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.


  • New day, new weapons.  In my opinion, it takes about 5-7 years to learn each of the 20+ golden rules of crisis communications…and the rest of your career to challenge every single one.  Crisis planning is a bit of the science.  As new “discoveries” surface (like, the emergence of Twitter) planning must adjust accordingly to provide the right direction.  Crisis counseling is the art — a combination of intense listening, relentless questioning, experience, instinct and the ability to recommend without being condescending.  Sometimes, the real art is knowing how to apply each of those skills carefully to keep a client engaged.
  • New day, new battlegrounds.  On the agency side, you get exposed to many different industries which can really help expand your world view.  It helps to have a touch of ADD, because within one afternoon you might be giving counsel to a teddy bear manufacturer about lead restrictions, an executive-compensation firm dealing with a Congressional inquiry, a pharmaceutical company about the difference between Class I, II and III FDA recall guidelines.  Some days, it’s like playing several simultaneous rounds of chess while on horseback.  If that sounds appealing, the Force is strong with you.
  • The privilege of access.  The issues/crisis team at Ketchum NY (six of us, currently) have probably had more contact with C-suite executives than a lot of our PR peers.  It’s not a privilege that we take lightly.  Those opportunities push us to be ever-vigilant to learn business from the top down.  As a result, it’s common to see us reading The Economist, sustainability Web sites, analyst reports and legal filings.  Education is truly a lifetime endeavor, and it makes us more well-rounded professionals, so that’s a positive.  On some occasions, that access to senior leadership also creates opportunities for our agency to help other parts of a client’s business, which is highly valued.
  • You will touch nearly every cog in the business wheel.   One last benefit of choosing a career in crisis communications – whether at an agency or on the corporate side – is connectivity.  Over the course of your career, you’ll work with professionals from marketing, PR, internal communications, legal, operations, government affairs, public affairs, security, business continuity, finance, compliance, ethics, human resources, IT, risk management…and so on.   In individual interactions, you’ll learn things that very few people get to know.  As a sum of the parts, you’ll gain incredible eagle-eye views of the challenges of business as a whole.  I can’t think of too many careers that provide such a panoramic view.  Granted, it’s usually a view of the pointed rocks below, and not necessarily the blue sky above.


I think if you ask each of my teammates this very question, you may get slightly different answers.  Therefore, these are things that I specifically seek when looking to hire someone to begin their career in crisis communications:

  • You have to love pressure.   It is a crazy career choice.  Accept that and thrive on that.  When things get particularly intense, you’re going to have to remind yourself “This is the path I chose.”
  • You must be endlessly inquisitive.  Asking the right questions is very important.  Asking the wrong questions – even more so.  Our valued teammates are the ones that aren’t afraid to ask clients the difficult questions to get to the bottom of a crisis situation.  And our best teammates learn how to do that in a way that cuts to the core of a situation, regardless of any political tension in the room.
  • Write well.  A good deal of our client counsel comes down to expressing a situation in simple language that most of the public can embrace.  Keep your pencils sharp and your erasers dull.  May I suggest an occasional guest-blogging opportunity to help keep your edge?   

James Donnelly is Senior Vice President of Crisis Management at Ketchum.  James began his career in an internal communications post at Rowland Worldwide.  He can be followed at

4 thoughts on “Crisis PR – The Path Less Traveled

  1. This is so true. Even as an intern in crisis communications I got the call from a VP asking me to come in at 10pm on a Friday night. Got home at noon Saturday. Worth it.

  2. Excellent guidance! I would add one more point…to gain experience, volunteer with your local Red Cross’ public affairs team!

  3. What I find amazing is the number of PR students planning a career in Crisis Management.
    While I admire the aspiration (and the chutzpa educators must have to teach this stuff without having done much, if any, of this work, except theoretically) one clear reality evident in James’ description is that there are very few of us who truly practice, or even achieve access, at the top echelons of management.
    Crisis Management has become another watered down topic by our profession, like Reputation Management, and Corporate Social Responsibility . . .that are used by practitioners to get face time with the boss only to wind up selling stuff the boss already knows how to do or has already rejected.
    James provides a template that needs to be used by practitioners to better and more accurately assess whether or not they really do crisis communications, or just bad news. The template could be used by management to carefully assess the actual capabilities of those who claim to be crisis managers or communicators.

  4. Sounds exciting; i’m interested but i’m doing my MBA, studied Software design in my undergraduate and do not see a way into crisis communication. From what i have read, people with a back ground in mass communications have a better shot when getting started. Any advice

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