Communication researchers have offered several useful definitions of a crisis. According to Fearn-Banks (2009), “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” (p. 8). Whereas this definition focuses on organizations as the setting of a crisis, other scholars provide a more inclusive definition of a crisis as “a situation in which goals are at stake that are of high importance to the system (high valence) when the probability that these (necessary) goals will be achieved is (too) small” (Mulder, Ritsema van Eck, & de Jong, 1971). Finally, a crisis has been described as having three defining characteristics: (1) it is unexpected, (2) it creates uncertainty, and (3) it is seen as a threat to important goals (Seeger, Sellnow, & Ulmer, 1998). Of note, all of these definitions point to the prominent role of goals in a crisis. Necessarily, a crisis challenges the achievement of goals.

Importantly, the term crisis denotes an issue larger than a problem, which is a normal and expected part of everyday interaction or of the normal course of events in an organization or family (Fearn-Banks, 2009). In other words, problems are part of the structure of norms in an organization or relationship. A crisis, on the other hand, challenges norms (i.e., is abnormal) and interrupts the flow of an interaction, relationship, or organization, although it may not necessarily destroy what it affects (Fearn-Banks, 2009).


The word crisis is derived from the Latin crisis and the Greek κρίσις (krisis) meaning discrimination or decision (Crisis, 2012). In the 16th century, it was used in medicine to describe the point in a disease trajectory when a development takes place that determines whether one will recover. In the 17th century, it took on a meaning in astrology referring to a system of planets that determines a turning point in an event. Finally, in the 17th century, it took on the meaning closer to what is used currently – a decisive point in the course of an event where change, either for better or for worse, is inevitable (Crisis, 2012).

Crisis in Context

Crises can occur and, thus, can be studied in a variety of contexts, including governments, organizations, families, and interpersonal relationships; however, in communication, research focuses heavily on crises in organizations, their effects, and the structures in place to manage them (see also Crisis Communication). For example, organizations experiencing a crisis are less routinized, more difficult, and more urgent than non-crisis organizations (Mulder et al., 1971). Moreover, the leaders of organizations in crisis display less social-emotional directedness, are less positive in relations, and are less directed toward integration (Mulder et al., 1971).

Although much research on crises focuses on organizations, scholars have also extensively studied families and individuals in crisis. In these contexts, crises are conceptualized as moments or events of adversity, such as deaths, illnesses, or prolonged hardships (Walsh, 1996). More specifically, a crisis is defined as “a transitional period during which a variety of environmental stresses (e.g., death, divorce, illness, premature birth, financial difficulty) created problems of such magnitude that the individual was unable to use his normal coping skills” (Eisler & Hersen, 1973, p. 111). Crises affect individuals in a multitude of contexts.

Stages of an Organizational Crisis

Fearn-Banks (2009) asserts that organizational crises are characterized by five stages.
  1. The first is the detection stage, in which warning signs, also called prodromes, are perceived and noted. In this stage, key individuals are notified of the potential or impending crisis.
  2. Second is the prevention/preparation stage, in which individuals either take steps to keep the crisis from happening, or, if it is inevitable, they prepare to lessen the impact or duration of the crisis when it occurs. Individuals learn what their roles during the crisis will be and construct emergency protocols if they are not already in place.
  3. During the containment stage, the crisis occurs, and organizations make efforts to limit it and keep it from spreading. The goal in this stage is to ensure that the crisis affects as few people as possible.
  4. After the crisis, organizations enter the recovery stage, when they attempt to return to business as usual and leave the crisis behind. They attempt to restore normalcy to operations and personnel.
  5. The final stage in an organizational crisis is learning, wherein organizations examine the crisis and put systems in place to prevent the same kind of event from reoccurring. In this stage, they also attempt to restore confidence in relevant audiences and publics.


Whether in organizational, family, or individual contexts, research on crisis situations is guided by several relevant theories. Some of the most frequently cited of these theories include:
  • Apologia theory (Ware & Linkugel, 1973)
  • Chaos theory (Seeger, 2002)
  • Crisis theory (Halpern, 1973)
  • Diffusion theory (Rogers, 2003)
  • Excellence theory (Grunig & Hunt, 1984)
  • Family resilience theory (Walsh, 1996)
  • Image restoration theory (Benoit, 1997)
  • Situational Crisis Communication Theory (e.g., Coombs, 2004)

Erin Basinger (July 2012).

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