When a tragedy happens, how a company reacts is judged, whether rightly or wrongly. Sometimes a company is commenting on something that doesn’t directly affect it, adding further to the risk and posing a challenge for public relations officials and senior management. It can be a fine line between support and exploitation – in today’s world it is easy to create a new storm about your own attempts at expressing condolences and support.

This is an interesting article, drawing in multidisciplinary research to consider the concept of ‘public tragedy’ within public relations and crisis communications, as well as considering organizational involvement and attempting to develop a strategy for participation with reduced risk. There is an increasing feeling of moral or professional obligation to respond to events that one is not directly involved in, yet the ‘playing rules’ are far from clear. For some, it seems there is a ‘PR opportunity in tragedy’, despite its possibly obvious issues that emerge. Journalists frequently get press releases from Company X trying to find a ‘news angle’ about Tragedy Y in the guise of support, condolence or information – invariably it can feel inappropriate. This is before the ‘Twitter crowd’ gets angry too!

The authors have provided a comprehensive and intriguing array of literature for review before considering the nature of tragedies and the requirements to show support. Not all tragedies are equal, whether in size or scale, and these are examined. Social media the key outward focus of the research, perhaps since it has the greatest potential to derail or disturb a company’s image through clumsy communications. The authors identify many research strands for the future too.

It is a thoughtful and detailed read that deserves wider exposure. The article is clearly written so can serve several audiences without resorting to ‘academic mumbo-jumbo’ that sadly many articles suffer from. It helps focus current thought and challenge boundaries. It would have been desirable to have seen some examples of situations that could have been handled better, whether by design or with better luck, although I can understand the problems that may accompany such highlighting. The issue is not unfamiliar to me, although I suspect that some of the potential audience, who could better need this information and an imperative to change may be less aware, or immune, to such examples they’ve observed so far. Presenting them clearly, with this powerful work, may just make a difference.

Hayes, R.A., Waddell, J.C. and Smudde, P.M., 2017. Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims: Explicating the public tragedy as a public relations challenge. Public Relations Inquiry, 6(3), pp.253-274. DOI:10.1177/2046147X16682987

A post-publication review of this article that appears on Publons.