The topic of crisis communication has attracted a great deal of attention from researchers in public relations, corporate communication, marketing, and management. The ever-growing body of research is both a blessing and a curse. There is a large amount of information, which is good. However, the insights are scattered throughout a myriad of books and journals, making it difficult for crisis managers to uncover. In addition, there are some serious shortcomings to the literature.
Crisis communication is usually associated with how management responds to a crisis. The emphasis is on what the organization says and does in response to the crisis (Benoit 1995; Coombs 1999). The focus is on public statements and actions by management. The belief is that how an organization communicates during a crisis has important ramifications for how stakeholders will (1) perceive the organization in crisis, such as reputation, and (2) interact with the organization in the future. However, there are important elements of crisis communication that transpire within the context of the crisis team. The crisis team must gather and process information in order to make decisions about how to respond to the crisis. Hence, crisis communication can be divided into two broad categories: public crisis communication and private crisis communication.
A “crisis” is the perception of an unpredictable event that threatens important stakeholder expectations, significantly impacts the organization’s performance, and/or creates negative outcomes. In general, “crisis communication” is the body of messages created to address the crisis. Public crisis communication is composed of the messages (words and actions) directed toward stakeholders outside of the crisis team. Examples would be warning sirens, product recall notices, statements about the time and extent of a supply chain disruption, and basic details about the crisis event. Typical stakeholders involved in crises are customers, communities, investors, suppliers, government agencies, news media, and employees. Employees are part of the organization but messages sent to employees about the crisis are often released publicly and are seen by other stakeholders as well. An example would be updates posted on an organization’s website.
Private crisis communication is composed of messages between crisis team members and private messages sent to employees. The collection and processing of information and decision-making by the crisis team constitute the core of private crisis communication. Restricted access messages sent to employees, such as automated response systems and intranet postings, would be considered private as well. There is a natural connection between private and public crisis communication. The public statements made during a crisis are a result of private discussions and deliberations by the crisis team.
Research Lines In Public Crisis Communication
The Origins Of Crisis Communication
The vast body of public crisis communication research can be divided into three broad traditions: (1) practitioner lessons, (2) rhetorical, and (3) social-psychological. Each tradition brings with it certain assumptions and research methods. The limited research addressing private crisis communication focuses on information processing and decision-making.
The initial discussions of crisis communication were provided by practitioners who drew lessons from their crisis experiences. There is no research method, just observations from experience. These lessons focused on the basic form of a crisis response: be quick, be accurate, be open, never speculate, and never say “no comment.” Crisis managers should respond in an hour or less but be confident in the accuracy of the information. Being open means a willingness to field inquiries from stakeholders and report what is known about the crisis. Never speculate because speculation could be wrong and make the company look incompetent or deceptive. Avoid “no comment” because stakeholders take that to mean the organization is hiding something (Coombs 1999). These lessons make sense, and later research has shown their value. But these early lessons fail to dig below the surface and to help crisis managers understand the dynamics of crisis communication. Applied research in crisis communication developed to unpack the dynamic.
The Rhetorical Tradition
The rhetorical tradition is rooted in apologia. Apologia is a genre that examines how people respond to character attacks, or self-defense. A person is accused of engaging in some inappropriate act. Apologia posits that there are four rhetorical strategies for responding to these charges: denial, bolstering, differentiation, and transcendence. Denial claims the person did not do anything wrong. Bolstering connects the person to something others would view positively. Differentiation attempts to take the act out of its current, negative context. The idea is that it is the negative context, not the act, that creates unfavorable stakeholder reactions. Transcendence attempts to place the act in a broader context to make an event seem more favorable. Dionisopolous and Vibbert (1988) were the first to argue that organizations could engage in apologia. Their premise is that organizations have a public persona (a reputation) that may be attacked and in need of defense; organizations can experience and respond to character attacks. Their book chapter outlines the parameters of corporate apologia without specific application to crisis management (Dionisopolous & Vibbert 1988).
Keith Hearit (1994) is the researcher who developed corporate apologia into a distinct line of research. Hearit has articulated a unique perspective for integrating corporate apologia into crisis communication. Social legitimacy, the consistency between organizational values and stakeholder values, became a focal point. A crisis can make an organization appear incompetent (e.g., a hazardous chemical release) and/or violate stakeholder expectations (e.g., unfair labor practices), thereby threatening social legitimacy. A social legitimacy violation is a form of character attack and crisis communication can be used to defend the organization’s character (Hearit 1994).
William Benoit (1995) drew upon apologia, guilt and redemption, and account analysis to create his image restoration theory. Image restoration theory holds that one’s image (reputation) is important and communication can be used to defend against attacks on an image. It assumes communication is goal directed, and that maintaining a positive image (reputation) is a central goal of communication. Image restoration theory can be used when an image is threatened by an unfavorable act and the person is held accountable for the act (Benoit 1995). Image restoration theory was not designed specifically for crisis management but Benoit and others have applied it to a wide variety of crisis cases, including airlines, entertainment, and the chemical industry. A crisis is one of the situations when an organization is accused of objectionable behavior. Since such a situation can damage an organization’s reputation, communication can be used to explain the behavior and repair the reputation.
Research in the rhetorical tradition tends to be case study and qualitative in nature. The end result is that the conclusions are a suggestion and not “tested” recommendations. Image restoration theory is an example. Image restoration theory favors a public acceptance (mortification) as the response for most every crisis. Management is not always willing to do that because of the financial costs. Moreover, quantitative research indicates that mortification is not always the best option, nor are many of the suggested conclusions of image restoration theory accurate (Coombs & Holladay 1996).
The overdependence on case studies in the rhetorical tradition is problematic. While interesting, the cases shed precious little light on how stakeholders react to crises or public crisis communication. As Dowling (2002, 252) noted, “to date there are few published scientific studies of how a crisis (adversely) affects a company’s images or reputations. Much of what (we think) we know is opinion based rather than well researched. For example, many managers believe that a good corporate reputation acts as a type of insurance policy the first time the company faces a serious crisis.”
The Social-Psychological Tradition
The social-psychological tradition is rooted in attribution theory. Attribution theory posits that people search for the cause of events, especially events that are unexpected and negative. People will attribute a cause either to the person involved in the event or to external factors. The causal attributions people make influence their feelings and behaviors toward the actor (Weiner 2006). The more we hold a person responsible for an action, the more negatively we will view that person, and it will affect our future interactions.
It is logical to connect crises and attribution theory. Stakeholders will make attributions about the cause of a crisis (a negative event) by assessing crisis responsibility. Was the crisis a result of situational factors or something the organization did? Indeed, extant research forges a link between attribution theory and crises (Bradford & Garrett 1995; Coombs 1995; Stockmyer 1996). Stakeholder attributions of crisis responsibility have perceptual and behavioral consequences for an organization (Coombs & Holladay 2005). If the organization is deemed responsible, the reputation (a key perception of an organization) will suffer. Stakeholders may also engage in negative word-of-mouth about the organization and/or sever their relationship to the organization (e.g., sell stocks or stop purchases). Attributions of crisis responsibility are a threat to an organization.
The key to using attribution theory is to understand what shapes stakeholder attributions of crisis responsibility, even when there is little information about the crisis. A variety of cues are used to make attributions of crisis responsibility. Understanding these cues helps managers to effectively respond to the crisis. Situational crisis communication theory (SCCT) offers one framework for predicting stakeholder attributions of crisis responsibility and reactions to crises. SCCT argues that by understanding the threat presented by a crisis situation, crisis managers can determine which crisis response strategy or strategies will maximize reputational protection and reduce the likelihood of negative behaviors. SCCT fuses the rhetorical and social-psychological traditions. The socialpsychological tradition helps to identify the threat and the rhetorical tradition provides the communication strategies.
SCCT notes that the crisis type, crisis history, and prior reputation are the essential cues used to evaluate crisis responsibility. The crisis type is how the crisis is being framed. Frames are the cues stakeholders use to interpret a crisis (Coombs & Holladay 2002; Dowling 2002). The crisis type serves as a frame that indicates how people should interpret the crisis events. Was the event an accident, sabotage, or criminal negligence? Research using SCCT has found that crisis types cluster into three groups based upon assessments of crisis responsibility: (1) victim, very weak attributions of crisis responsibility; (2) accidental, minimal attributions of crisis responsibility; and (3) preventable, strong attributions of crisis responsibility (Coombs & Holladay 2002).
Crisis history and prior reputation serve to intensify the attributions associated with a crisis type. Crisis history refers to whether or not an organization has had a similar crisis in the past. Prior reputation refers to how well or poorly an organization has treated stakeholders in other contexts. A history of crises and/or a negative prior reputation will intensify attributions of crisis responsibility (Coombs & Holladay 2004). Applied to crisis management, a victim crisis will present the same threat as an accidental crisis and an accidental crisis will present the same threat as an intentional crisis when either a crisis history exists or the prior reputation is unfavorable.
SCCT posits that the greater the threat, the more accommodative the response. The general recommendations from SCCT are as follows: for victim crises, provide instructing information (tell stakeholders how to protect themselves physically from the crisis) and express concern for victims; for accidental crises, add statements that reinforce the crisis was an accident to the instructing information and expression of concern; and for intentional crises, add either a public acceptance of responsibility and/or offer compensation to victims in addition to instructing information and expression of concern (Coombs 2006).
It would be simple to just use the most accommodative response all the time. But the costs and yields argue against that. Expenses increase as strategies become more accommodative (Stockmyer 1996). Moreover, using overly accommodative strategies produces no greater benefits than those recommended by SCCT. For example, accepting responsibility for an accidental crisis provides no greater reputational benefit than reinforcing that the event was an accident and expressing concern. Management pays more for the response but does not see a corresponding yield in reputation repair (Coombs & Holladay 2004). Furthermore, using an overly accommodative strategy may have a boomerang effect. Stakeholders may wonder why an organization has engaged in overkill. They may even wonder if the crisis is worse than they thought (Siomkos & Kurzbard 1994).
One problem with the social-psychological tradition is a failure to extend it much beyond the US. Researchers have begun to explore its application in China and the role of ambiguity tolerance in evaluating crisis responsibility. Maureen Taylor (2000) is right in arguing for the need to apply intercultural concepts, such as those of Hofstede, to crisis communication. Cultural variables such as ambiguity tolerance and power distance must be factored into the social-psychological tradition research to permit an international application of the findings.
Private Crisis Communication: Information Processing And Decision-Making
Situational awareness is the focal point of private crisis communication. In general, situational awareness is when the crisis team feels it has enough information and knowledge to make a decision (Kolfschoten & Appelman 2006). Knowledge is the end result of processing information. Information is the raw material and knowledge is the output. For the crisis team, situational awareness indicates that there is a perception and understanding of the crisis situation, and the ability to predict the effects of it and to determine what actions are needed to address it.
The crisis team must identify the information it needs and the sources that would have it, retrieve the information, and process it into knowledge. Researchers such as Egelhoff and Sen (1992) have noted the value of information processing, while Wang and Belardo (2005) emphasized knowledge management as central to crisis communication. However, little research has explored the actual information processing and knowledge management of crisis teams. We know something about the problems that plague information processing/ knowledge, but not much more than that. This is an area in need of further study. We must understand in more detail the problems crisis teams will encounter in reaching situational awareness and how to overcome those problems.
Situational awareness is a prelude to decision-making. Once teams feel they have enough knowledge, they make decisions about how to respond to the crisis. There is a large body of work on decision-making in organizational groups. From this research emerge recommendations for vigilant decision-making. Vigilance applies critical thinking to group decision-making by emphasizing the need for careful and thorough analysis of all information related to a decision (Olaniran & Williams 2001). Four critical vigilant decision-making functions aid the decision-making process: problem analysis, standards for evaluating alternative choices, understanding the important positive aspects of an alternative choice, and understanding the important negative aspects of an alternative choice. Each of these functions helps to correct a factor that could contribute to decision-making.
Research has begun to explore how crisis teams actually make decisions, naturalistic decision-making (NDM). NDM studies decision-makers in the field. Crisis teams operate in a very dynamic information environment characterized by ambiguity, stress, risk, and time pressure. Due to the decision-making environment, crisis teams will not always be able to apply normative (ideal) decision-making models. Researchers have just begun to explore how crisis teams actually make decisions, and determine the correct course of action. Again, more research is needed to understand how crisis teams make decisions and what can be done to facilitate the team making effective decisions.
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