Public Relations and Journalism in Times of Crisis

A Symbiotic Partnership

by Andrea Miller (Author) Jinx Coleman Broussard (Author)
©2019 Textbook XII, 232 Pages


Public Relations and Journalism in Times of Crisis dissects crisis communication case studies from both the journalists’ and the public relations professionals’ perspectives. The authors, Andrea Miller, a former journalist, and Jinx Coleman Broussard, a former public relations professional, interviewed dozens of journalists and PR professionals involved in some of the most visible crises of the last few years: Hurricane Katrina, Ebola in America, the Blue Bell Ice Cream recall, Susan G. Komen vs. Planned Parenthood, race relations in Ferguson, Missouri, and at the University of Missouri, the great flood of Baton Rouge in 2016, and the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. Hundreds of press releases and press stories were also reviewed. The authors provide practical strategies for working journalists and public relations practitioners to enhance the flow of information in a crisis so that audiences and stakeholders can make educated, rational decisions to protect their families and livelihoods. The book also acquaints professors and students of PR and journalism with the realities of covering and managing crises, including what works and why, as well as mistakes that occur that could damage their organizations. Public Relations and Journalism in Times of Crisis is unique for its analysis of the communication of cases from both perspectives. At the end of each case are takeaways for both sets of professionals, as well as industry best practice suggestions.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Praise for Public Relations and Journalism in Times of Crisis
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction (Andrea Miller / Jinx Coleman Broussard)
  • Chapter 1. Panic and Outrage: Ebola in America (Andrea Miller)
  • Chapter 2. Water, Water Everywhere…Again: Hurricane Katrina and the Baton Rouge Great Flood (Jinx Coleman Broussard)
  • Chapter 3. Death and Brand Loyalty: The Sticky Case of Blue Bell Ice Cream (Andrea Miller)
  • Chapter 4. A Movement in the Heartland, Part I: Ferguson, Missouri (Jinx Coleman Broussard)
  • Chapter 5. A Movement in the Heartland, Part II: Racial Tension at Mizzou (Jinx Coleman Broussard / Shaniece Bickham)
  • Chapter 6. A Divisive Issue: Susan G. Komen and Planned Parenthood (Andrea Miller)
  • Chapter 7. A National Day of Mourning: Sandy Hook Elementary (Andrea Miller)
  • Conclusion (Andrea Miller / Jinx Coleman Broussard)
  • Contributor Biography
  • Index


The authors of this book together have worked more than four decades in journalism and public relations and on top of that, more than four decades in higher education. In that time period, crisis communication and coverage have become mainstays to the professions. Both authors recognized the need for both sides of crisis communication to be evaluated all in one place, in one comprehensive text. Therefore, a goal of this book is to allow scholars, professors, students and professionals a view of crisis from all different angles, from all stakeholders—thinking critically about the roles and perspectives of the victims, press, media audiences, and PR organizations. We hope this book accomplishes this in order to help serve communities in crisis, to make sure all have the information they need to protect lives, livelihoods and reputations.

We would like to thank the Manship School of Mass Communication for its support and professorship donors Huie-Dellmon and Bart R. Swanson whose contributions made the expensive travels to conduct in-depth interviews possible. Thanks to Dr. Shaniece Bickham, assistant professor at Nicholls State University, for co-authoring the Mizzou chapter. We would also like to acknowledge our graduate research assistants Elizabeth Macke and Sirdaria Williams for locating primary and secondary sources and transcribing many hours of interviews.←ix | x→

We set out to explore these perspectives from within, so access to journalists and public relations professionals was crucial. We are indebted to the nearly 60 journalists, public relations professionals and scholars who gave their time and knowledge to this important project. Journalists and public relations professionals are often the first responders to crises and we would like to thank them for giving their best to ethical, transparent communication when times are at their worst.

Finally, we would like to thank our families for their support and encouragement.←x | 1→


Andrea Miller and Jinx Coleman Broussard

“A trusted source of information is the most important resilience asset that any individual or group can have in times of surprise” (Longstaff, 2005, p. 59). The public has an insatiable appetite for information when a crisis strikes a community, an individual or a business. Driven by a theory called anxiety reduction (Gudykunst, 1993) or the need to seek out information in order to ease fear and anxiety, people flock by the millions to social media, websites and television networks to find out the facts of a crisis. Mass communication professionals have a duty to provide what happened and what will happen next to people who are looking for ways to respond, cope and recover. Why is information in a crisis so important? Why does crisis create such a drive to know more? And why is it important that people come together in crisis?

In just ten weeks, the One Fund Boston organization raised almost $61 million for the April 15, 2013 Boston bombing victims. Americans came together after the terror attacks of 9/11 in a surge of patriotism (Abel, 2013). Crises do not play favorites. Journalists, law enforcement and city officials formed a common bond after Hurricane Katrina because there was a sense that they were all in this together. The storm destroyed the houses of journalists and public relations professionals as well as police officers. When people feel connected to others, the walls come down, and differences seem trivial.←1 | 2→ And while crises can bring people together, they can also pull them apart. This book will argue that the two information entities that need to work together during crises are the journalists and the public relations professionals. These groups are the providers of the information that allow citizens to make solid, informed decisions in times of crisis. When should I evacuate and along what route? Do I need to throw away all of the contaminated ice cream in my freezer? What has my school done to ensure my child’s safety? As we address these and other questions, such as exactly what a crisis is, we will hear from communicators on the front lines of crisis.

There is no question crises bring people together and can tear organizations and people apart. Almost all crises “immediately trigger a deluge of questions from an organization’s many different publics. Reporters, employees, stockholders, government officials, and local residents all want—need—to know, What happened? Who did it happen to? When? Where? How? Why?” (Marra, 1998, p. 461). Given this state of affairs, PR professionals and journalists need to work together, despite the often-divergent values, in order to be effective in answering these questions via crisis communication. According to the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) Code of Ethics, journalists operate according to the principles of seeking the truth, minimizing harm, acting independently and being accountable and transparent. News organizations must consider what information their audience values and needs as part of an informed electorate. News audiences traditionally value stories that are timely and relevant. But audiences are also attentive to stories with an element of conflict, which are often textbook crisis stories.

According to the Public Relations Society of America’s Member Statement of Professional Values (PRSA), important values include loyally advocating on behalf of one’s organization, operating with honesty and fairness, and exercising the independence to determine what’s in the public’s interest. In the intersection of these different sets of values lies the public’s need for information. In a time of crisis, both PR practitioners and journalists strive to adhere to their professional, ethical values while serving the public’s need for information. Sometimes the two sides work together well in meeting this need. Other times these values cause conflict. It is important to note that public relations practitioners in the private sector enact a different role from colleagues who work for governmental and other public entities. The latter “must provide information to citizens about the work of their respective state agencies at the request of citizens and the media, while private sector practitioners have the latitude to selectively provide information to the public in←2 | 3→ representing their clients or organizations” (McCollough, 2012, p. 1). This book looks at how public and private sector practitioners function during crises as well as their relationships and interactions with journalists.

Journalists and PR professionals define crisis somewhat differently. Ask PR professionals and they may say a crisis is “a significant threat to operations or reputations that can have negative consequences if not handled properly” (Coombs, 2007). Ask a journalist what a crisis is and he or she might say a non-routine event (either unexpected or expected) that interrupts the daily routine and demands additional time, attention and resources to gather information and cover the story (Berkowitz, 1992). These highly unexpected events of major proportions are often deemed what-a-stories and all-out, large-scale journalistic efforts are put in place to saturate, process and cover the story in often the most challenging of situations (Berkowitz, 1992; Tuchman, 1978).

The two definitions have similarities, yet the end goals are slightly different. In journalism, the end goal is ethical and successful transmission of information to the public to enable citizens to make enlightened decisions. PR practitioners are also interested in disseminating information their publics want and need to know as quickly and correctly as circumstances allow. Excellent PR demands that the practitioners act with both the organization and its publics in mind (Grunig, 1992; Grunig & Hunt, 1984; Ledingham & Bruning, 1998). In other words, PR should go beyond self-interest to mutual benefit. Coombs points out that “To be ethical, crisis managers must begin their efforts by using communication to address the physical and psychological concerns of the victims” (p. 165). Another PR goal is to offer information to help “manage” the crisis in order to preserve an organization’s economics and reputation, which “is an aggregate evaluation stakeholders make about how well and organization is meeting stakeholder expectations based on its past behaviors” (Coombs, 2007, p. 164). Often, crisis response for the organization is predicated on mandating that PR practitioners protect its image and reputation. Responses can range from defensive to accommodation and include attacking the accuser, denial, excuse, justification, ingratiation, corrective action and full apology (Benoit, 1995).

This is often where the conflict lies between the two entities. Journalists often believe PR people are more interested in managing reputation, rather than providing solid information. PR practitioners often believe journalists lack sufficient knowledge of what they are covering and are unreasonable in their quest—even demands—for information when practitioners do not have←3 | 4→ the information. Denise Bentele, who owns the PR firm that initially managed crisis communication in the days and weeks following the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, said her staff received thousands of requests, one right after the other, from reporters who wanted answers immediately (personal communication, June, 2016). This conflict between journalists and PR professionals plays out after every crisis event.

This book takes a case study approach to look at various crises, one at a time, through the lens of both journalists and public relations professionals. Because a vast body of scholarship explores both journalism and public relations as well as the manner in which both fields cover crises, we take a different approach that looks at the two together and places the cases within the context of established crisis literature relative to PR and journalism. We introduce the crisis, and then walk through how it was handled from a PR perspective, relying on information from the very people who managed the crisis and created and disseminated the crisis communication. We next use the voices of the journalists to analyze their experiences and interactions during the crisis, and we dissect their coverage of the crisis.

We conducted in-depth interviews with almost 60 journalists and public relations practitioners. Then, we read through hundreds of press accounts and press releases for each event. Much formal and informal scholarship and research exist that undergird the development of these practical case studies. As we delve in to each case study, we include theoretical literature in order to better contextualize and explain the case. However, a major goal of this book is to provide practical strategies for working journalists and public relations practitioners to enhance the flow of information in a crisis so that audiences and stakeholders can make educated, rational decisions to protect their families and livelihoods. Another goal of our book is to acquaint professors and students of PR and journalism with the realities of covering and managing crises, including what works and why, as well as mistakes that occur that could damage their organizations. We want all who are involved in crisis communication and coverage to be prepared.

Journalists and Crisis

The importance of the press in the United States is constitutional—an integral part of what the founding fathers believed was necessary to serve the new, democratic electorate. Journalism was considered a noble profession whose←4 | 5→ goals and duties were to fulfill the surveillance function and recount events for those who could not be there to witness them. From the beginning and through the days of the penny press’ sensationalism and the muckrakers’ riveting and revealing investigations, it became clear coverage of unique and tragic events sparked much public interest.

Crisis events cause a shift in how the press covers stories. Communication scholars call crises non-routine news because journalists break from the daily, normal routine in order to cover these breaking stories. All time, efforts and resources are used to report and present the story that is unfolding. Journalists also cover “lesser” crises than the obvious natural or public health disasters that have widespread effects. Public relations also differentiates between types of crisis that we address in this book. Additionally, crisis is perceptual—what is a crisis to one individual or group, may not be considered such to the next. But in what journalists call the monumental, unprecedented “holy shit” moments (Berkowitz, 2000) when mortality is salient, journalism becomes the lifeline and the first draft of history. “News is never as important as when we are afraid” (Stephens, 2007, p. 11). In turn, audiences seek out more and more information from the media. In the day that the levees broke after Hurricane Katrina, WWL-TV’s website crashed as people from all over the world sought local information on the developing story. The same traffic overload occurred almost eight years later as the Newtown Bee website crashed, as people sought to learn more about the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut.

The press has also been accused of being sensationalistic because of the knowledge that crisis commands attention from news consumers. After the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, seven hundred and fifty (750) news organizations converged on the small, Denver suburb. Upwards of that number of national and international journalists flocked to Ferguson, Missouri, population 21,000. Bentele said “thousands” of journalists came from all over the world. Almost a thousand took over Newtown, Connecticut. Bee reporter Kendra Bobowick, who had a nephew who attended Sandy Hook, said the town was overrun by reporters. “And that’s how our town turned into not our town,” she said (Miller, Roberts, & LaPoe, 2014). The sheer numbers of press can be overwhelming for a community and for the PR professionals who are providing information. But reporters know that covering crisis well can make or break a career. If a reporter is seeking a job at a larger or more prestigious news outlet, solid coverage of a crisis creates an impressive portfolio of work. Yet communication scholars have criticized that very work as being episodic and promoting victimization and stereotypes (Miller et al., 2014).←5 | 6→

Crisis coverage in the press has also evolved with technology. Television used to be the go-to outlet, now the public is informed first about a crisis via Twitter or Facebook. After scanning social media, then perhaps the television is turned on or a local news website is accessed. With so many ways to get “news,” the jobs of the journalists becomes more important because of their professional training that includes a commitment to accurate, well-sourced, and ethical information. This takes time, whereas social media is immediate. At the same time, the reputation of a client, whether it is a municipality or a higher education institution, often hinges on how the public relations practitioner manages the crisis communication. Journalism, as history, is about record, representation and meaning and its importance is increased in crisis situations (Kitch & Hume, 2008). PR is about relationships and reputation.

Public Relations Practitioners and Crisis

Public relations scholars and practitioners define crisis events in a variety of ways, but essential commonalities exist. For instance, Kathleen Fearn-Banks (2017) writes in her seminal book on crisis communication that a crisis is “a major occurrence with a potentially negative outcome affecting the organization, company, or industry, as well as its publics, products, services or good name.” Crises disrupt “normal business transactions and can sometimes threaten the existence of the organization” (p. 1). Mitroff and Anagnos (2001), note that “in order for a major crisis to occur, it must exact a major toll on human lives, property, financial earnings, the reputation, and the general health and well-being of an organization” (pp. 34–35). A crisis can threaten an organization’s reputation and damage the stakeholder /organization relationship (Coombs, 2007; Dowling, 2002). Timothy Coombs (2015) calls crisis simply a breakdown in a system that causes shared stress.


XII, 232
ISBN (Softcover)
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (June)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Vienna, Oxford, Wien, 2019. XII, 232 pp.

Biographical notes

Andrea Miller (Author) Jinx Coleman Broussard (Author)

Andrea Miller is the Huie-Dellmon Professor at Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication. She is a co-author of Oil and Water and News Evolution or Revolution? Prior to receiving her doctorate from the Missouri School of Journalism, Dr. Miller was an award-winning television news producer in Texas. Jinx Coleman Broussard is the Bart R. Swanson Endowed Memorial Professor at Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication. She is the author of Giving a Voice to the Voiceless and the national award-winning African American Foreign Correspondents. Dr. Broussard received her doctorate from the University of Southern Mississippi and worked for more than three decades in public relations.


Title: Public Relations and Journalism in Times of Crisis
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246 pages