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Mental Health in Crisis Management

Emma Duke, committee member and Founder of Emma Duke PR and Public Relations Oxford reports on a recent event she ran, looking into the ways in which we can support our mental health and wellbeing in a crisis situation.

As PR professionals, handling a crisis is a core part of our roles.

We all recognise the feeling of adrenaline hitting with the first flurry of calls as an issue emerges...the fast-paced decision-making, the incoming calls, social media monitoring, the need to alert, brief and influence senior leaders under pressure...the skills required to manage a team, likely under-fire both internally and externally.

But what happens when the dust settles? After the 'lessons learned' meeting? What impact does sustained endurance under this level of pressure have on our ability to do our day-to-day jobs well? What elements of our personal wellbeing have we pushed to one-side during that crisis?

I recently chaired an event for Public Relations Oxford on this very subject. Our panellists, Amanda Coleman, Ella Percival and Gill Munro shared some of their extensive crisis comms experience (including the Manchester Arena bombing, the dictionary definition of woman and the Jimmy Saville scandal at the BBC, respectively), along with their personal experiences of recognising the impact on their mental health and wellbeing.

We talked about situations where your values are challenged, either by the issue at the centre of the crisis, or by the company's response, which you're inevitably then responsible for delivering. Particularly when, in times of high stress, relationships with leaders can become strained, how do you enact the role of 'trusted advisor' when you're under significant pressure and others may be questioning your advice? We recognised the role of psychological safety in a crisis situation, particularly when we've all seen cases of the PR person becoming the fall guy.

We discussed the challenge of looking after both your own and your teams' wellbeing, at a time when likely you're all receiving demands from multiple angles, both internally and externally. How do you process a potentially traumatic event personally, while running a crisis, especially when confidentiality precludes a good chat / rant with friends.

We also picked up the topic of imposter syndrome within this context, from "I'm not an expert in this issue, what right do I have to talk about it?" to "I'm struggling, but I'm not directly impacted by the issues involved, how do I ask for help?"

Crucially, we talked about feelings of failure when you're managing a crisis. There are multiple people likely negatively (sometimes fatally) impacted by an issue you're dealing with. How do you deal with your feelings about their fate, particularly if you don't feel the issue was handled well and whether you or your organisation was able to support those impacted sufficiently.

Finally, we talked about recovery. I know from personal experience the feeling when your adrenaline drops, the media stop calling, the trolls quiet down and leaders move on. How do you process what just happened? Should you? How do you make the transition from on-alert-24/7 to normal life again, when - likely - you've experienced real challenges to your wellbeing. All speakers recommended seeking professional support, either as part of your company's employee assistance programme or separately. The speakers had other suggestions too. My favourite? Writing down all of your feelings and frustrations and then burning those pages (in a controlled and safe environment obvs).

My biggest takeaway from this event was the load that we carry in PR. Amanda emphasised the challenge of being described as not 'front-line' in a crisis, when often we need to learn and see all of the darkest elements in order to be able to formulate a response and - crucially - empathise with those impacted. We know there is research into journalists' mental health and wellbeing when they report on traumatic events, maybe we should be looking into this from a PR perspective?


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