Ethics in Crisis Management

Lesson 1 Lesson Plan

Learning objectives

Key concepts

Crisis Communication; Accepting or denying/evading responsibility (for crisis event); accountability for one’s action; humanitarian care (for victims of crisis)

Lesson 2 Lesson Plan

Learning objectives

Key concepts

Significant choice ethical framework; information uncertainty; communication ambiguity; ethics of withholding information


Module Overview

Lesson 1

A crisis can interrupt an organization’s routine business, bring threats to public safety or lead to financial and reputation loss. This lesson addresses prominent ethical issues in crisis situations. They include responsibility and accountability, and the ethics of humanistic care. These issues are almost always present in various types of crisis situations and have significant consequences.

Lesson 2

A crisis is an unexpected event/situation that can potentially cause severe damage to an organization or the public. Crisis management is designed to protect an organization and its stakeholders from threats and/or reduce the impact of the threats. This lesson addresses the important ethical issue of access to information during a crisis. The concepts of significant choice for stakeholders is discussed, as well as the challenges of information uncertainty and ambiguity.  Then the lesson discusses the ethical question of withholding communication or temporarily delaying information release during a crisis.

Citations & Resources

Lesson 1 Works Cited & Resources

Benoit, W. L. (1997) Image repair discourse and crisis communication. Public Relations Review, 23(2), 177-180.

Bivins, T. H. (2006). Responsibility and accountability. Ethics in public relations: Responsible advocacy, 19-38, p. 22.

Bowie, Norman. (1982) Business Ethics. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall.

Coombs, W.T. (2007a). Crisis Management and Communications. Institute for Public Relations Essential Knowledge Project,

Coombs, W. T. (2007b). Protecting organization reputations during a crisis: The development and application of situational crisis communication theory. Corporate reputation review, 10(3), pp. 163-176.

Coombs, W. T., & Holladay, S. J. (Eds.). (2011). The handbook of crisis communication (Vol. 22). John Wiley & Sons, p.18.

Fearn-Banks, K. (2007). Crisis communications—A casebook approach (3rd ed.). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Fearn-Banks, K. (2010). Crisis communications—A casebook approach (4th ed.). New York, NY: Routledge, p. 2.

Gibson, K. (2000). Excuses, Excuses: Moral Slippage in the Workplace. Business Horizons. 43, no. 6, 65–72.

Hayes, D. C., Kumar, P. D., & Hendrix, J. A. (2013). Public relations cases. Wadsworth Cengage Learning, p.346.

Johannesen, R. L., Valde, K. S., & Whedbee, K. E. (2008). Ethics in human communication. Waveland    Press.

Lerbinger, O. (2012). The crisis manager. Routledge.

McQuail, D. (2003). Media accountability and freedom of publication. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mitroff, I.I. (1994). Crisis management and environmentalism: A natural fit. California Management Review, 36(2), pp. 101-113.

Pirson, M. A., & Lawrence, P. R. (2010). Humanism in business–towards a paradigm shift?. Journal of     Business Ethics, 93(4), 553-565, p. 6.

Ulmer, R. R., Sellnow, T. L., & Seeger, M. W. (2013). Effective crisis communication: Moving from crisis to opportunity. Sage Publications.

Lesson 1 Case Study

Associated Press, “BP chief at yacht race while oil spews into Gulf," New Zealand Herald. (June 20, 2010).

Corkindale, G. (2011). Five leadership lessons from the BP oil spill. Harvard Business Review.

Griffin, D., Black, N. & C. Devine, “5 years after the Gulf oil spill: What we do (and
don't) know,” CNN, April 20, 2015

McClam E. & Weber, H. BP’s failures made worse by PR mistakes,, 2010.

NPR, “BP: A Textbook Example Of How Not To Handle PR” April 21, 2011

Padgett, D. R. G., Cheng, S. S., & Parekh, V. (2013). The quest for transparency and accountability: Communicating responsibly to stakeholders in crises. Asian Social Science, 9(9), 31.

Reguly, E. BP’s PR woes start at the top, The Globe and Mail (June 16, 2010).

T. Bergin, “Analysis: BP PR blunders carry high political cost.” Reuters (June 29, 2010).

Vidal, J. BP’s PR campaign fails to clean up reputation after Gulf oil spill,
Guardian, 2011.

Lesson 2 Works Cited & Resources

Brown, L. M., Haun, J. N., & Peterson, L. (2014). A proposed disaster literacy model. Disaster medicine and public health preparedness, 8(3), 267-275.

Covello, V. T. (2003). Best practices in public health risk and crisis communication. Journal of Health Communication, 8(S1), 5-8.

Fearn-Banks, K. (2010). Crisis communications—A casebook approach (4th ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

Fitzpatrick, K. (2006). Baselines for ethical advocacy in the “marketplace of ideas.” Ethics in public relations: Responsible advocacy, 1-17. p.13.

Kramer, M. W. (2004). Managing uncertainty in organizational communication. Mahwah, NJ. Lawrence Erlbaum. Pp.8-9.

Littlefield, R. S., & Quenette, A. M. (2007). Crisis leadership and Hurricane Katrina: The portrayal of authority by the media in natural disasters. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 35(1), 26-47.

Nilsen, T. R. (1974). Ethics of speech communication (Vol. 10). Bobbs-Merrill Company.

O'Malley, P., Rainford, J., & Thompson, A. (2009). Transparency during public health emergencies: from rhetoric to reality. Bulletin of the World Health Organization, 87(8), 614-618.

Prue, C. E., Lackey, C., Swenarski, L., & Gantt, J. M. (2003). Communication monitoring: shaping CDC's emergency risk communication efforts. Journal of Health Communication, 8(S1), 35-49.

Seeger, M. W. (2006). Best practices in crisis communication: An expert panel process. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 34(3), 232-244.

Ulmer, R. R., & Sellnow, T. L. (2000). Consistent questions of ambiguity in organizational crisis communication: Jack in the Box as a case study. Journal of Business Ethics, 25(2), 143-155.

Ulmer, R. R., & Sellnow, T. L. (1997). Strategic ambiguity and the ethic of significant choice in the tobacco industry's crisis communication. Communication Studies, 48(3), 215-233.

Ulmer, R. R., Sellnow, T. L., & Seeger, M. W. (2013). Effective crisis communication: Moving from crisis to opportunity. Sage Publications.

Module Developer

Janice H. Xu

Dr. Janice H. Xu

Associate Professor, Holy Family University

Janice H. Xu (Ph.D. in communication, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) is associate professor of Communication at Holy Family University, Pennsylvania. Prior to college teaching in the U.S., she worked as lecturer of international communication in Peking University in China, news assistant at New York Times Beijing Bureau, and radio broadcaster at Voice of America, Washington DC. She has published journal articles and book chapters on grassroots activism, technology in public relations, and digital divide. She serves as external reviewer for Research Grants Council of Hong Kong, and has provided research work for US District Court Southern District of New York as expert witness.

She may be reached at

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