Is this a crisis or just a bad day?

It’s a question often posed by our founder and CEO Kathy Tunheim when receiving calls from distressed clients. It quickly determines what level of communications intervention is necessary, and it gets at the core of the issue: What do people actually think?

Public relations and psychology are inextricably linked from the relationships we build to the ways we solve a problem. During a crisis, our strategies aim to influence what people think, how they feel and what they do in response. It’s difficult to reason with an angry mob so to speak, which makes understanding psychology extremely beneficial for public relations professionals in times of crisis.

Let’s examine the link between crisis communications and psychology and how it determines the proper response.

Anger, Anxiety and Fear, Oh My!

Understanding certain principles of psychology can help us tailor our messages effectively and provides insight into how people respond during a crisis. Emotional responses are often the first ones to kick in. Emotions have strong influences over daily decisions that we make and the activities we engage in.

There are three components of emotion: the subjective experience, the physiological response and the behavioral response. Everybody experiences anger differently; some are quicker to anger or are more hot-tempered than others. That is the subjective aspect.

The physiological response is less relevant to us, but it includes involuntary responses such as a palpitating heart out of fear. Behavioral responses are the way people express their emotions. Some may tweet angrily while others may protest or even threaten legal action.

Effective crisis communicators know how to speak to people experiencing anger, anxiety and fear, and limit the behavioral responses – like angry tweets – that can harm a company’s reputation.


When someone is experiencing a strong emotion such as anger, an effective communications strategy will validate and empathize with those feelings. The goal is emotional regulation or the ability to control one’s emotions and remain calm. Using empathetic language and active listening strategies, such as statements starting with “We understand…” can make people feel heard.

Typically, people are quick to believe things and slow to change their minds. Psychologists focus on cognitive behavioral therapy for managing anger to identify unhelpful or negative thought patterns and change beliefs. Crisis communicators do just that by acknowledging how people feel and diverting their thoughts over time through transparency and trust building.


When fear is the emotion that needs to be addressed, one common misconception is that acknowledging risk increases fear. People typically assume the worst in crisis; they naturally expect that there is risk.

That said, it is important to acknowledge uncertainty in any crisis. Fear of the unknown is certainly real, and it is ok to admit you do not have all of the answers. But you are also working as quickly as possible to deliver answers and find the best possible resolution to the issue. It is a way of establishing trust and demonstrating a sincere response.


Manage expectations and anxiety. “Everything is under control,” can come off as overly optimistic considering people often assume the worst. Issues are rarely resolved when you think they might, therefore an ongoing response is almost always better than an expected resolution date.

Larger crises or disasters can cause some to panic (PDF) and take action. It is important in these circumstances to acknowledge people’s desire to be proactive, but explain why some actions may be harmful and redirect them to the most appropriate course of action.

Furthermore, studies show that those not directly affected can see themselves as at risk. One study demonstrated that the more TV news people consumed about the 9/11 terror attacks, the more likely they were to experience symptoms of PTSD. Clearly defining who is at risk and who is not can reassure the wider public of their security and acknowledges the seriousness of the situation without downplaying it.

Getting down to the psychology of the person can help us humanize a crisis. We acknowledge that there are groups that form during a crisis. However, we also recognize every person is different, and we must address multiple emotions at once.

Now that we understand how emotions impact our messaging, what is the science behind the best response?

Shopping for the Best Strategy

There are a few ways to respond depending on the circumstances. Situational Crisis Communication Theory (SCCT) outlines four types of responses:

  • Rebuilding Strategy – Rebuild relationships with stakeholders by taking responsibility for the crisis and offering apologies or compensation. Use under accidental crises.
  • Diminish Strategy – Minimize responsibility placed on the organization by justifying and offering reasons for the company’s actions. Use when not at fault.
  • Deny Strategy – Re-assign blame away from the organization by confronting the accuser(s) for invalid accusations, denying existence of a crisis, or blaming another party. Use when faced with rumors that are not true.
  • Bolster Strategy – Position the organization as an asset to its stakeholders by reminding them of the organization’s former good deeds and praising them for their loyalty. Use in conjunction with other strategies.

While the correct response will vary with every situation, the Deny Strategy tends to be very unreliable, and psychology has the answer. In the context of COVID-19, the public distrusted mayors who denied the existence of a crisis.

Another study that involved a sunk cruise ship found that consumers favor companies that confess rather than avoid accountability. Logic tells us that there should be adverse consequences to confession. “The transgressor accepts full responsibility, which theoretically increases anger and subsequent punishment, retaliation, and so forth. Yet the converse holds true,” the study quotes. The results showed that consumers’ emotions of anger and sympathy play a mediating role, as most consumers value honesty.

Still another found that people are more empathetic towards companies who use the Rebuilding Strategy as opposed to the Deny Strategy.

In psychology, denial is a defense mechanism in which a person refuses to accept a fact. Depending on the seriousness of the accusations, a company trying to reassign blame may come off as overly defensive even if the rumors are false.

Regardless, every company large or small should have a crisis plan in place so that when a bad day turns into a crisis, they are ready.

Are you experiencing a crisis? Do you need to develop a crisis action and prevention plan? Tunheim’s experts are hardened veterans. Reach out today for crisis consultation.

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