate malfeasance, or product recall.

Full-page ads are primarily intended to reach external audiences that are key to the organization’s viability such customers, elected officials, regulators, investors, commentators, and even competitors; hence, placement in media outlets with large circulations and reach. But there is more to this organizational communications form than meets the eye.

Beyond conveying what the company wants external audiences to know about a situation, this mode of advertising has symbolic and rhetorical meaning for employees. It is a highly visible means for management to reassure workers about the integrity Screen Shot 2015-08-01 at 3.41.56 PMand the viability of the organization, and why it is important for these workers to remain loyal and committed. Clarke Caywood, a public relations professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, said: “Some of these ads are more for internal purposes than you might think. They take out frustration and they tell employees that the company is defending them” (Boyd, C., 2003, p. 2).

In his foundational Hierarchy of Needs, Abraham Maslow theorized that each worker’s evolution from satisfying basic psychological needs to self-actualization has beneficial effect for the organization. A crisis damages the internal culture by disrupting employees’ sense of wellbeing. In other words, a crisis knocks employees back a rung or two Screen Shot 2015-08-02 at 1.52.53 AMon the Maslow ladder. The organization will not fully recover unless management restores their confidence and sense of purpose, which realigns the goals of individual employees with that of the organization (Eisenberg, E., Goodall, H., & Trethewey, A., 2014, p. 82).

My paper (posted below) applies Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as a theoretical framework to demonstrate this concept, and introduces the format for a content analysis of the designated texts: three full-page newspaper ads placed by Duke Energy in response to the coal ash spill into the Dan River in North Carolina from one of the company’s coal fired power plants.


When you see an example of one of these full-page “mea culpa” ads, what is your reaction? Do you find it credible or just the organization’s attempt to “spin” the story to its favor? How do you think its employees perceive the information?


Boyd, C. S.,Staff Writer. (2003, Jun 21). Mea culpa ads become new trend; Martha Stewart’s company is part of a wave of corporations to take out newspaper ads for Damage Control. Orlando Sentinel. Retrieved from

Eisenberg, E. M., Goodall, H. L., & Trethewey, A. (2014). Organizational Communication: Balancing creativity and constraint. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martins.

O’Connor, E. O. (2011). Organizational apologies: BP as a case study. Vanderbilt Law Review, 64(6), 1957-1991. Retrieved from

Piotrowski, C., & Gray, R., (2010). Cost/Benefit of Toyota’s media campaign during the recall crisis of 2010. Organization Development Journal, 28(3), 95-99. Retrieved from


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