Don’t Joke: Why Using Humor in a Crisis Is Usually a Bad Idea

Thom Weidlich 05.11.17


When in 1941 New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia was reminded that a judge he criticized had in fact been appointed by himself, the Little Flower, as he was known, responded, “When I make a mistake, it’s a beaut!” That was pure La Guardia: pithy and funny. But when it comes to big crises, attempting humor in your communications is usually a bad idea. All joking aside, the middle of a crisis is no time to joke.

Perhaps the most famous example is from the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil-rig explosion that killed 11 people. Tony Hayward, then CEO of BP, quipped, “I want my life back.” Naturally, he was forced to apologize.

More recently, in 2015, Walter De Gregorio, Fifa’s head of communications, cracked a joke on Swiss television about the growing corruption scandal at the soccer overseer (“The Fifa president, secretary general, and communications director are in a car. Who’s driving? The police”). De Gregorio resigned.

The problem is that the situation is too sensitive, emotion too raw, and nerves too frayed when a crisis strikes. Even good-intentioned stabs at humor could be misinterpreted. It’s not the time.

This is obviously so when the crisis is a fire, accident, or natural disaster. But it can also be true with a data breach, when people are concerned about the compromise of their personal information, or when there’s a company layoff, when people are concerned about their livelihoods. It’s even true with product or service issues — think of all the high-emotion airline crises we’re witnessing these days.

Off the Cuff

The problem typically occurs when a spokesperson is speaking off the cuff (as Hayward was) and strays from the talking points — or if there aren’t any talking points. (And, obviously, one should never compare any situation to Hitler or the Nazis.)

This is not to say that the crisis communications team members should be prevented from using humor when talking among themselves in working to respond to the crisis. These situations can be drawn out and humor can help people get through it. Crisis communicators can have the same gallows humor as jaded journalists. But even here, care should be taken.


Seldom if ever is humor a good idea. People rarely get the joke when they are feeling desperate.

— The Centers for Disease Control

The Centers for Disease Control, in the 2014 edition of its manual on “Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication,” puts it this way:

“Seldom if ever is humor a good idea. People rarely get the joke when they are feeling desperate. Humor is a great stress reliever behind closed doors. However, be aware that microphones are often on and cell phones can easily capture a behind-the-scenes moment. Anyone who has responded to an emergency knows that inappropriate humor sometimes creeps in as a coping mechanism. Be cautious not to offend others who are responding to an emergency, even behind closed doors. Remain sensitive when speaking to the public. One person’s attempt at humor may be another’s insult.”

That sounds like sober advice.

Image Credit: Blablo101/Shutterstock

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