Ronn Torossian Commentary Humor in Crisis Responses

Ronn Torossian
3 min readFeb 19, 2024

Imagine the sound of a hearty laugh echoing through the scene of a disaster, or a smart one-liner breaking the intensity of a grave situation even in a crisis PR situation. . Odd, right? Yet, a peek into history reveals an unexpected truth. Laughter isn’t just for good times. It can also be a very powerful weapon during distress, helping people everywhere cope, heal, and develop resilience. But like all potent remedies, using humor in delicate situations requires a careful balance to ensure it does more good than harm.

Humor amidst hardship

Whether it’s folk tales spun during times of famine or wartime propaganda riddled with satire, humor has been part of the human survival kit for ages. Back in World War II, British cartoonists like Victor Weisz used their humor to mock Nazi leaders, a move that lifted spirits and undermined enemy power. Fast forward to the aftermath of 9/11, comics like Jon Stewart offered a platform for shared catharsis, using humor to help heal the nation. And who could forget the flurry of memes during the COVID-19 pandemic, providing small, much-needed breaks from the anxiety and uncertainty.

These instances shine a light on humor’s enduring role as a coping tool in challenging times. Humor can offer solace and foster a sense of agency in the face of many overwhelming circumstances.

The science of smiles

And it’s not just historical anecdotes. Science also backs the benefits of humor during crises. When we laugh, our bodies release endorphins, powerful neurotransmitters that help reduce the effects of the stress hormone cortisol. This chain reaction leads to lower anxiety levels, an improved mood, and an overall sense of well-being. Plus, humor gives us a fresh perspective, helping us handle the situation’s complexities without getting knocked down by the emotional burden. The result? Greater resilience and a clear head to navigate through challenges.

When humor misses the mark

But humor isn’t always the hero. Using it in a crisis is like maneuvering through a minefield. Companies need to be sharply aware of potential missteps. Respect and sensitivity are key. Companies shouldn’t use humor to belittle people’s suffering or disrespect their experiences. Jokes that make light of tragedies, ridicule victims, or use discriminatory stereotypes are not just ineffective but downright harmful. They add to the pain and create divisions. Cultural sensitivity is also crucial, as what’s funny in one context can be offensive or misunderstood in another.

Even with the best intentions, humor can backfire if the timing is off. Trying to be funny too soon after a crisis can come across as insensitive, interrupting the healing process. It’s vital to first acknowledge the pain and let people express their emotions before trying to lighten the mood.

Finally, the type of humor also matters. Offensive or hurtful jokes have no place in crisis responses. Jokes that advocate wit, self-deprecation, and shared experiences are generally safer and more effective. It all boils down to delivery. The tone, intent, and context are crucial to ensure the humor brings people together, rather than causing offense or alienation.

Ronn Torossian founded 5WPR.

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Ronn Torossian

Ronn Torossian is Chairman & Founder of 5WPR, one of America’s leading & largest PR Agencies and the Author of the best-selling PR book: "For Immediate Release"