Crisis Management and Trauma Recovery in Corporations

This paper explores the difference between crisis management and trauma recovery. In recent times many corporations are being disrupted by traumatic events. Public relations and human resources personnel are attempting to use traditional crisis management approaches to resolve the more serious and disruptive experiences of traumatic events. These traditional models of crisis-related discourse are no longer sufficient to deal with the severity of traumatic experiences. New standards of rhetoric and discourse must be developed. Trauma behavior, inevitable and impending legal liabilities and a basic corporate model of trauma intervention is proposed. This paper explains how traumatic events, if dealt with effectively, should deepen rather than diminish working relationships among individuals, team and corporate personnel.


A crisis is an emotionally significant event or unstable state of affairs that requires the transformation of existing norms. A business crisis is usually not life threatening and can be dealt with through logical and systematic methodologies to achieve its resolution. Trauma on the other hand is a psychological or emotional event that has a life threatening possibility to it. Because the human organism is genetically encoded to preserve its existence, it has an emergency automatic survival system designed to engage itself in any life threatening experience. This emergency mode is not under the control of the conscious brain. Therefore the behaviors, actions and reactions of the individual(s) are mostly autonomic or instinctual rather than calculated and conscious. So, unlike a crisis, traumatic experiences cannot be immediately dealt with via logical and systematic methods to achieve a resolution as a crisis can.

The degree of difference between a crisis and a trauma is significant. Crisis management deals with cognitive and behavioral problems and solutions whereas trauma management deals with neurological and biochemical problems and solutions. It is precisely this conscious and logical resolution of crisis versus the unconscious and illogical resolution of trauma that has tremendous implications for normal human relations as well as corporate public relations. Let me give two contemporary examples of this lacuna in trauma behaviors and its subsequent resolution.

In Public Relations Review, (Ulmer and Sellnow 2002)1 address the issue of 9/11 from a crisis management perspective. They explain how the nation felt violated. and the American publics confidence was severely shaken by this incident. The article proceeds to outline the implications of such a crisis and offers some practical and theoretical implications for the resolution of the crisis. They suggest replacing the discourse of apology and defense with a more optimistic discourse of rebuilding and renewal, and ultimately moving beyond image restoration to renewal as an equally compelling type of post-crisis communication.

A Saudi Arabia based newspaper, The World Tribune (Roger Harrison 2002),2 wrote an article entitled, Saudi Arabias PR Challenge. Jim Cox, a global account manager for Hill Knowlton, one of the worlds largest public relations businesses and the largest in the Gulf, explained how Arab countries must respond to 9/11 in order to regain the trust of the American corporate community. He encourages the Arab companies to start building stronger alliances with their friends in the U.S., through a multi-level public relations campaign, including congressmen and other high profile members of the US establishment. Engage in a considerable amount of behind the scenes contacts and create a broad based network of influence through cultural, student, scientific and technological exchanges. He reminds the Arab states that this process should be considered a long-term approach using a time scale of decades rather then months.

The difficulty with both of these solutions is that they fall within the traditional range of crisis management rhetoric. What is being misunderstood and ultimately underestimated is the severity and depth of unconscious infection a traumatic event creates in the psyche of the individual. Since a traumatic event is outside the range of normal human experiences, traditional models of crisis-related discourse are no longer sufficient to deal with the severity of traumatic experiences. New standards of rhetoric and discourse must be developed. The old ones no longer suffice. The wounds created by trauma and the breach in the bonds of trust can never be resolved by conventional crisis models of rhetoric, renewal and resolution. To miss this significant point is to misunderstand and ultimately to underestimate the severity of disruption trauma creates in the psyche of the individual.

Trauma behavior

Recent scientific studies that are emerging from diverse fields of medical research show alarming results about the seriousness of trauma and post traumatic stress disorders (PTSD). They suggest that the devastating effects of trauma are far more damaging on the individual than previously recognized. New research demonstrates that prolonged and repeated experiences of trauma can cause learning impairment, unintentional hyperactive behavior, depression and even permanent brain damage. The longer individuals are exposed to the trauma of life threatening danger such as terrorist threats or acts of war, the more pervasive, irreversible and incurable post traumatic symptoms become. These are frightening and startling revelations for any corporation, culture or country that is experiencing trauma and trauma fatigue. With the growing phenomenon of trauma and the increased knowledge of its damaging effects on the individual, corporate health care providers (HR and PR personnel), are finding they are unprepared, ill equipped and lack the knowledge to adequately address the multifaceted dimensions of this rather severe and large scale phenomenon.

If many individuals within a corporation are affected by trauma and engage in unconscious traumatic protective behaviors, the organization is destined to dysfunctional behaviors and relationships that can systematically undermine the cohesiveness of any team, structure or partnership. Let me provide you with a few examples.

The first of five dysfunctions explained in (Patrick Lencionis 2002)3 book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team is lack of trust. This is common knowledge and many organizations have employed numerous exercises to restore trust among their employees. However, traumatized individuals have a neural impediment to trusting that is tainted with a life or death prospect. They are neurologically encoded not to trust for fear that their openness will expose them to a similar life/death possibility. Since this is unconscious and many people are unaware of this psychic mandate, they cannot trust even when they consciously prefer to do so. The second of five team dysfunctions is fear of conflict. Fear is natural and possible to overcome through various management techniques. Traumatized individuals often lack the gradations of feelings so that fear immediately becomes translated as terror and their reactions will be overly defensive causing outbursts of anger, tears or collapse into isolation, withdraw or depression. Each of these behaviors is designed to protect them from additional traumatic experiences. The additional three dysfunctions, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability and the subsequent inattention to results are all inevitable consequences of traumatized teams.

The most damaging effect however is the breakdown in professional relationships among teammembers. There will be increased signs of isolation, a sense of helplessness, hopelessness and powerlessness until members find themselves losing their sense of caring and concern for one another. All of this can have devastating effects on intra and inter corporate relationships.

Legal Implications

Aside from the personal and institutionally disruptive behaviors that are caused by trauma, there is a growing legal concern. It was acknowledged by (The Billings Gazette 2001), 4 that a legal precedent has been set with regard to post traumatic stress. Since it is clinically known that traumatic events are severe enough to cause a neurological alteration of functioning, a woman who thought she was going to die and therefore suffered emotional trauma but no physical injuries, was awarded $1.25 million in damages by a jury on the grounds that the physical changes within the brain could be defined as an injury.

International corporations who have personnel living or working extensively in trauma inducing environments, (presently within Middle Eastern countries), are most vulnerable to litigation. There is no question that trauma has been overlooked by some and avoided by others as a physical injury. However with the rapid advancement in research on the psycho-bio-neural effects of PTSD, it is clearly becoming evident that trauma is the new AIDS epidemic of the corporate world. Corporate employees who find themselves in environments that are prone to violence are going to demand that their psycho-emotional-physical health be attended to at the expense of the corporation. It will become a standard practice for employees to file for medical benefits to cover the cost of their recovery process from trauma and/or post trauma anxiety disorders.


Companies need to be proactive in not only offering information and education about trauma to their employees but also providing them with effective techniques and practices to protect and heal themselves from their damaging effects. The government has known about the effects of PTSD on their military personnel for years. Their apprehension in admitting to the severity and pervasiveness of this illness is that medical science has not successfully discovered if, or by what means trauma can be healed. Essentially, there is no cure for PTSD and current practices for resolving trauma anxiety fall within the parameters of prolonged counseling. However, current literature on trauma and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) demonstrates that a multidisciplinary approach to trauma recovery is the preferred method of treatment. Fields of study such as neurobiology and physiological psychology are surfacing into main stream study and research thereby ushering in a new era of cross-fertilization of information. Until we can learn to effectively treat the effects of trauma, large numbers of individuals will remain susceptible to pathology-oriented trauma recovery methodologies and long-term counseling. The solution to this dilemma is by providing integrated workshops designed not only to educate personnel on trauma and its devastating effects, but to provide them with techniques to assess themselves and resolve their own trauma behaviors as they begin to arise. This can be achieved in a three step process.

(1) If individuals have been or are going to be exposed to traumatic situations, they should be provided with a self-administered check list of behaviors they will be most prone to so they can perform a self-assessment. They should likewise be provided with self-administered healing behaviors and methods designed to reduce the psychological, neurological, biological and physical effects of trauma.

During their assignment in a trauma inducing environment employees should be visited by a professional trauma consultant who can administer a mid-assignment assessment in an objective and professionally observing manner. In this way they can help the employee review their behavior and devise a personal plan to sustain or even improve their health.

When the employee leaves the trauma environment they should be provided with a thorough post-assignment assessment. The trauma consultant should administer self-scoring tests that help to evaluate the degree of trauma that may be present and then outline a thorough plan of recovery for the employee. This plan should be self-administered with only nominal reviews by the trauma consultant during the course of recovery.

This simple three step prevention and recovery process is personally effective for the employee and economically affordable for the corporation. It will help to sustain their employees during the time of traumatic exposure and assure their healthy reintegration into the companys safe and healthy environment afterwards.


At present, more is known about the effects of trauma and PTSD on the individual than is known about an effective prevention and recovery process. However, what is decidedly clear is that PTSD is a very real and destructively unconscious, psychological behavior from which corporations should protect their employees and themselves. This unconscious behavior can, and often does, continue long after the traumatic event is over. Given the medically established severity and potentially debilitating effects of trauma and PTSD, the conventional range of crisis management techniques and rhetoric are revealing themselves as unsatisfactory and ineffective. HR and PR personnel are finding they are unprepared, ill equipped and lack the knowledge to adequately address the multifaceted dimensions of this rather severe and large scale phenomenon. We must provide a more complete examination of the rhetorical options available to corporations following traumatic events since the present methods are insufficient.

Since traumatic experiences cause a heightened sense of defensiveness, people who experience trauma often protect themselves with exaggerated responses of emotional outbursts and/or emotional withdrawl. (Van der kolk, B.A. 1994) 5 described this behavior as a loss of neuro-modulation. It can be very disturbing to the individual, the team and the corporation, particularly if there are numerous employees who are experiencing this behavior. A legal precedent has been established allowing for the possibility of litigation for this physical injury of the brain.

Corporations should be more proactive in protecting their employees and themselves from any legal complications that are sure to escalate in the near future. By providing some simple but effective prophylactic services corporations can protect their employees and themselves from unnecessary personnel, legal and corporate predicaments. If dealt with in a proactive manner the traumatic experiences of the employees can enhance rather than diminish their working relationships providing a stronger and more united individual, team and corporation. In the end, this always translates into a stronger discourse for financial gain and profitability.

1 Ulmer, R., & Sellnow, T. (2002). Crisis Management and the discourse of renewal: Understanding the potential for positive outcomes of crisis. Public Relations Review, 28, 361-365.

2 The World Tribune. (October 24, 2002). Saudia Arabias PR Challenge. Section
Review pg 9.

3 Lencioni, P. (2002). The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. Jossey-Bass,Ca. 94103.

4The Billings Gazette. (August 23, 2001). Airline suit jury awards $1.25M. [Electronic version]. SECTION: Pg. 1A B&H-ACC-NO: 78543550 DOC-REF-NO: BIZ-2972-2.

5 Van der kolk, B.A. (1994). The Body Keeps the Score: Memory and the emerging psychobiology of post traumatic stress. Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 1, 253-265.