Communicate the crisis


In an increasingly interdependent society and with an active flow of information around the clock, the risks of crisis increase exponentially. To govern and learn to communicate the crisis effectively, it is necessary to know some general aspects starting from the definition of the term “crisis”.

Define the crisis

Among the many definitions, one of the most authoritative is that of Patrick Lagadec, a French researcher among the world’s leading experts in crisis management. Lagadec describes the crisis as “a moment of truth, which tests skills and values“. According to the expert, each different crisis situation highlights the fundamental elements of an individual or an organization, first of all reputation, credibility and trust.

Beyond the degree of responsibility, in fact, a person may be involved in events that cause a negative effect on his reputation strictly dependent on the level of external visibility. In fact, in generating and amplifying the impact of a crisis, there are two fundamental discriminating factors: the media and public opinion.

At the base of a crisis there is always a triggering episode but it is the echo that this event generates that undermines the reputation of the person involved – whether individual or organization – and the trust granted to it. A crisis arises when an extraordinary and considered serious event is brought to the attention of public opinion thanks to the intervention of the media.

The media are ceaselessly looking for “the news“, which to be such must be full of novelty and arouse people’s interest. Crises represent a huge media opportunity precisely because of that element of intrinsic extraordinariness in each of them. The crisis is perceived through the media impact it generates, and interpreted with different interpretations, sometimes partial, incomplete or manipulated.

The role of communication

There is no crisis management without communication – says Patrick Trancu in his book “The State in Crisis” – but in these cases communication “is not the action of communicating, it is communicating action”. It is a communication accompanying the actions taken by the organization, which “aims to direct, modulate or transform behavior in the common interest“.

Knowing how to better manage a crisis is increasingly important for companies in every sector, but in the complex world of healthcare, knowing the whole process to manage it effectively becomes essential. Health is a public, social good.

Every company that deals with healthcare, every body responsible for safeguarding public health should be able to know how to manage communication in a crisis situation, to communicate its development or its resolution.

If it is true, in fact, that every crisis situation should be made known – because the lack of communication could aggravate safety problems – the management of crisis communication in the context of health cannot be improvised but must be organized and governed thanks to tools and appropriate means, possibly built over time.

The tylenol case

It is precisely in the world of health that an exemplary case of crisis management has occurred. This is the American case of Tylenol, a pain reliever produced by McNail Labs, a division of Johnson & Johnson.

In 1982, seven people in the Chicago area died after ingesting the well-known over-the-counter drug. The long investigation that followed the deaths clarified the external origin of the poisoning of the products (with cyanide) but even before knowing the origin of the event, J&J intervened by withdrawing all the packages on the market: 31 million vials, for a value of about 100 million dollars.

When the company decided to recover its sales share (more than a third of the painkillers market) it found itself facing a difficult situation. Research showed that although 87% of respondents knew J&J was not responsible for the deaths, 61% were no longer willing to buy the product.

The company handled the problem in the best possible way: for months the top management made themselves available to give interviews to clarify the incident and affirm the total innocence of the company. Subsequently, J&J also activated an important communication and promotion campaign, distributing free samples of the product nationally, redesigned in its packaging and made safe from possible tampering.

This attitude led to long-term results: the tamper-evident packaging was patented and found wide adoption and, thanks to its effective crisis management and communication, J&J has strengthened its reputation.

Using empathy

The Tylenol case shows that if crisis management concerns the planning of actions aimed at positive resolution, the communication focuses on the negative perception that could arise, focusing on everything that must accompany the actions implemented.

Crisis communication has common elements in all areas: timeliness, centralization, sustainability and empathy.

Empathy, in particular, plays a major role in crisis communication in the healthcare sector.

If our desire is to get our messages heard, we need to be attentive to what we communicate, how we do it, and to whom. We must adapt actions, words and tones, suspend judgment, abandon our vision of things to focus on those who listen to us. If a company deals with health, it cannot be perceived as distant, cold and detached, self-referential.

The J&J case teaches us that trust and reputation can be consolidated in the most critical moments. The organization regains or increases its credibility and trust which, in the event of a crisis, assumes an empathic, honest and sincere attitude, always trying to use suitable messages at critical times and showing itself sensitive towards all those who are directly affected by the event that triggered the crisis.


  1. “Crisis Management. How to deal with and manage emergencies and unforeseen events “, FrancoAngeli, 2002
  2. “Open to commuinications: are you ready for your Morandi moment?” Patrick Trancu, TEDx Brianza, February 2020

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