Crisis Communication: Victims and Villains

June 28, 2019

Organizations are often labelled as either a ‘victim’ or a ‘villain’ by the public, based on their preconceptions as to the cause of a crisis. Alison Burrell, Associate Director of Marketing and Communications at NYA, advises on how to avoid becoming the villain in such scenarios.

A crisis caused by external factors, such as a natural hazard or terror attack, will typically define the organization as a victim. The public, at least initially, will often look upon its misfortunes benevolently. That said, an organization originally perceived as a victim can quickly become a villain if the company fails to respond appropriately or communicate effectively.

The fluctuating nature of public opinion further highlights the crisis axiom that, in order to manage a crisis competently, an organization must also communicate effectively during the process.

So often we see organizations responding well to an incident, managing it effectively behind the scenes and carrying out the appropriate actions, but failing to communicate what it is doing to the wider world.


GardaWorld crisis management


For example, an organization cannot be blamed for a hurricane, but it can be criticised for how it manages the impact of the event on its stakeholders. During Hurricane Sandy in October 2012, two power companies, Atlantic City Electric (ACE) and Consolidated Edison (ConEd), dealt with the situation in opposing manners. The outcomes provide a salient case study of how organizations can become a villain or remain a victim.


A convincing example

Both were affected by total power loss. Prior to the storm, ACE had enrolled all its customers into an automated call system as part of its crisis preparedness plan. Through various modes of communication, including an ‘outage tracking’ phone app, social media, website, frequent press releases and press conferences, it could communicate with its customers quickly, efficiently and with a constant message. These measures ensured that stakeholders received honest and transparent information.

Conversely, ConEd failed to communicate effectively with its stakeholders. Through social media, it provided six different dates for power restoration and alternative explanations for the delays. Customers became angry as a result of confused communications and used social media to voice frustration and annoyance. Damaging stories circulated, with the negative impact on ConEd’s reputation being the natural conclusion.

ACE emerged from the crisis with its reputation enhanced, while ConEd became a villain in the eyes of its stakeholders. Despite being affected by the hurricane in exactly the same manner, ACE’s preparations began before the storm hit and contingency plans for additional resources were initiated immediately.


GardaWorld crisis management experts



Predict the crisis to better manage it

Within crisis management, there are two interlocking elements: incident management and crisis communications. These should be handled in tandem – ensuring that the company conducts itself appropriately and communicates effectively.

To plan for communication during a crisis, an organization must ensure that it knows its stakeholders. Stakeholder mapping prior to a crisis is a crucial part of crisis-ready planning and means all key parties should be considered and communicated with in the most appropriate manner during a crisis.

Mapping should prioritise each stakeholder group, the communication channel and key messages, as well as who within the organization owns the relationship with the stakeholder group. This will provide clear instructions in a crisis to allow communications to be disseminated timeously and to the right audience. Companies should also prepare holding statements so that they can quickly notify the public that they are aware of the crisis, advise that an investigation is underway, and provide directions as to where and when people can obtain further information.


About NYA

NYA, a GardaWorld company, helps organizations build their crisis management capability: and an essential component is crisis communication.

Our crisis communication consulting services include;

  • Communication policies and plan development
  • Stakeholder mapping
  • Drafting communications
  • Spokesperson training
  • Press conference support
  • Online media monitoring and management through NYA's DigitalTrace

To get your copy of the Crisis Response Journal visit