Picture of tired man over blackboard with crisis inscription

Crisis Management in the Public Sector


There are many ways to deal with a crisis. Public relations agencies have the skill to talk about the event and provide updates. What happens when we cannot retain those outside agencies and rely on novice officials to release information? We live in a world where the world receives data in a tweet. A user sees the tweet and posts on Facebook and Instagram. As a result of speed of information, thousands of people know about the situation.

The Tylenol Case:

In 1982, Tylenol faced a major crisis used as a teaching example today. I learned about the case in graduate school, showing how a company spoke the truth never before seen. The story behind the crisis surrounds situations of cyanide in Extra-Strength Tylenol. When this happened, many wondered how someone altered the bottles. In addition, one idea had a grumpy worker opening pill bottles. Another story had a customer taking the product off the shelves, adding the cyanide, and replacing that same bottle on the shelf.


The following actions taken by the CEO were both brave and risky. There were no attempts to hide, deflect or even lay blame on anyone except for Tylenol. Against the advice of lawyers, the CEO made no effort to deceive anyone and held himself accountable. A large number of executives do not like that trait.


When the event occurred, there was no Facebook, Twitter, or any other social media platform. In other words, there were standard methods of reaching people, such as newspapers and television. There was time to form a message without everyone rushing around as we do today. The CEO being honest and accept responsibility paid off. The new bottles of Tylenol contained tamper-proof lids, and free coupons were available to consumers. The image of Tylenol did not bear lasting damage to its fame.  As a result, their market share grew as a result of their honesty and quick response to the crisis.

Water, Food, and Roseann Cases:

There are recent cases that made headlines:

  1. The water issue in Flint, Michigan.
  2. Food poisoning at Chipotle
  3. The Roseann Barr tweet.

Although these crises are distinct in that they are different due to the issue, the reactions have been lackluster. Who is the person or medication to blame? In the case of Roseann Barr, a racist tweet appeared and did not exist after a short time. Ambien was the result of her tweet, and a comical response from its manufacturer that “although there are side effects, racism is not one”, quickly followed. The overwhelming negative publicity from a tweet and an unusual response clearly showed any regard for reporting the incident.


In the public sector, not releasing essential details are usually part of a crisis. A lack of credible information makes the situation worse. Social media has changed the way we think. Elected officials are not willing to accept blame. They are quick to blame someone else or deny fault in the matter. Citizens depend on their officials for reliable information that is timely and, most importantly, truthful.


In May of 2018, Lafayette College received a Twitter threat that bombs and pressure cookers were in various campus locations. Local and federal law enforcement teams quickly assembled to investigate the threat. The campus went through a room-by-room search. The college communicated this threat to their students and faculty; however, the news quickly spread through the city and neighborhood. Residents began to ask for updates via phone calls and text messages regarding the status.

The Lesson:

One lesson learned when it comes to a crisis is to leave the experts alone as they perform their duties. A simple communication from a person of influence can quickly bring comfort. The primary focus is to ensure all involved remain safe from the threat. When that line of communication fails, the situation soon grows into a broader crisis. When information spreads in a matter of seconds, it is best to be in front as opposed to playing catch-up. The Tylenol case should be a teaching experience 38 years later.

Share this post

Share on facebook
Share on google
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest
Share on print
Share on email