Ethical and Unethical Crisis Management

Posted by PRSA_MelissaMY on 04/27/2020 11:22 am  

By Melissa May, APR

On April 1, PR crisis and ethics expert James Lukaszewski, APR, Fellow PRSA, delivered a webinar to PRSA ethics officers around the country. The co-author of The Decency Code guided participants in approaches to prevent and respond to crises, with a focus on COVID-19.

Jim has spoken at PRSA forums for even longer than I’ve been a member, which speaks volumes about his resilience, relevance, and wisdom. He confirmed that crises often stem from unethical behaviors and that ethical problems start at the top. Silence promotes and protects unethical behavior.

Similar to the advice shared in last month’s newsletter, Jim likes to ask his clients “What would your mother say?” as they consider their decisions. Our values and empathy should guide our decision making.

Jim defines a crisis as a “people-stopping, show-stopping, product-stopping, reputationally-redefining event that creates victims and/or explosive visibility.” When crises occur, apology and empathy are the very least of the expectations publics demand of organizations’ leaders.

Jim defined “Apology” as the atomic energy of empathy. Apologies tend to stop bad things from starting and to start stopping bad things. Our apologies should be authentic and aim to calm victims. He discussed how legal counsel often intervenes to prevent or water down apologies and how PR counsel should be prepared to address those concerns.

“Empathy,” he described, as positive, constructive actions and deeds that demonstrate civility, decency and integrity while speaking louder than words possibly can.

Many of us are familiar with the term “the golden hour.” In medical lingo, it’s the period of time following a traumatic injury when prompt treatment will prevent death. Jim applies this term to PR in response to a crisis. We must communicate quickly, and often, as soon as we become aware of a crisis. Among his truisms are:

  • Bad news always ripens badly
  • Every moment of indecision creates unseen but avoidable collateral damage
  • Silence is the most toxic strategy
  • Speed beats smart every time


Jim’s Crisis Response Grand Strategy includes five major steps:

  • Stop the production of victims, defined as people, animals, and “living systems”
  • Manage the victim dimension
  • Communicate internally
  • Notify those indirectly affected; talk to all impacted publics
  • Manage the new media, legacy media, bloggers, guessers, people smarter than you


We all know that ethics is not a topic to discuss just occasionally. It’s vital to engage in ethical action daily. Jim recommends that PR professionals conduct a personal daily ethics audit. He urges us to ask these questions every day:

  • What is the ideal behavior here?
  • How are ethical questions being surfaced and addressed?
  • What is remaining unsaid, ignored, actually covered up?
  • When will leaders address the ethical expectations of others?
  • Is the profit motive in balance with your own ethical expectations?


Jim closed his talk with advice for resolving ethical dilemmas. He suggested we follow the guidelines set out by Kathy R. Fitzpatrick, JD, APR, Former Member BEPS:

Ethical Decision-Making Guide

  • Define the specific ethical issue/conflict.
  • Identify internal/external factors (e.g., legal, political, social, economic) that may influence the decision.
  • Identify key values.
  • Identify the parties who will be affected by the decision and define the public relations professional’s obligation to each.
  • Select ethical principles to guide the decision-making process.
  • Make a decision and justify it.


Check out Jim’s talk and slide deck now available online.