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Crisis communication and ethics: the role of public relations

Yan Jin (Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia, USA)
Augustine Pang (Nanyang Technological University, Singapore)
Joshua Smith (Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia, USA)

Journal of Business Strategy

ISSN: 0275-6668

Article publication date: 15 January 2018




The purpose of this paper is to explore the veracity of the contingency model of ethical crisis communication by examining the factors of influence in a time of crisis including what constitutes ethics in a time of crisis; the role of public relations (PR) practitioners as the “moral conscience” of an organization and perceptions of the PR’ role within top management.


In-depth interviews were conducted among ten senior PR managers with crisis communication experience in North America.


This research identifies and investigates six ethical variables – the nature of the crisis, the role of top management, the activism of stakeholders, government regulation/intervention, the diversity of cultures and the exposure to external business environments – and their potential influences on an organization’s communication practices.

Research limitations/implications

The qualitative approach does not produce generalizable results. In addition, the authors could have interviewed more people, although the authors have reached information saturation in analyzing the interview data based on the ten interviews conducted.

Practical implications

Insights from this exploratory study contribute to answering the “how” questions with empirical data that enhance the clarity on the roadmap of ethical factors in crisis communication practice.


Unlike other conceptual work that explores moral philosophies in ethics, this study aims to offer a practical approach – rather than a philosophical argument and persuasion – that is rooted in the practitioner’s world.



This study is funded by C.R. Anderson Research Foundation, Association for Business Communication.


Jin, Y., Pang, A. and Smith, J. (2018), "Crisis communication and ethics: the role of public relations", Journal of Business Strategy, Vol. 39 No. 1, pp. 43-52.



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Copyright © 2018, Emerald Publishing Limited

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