Advancing technology, global connectivity, and ethical lapses have resulted in an escalation in the frequency and intensity of organizational crises over the past two decades. Commensurate with the increase in crisis events, academic research in crisis communication has expanded, focusing predominantly on the role of communication in predicting, managing, and resolving crisis events.
Definition Of Crisis
Common types of crises are natural disasters, malevolence, product failure, human error, terrorism, financial loss, ethical violations, and widespread rumors. Hermann (1963) established that, to reach the level of a crisis, a negative event must have three essential components: surprise, threat, and short response time. Surprise indicates that the organization could not or did not prepare adequately for the magnitude of the crisis. Threat suggests that the organization’s future is at risk. Short response time requires an organization to take immediate action to avoid further intensification of the crisis. Coombs (1999, 2) addresses the interconnectivity of these three elements in his working definition: “A crisis can be defined as an event that is an unpredictable, major threat that can have a negative effect on the organization, industry, or stakeholders if handled improperly.”
Crises evolve in three general stages: pre-crisis, crisis, and post-crisis (Seeger et al. 2003). In the pre-crisis stage, competent organizations scan their environment and attempt to prepare for potential crises. Warning signs typically occur in the pre-crisis stage that, if recognized by the organization, can be addressed to prevent a crisis. If the organization fails to recognize these warning signs, the situation may escalate into a crisis event. The crisis stage begins when a trigger event occurs. Typically, the trigger event makes apparent the warning signs that were not heeded during the pre-crisis state. In the case of a product failure, for example, reports of serious injury or extensive customer frustration are possible triggering events. During the crisis stage, the organization’s reputation or survival is threatened. Communication during the crisis stage is hampered by the inherent uncertainty of the crisis and the public’s demand for an expeditious response. The postcrisis stage begins when the danger of the crisis has passed. Post-crisis communication focuses on determining responsibility for the crisis, apologizing when appropriate, and taking corrective action to avoid similar crises in the future (Benoit 1995). Lawsuits and public outrage may cause the post-crisis stage to continue for years. For example, the 1989 Exxon Valdez crisis has yet to be fully resolved.
Early work in crisis communication focused primarily on apologia. Ware and Linkugel (1973) introduced apologetic rhetoric as a genre. The genre of apologetic discourse focused on the image-related crises of individuals and organizations. Ware and Linkugel identified four strategies commonly found in the rhetoric of self-defense: denial, differentiation, bolstering, and transcendence. Denial refers to a disavowal of guilt or responsibility. Claims of differentiation seek to separate the actions of the speaker from the general context of the accusations. Bolstering is an attempt by the speaker to distract the audience from the negative accusations by emphasizing admirable achievements of the individual or organization. Finally, speakers use transcendence to reinterpret the actions for which they are criticized in a broader and more positive context that is appealing to the audience.
Benoit (1995) extended Ware and Linkugel’s work by developing a synthetic typology of image restoration strategies that is widely applied in the crisis communication literature. Benoit isolated four general categories for image restoration: denial, evading responsibility, reducing the offensiveness of the event, and corrective action. Denial involves either simply stating that the organization is not responsible or shifting the blame for a crisis event to a source outside the organization. When evading responsibility, organizations can claim that the crisis occurred because of provocation, defeasibility (an incapacity to respond), or an accident, or in spite of good intentions. Reducing the offensiveness of a crisis is achieved through bolstering the organization’s reputation, minimizing the perceived impact of the crisis, differentiating between accusations and reality, making statements that transcend to a higher value, attacking the accuser, or offering compensation to victims. Corrective action requires organizations to make notable changes in their management and operations to avoid future crises. Mortification occurs when the organization accepts responsibility and asks for forgiveness. Although apologia has been a central focus of crisis communication research, the perspective is limited largely to considerations of reputation.
Research in crisis communication has expanded from apologia to advance theoretical concepts focusing on the comprehension of complex crisis situations, organizational learning in the wake of crisis events, and the development of best practices for mitigating and managing crises.
Fully comprehending a crisis situation is difficult due to the inherent elements of a crisis: shock, urgency, and uncertainty. In the midst of a crisis, the available information is highly equivocal. This means that multiple interpretations can be made from the same data. The short response time is a constraint that denies individuals and organizations the luxury of an extended analysis or debate. In order to manage a crisis effectively, organizational leaders must make sense of the situation and respond quickly.
Weick’s (1979, 1995) theory of sense-making , applied extensively in the organizational communication literature, has emerged as a flexible and enlightening approach to understanding how individuals and organizations comprehend warning signs and crises. Weick (1988, 306) links sense-making to crisis communication through what he calls “the enactment perspective.” Weick explains, “People often do not know what ‘appropriate action’ is until they take some action and see what happens.” Weick contends that, during crisis situations, individuals are limited in their sense-making by their commitment, capacity, and expectations. Commitment refers to the tenacity with which individuals hold to established procedures or opinions. Excessive commitment may result in defending established ideas and procedures even after they have contributed to a crisis. Capacity is the degree of influence individuals perceive they have on their environment. Limitations on capacity simultaneously diminish an individual’s perceived ability and willingness to act in crisis situations. Finally, the expectations individuals have about vulnerability and priorities influence crisis planning and willingness to respond. Prior to a crisis, inappropriate commitment, limited capacity, and disempowering expectations can impede an organization’s ability to recognize signs that a crisis is imminent. During a crisis, these factors can slow the comprehension process. Weick’s sense-making approach has been applied to crises such as Union Carbide’s deadly gas leak in Bhopal, India; natural disasters such as floods, hurricanes, and fires; and the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Chaos theory serves as a means for viewing crises from a broad systematic perspective (Murphy 1996). Traditional notions of causality are replaced by an attempt to understand general trends and patterns across a system using broad scales and wide time frames. Crisis communication scholars have applied chaos theory to observe how complex systems are dismantled by crisis and reconstituted through post-crisis communication. Crises are initiated by drastic system changes referred to as bifurcation points. Order reemerges through the self-organization process. Communication is a central feature in the self-organization process. Through self-organization, hierarchical structures, policies, procedures, and interpretations are established (Seeger et al. 2003). In many cases, self-organization results in a new and improved system that is less vulnerable to the form of bifurcation that instigated the crisis and subsequent evolution of the system. Chaos theory is particularly relevant to crisis communication in catastrophic natural disasters such as floods, hurricanes, and tsunamis.
Ideally, organizations learn from mistakes made prior to or during the crises. Sitkin (1996) argues that failure is actually essential to the organizational learning process. Crises, which constitute a major failure, can inspire and validate positive change in organizations. Resilient organizations learn to take corrective action following a crisis so that similar crises do not reoccur. These corrective actions are maintained through organizational memory. The loss of this memory through employee turnover or a changing organizational culture can increase the organization’s vulnerability to crisis. Organizations need not experience crises directly in order to learn from them. Vicarious learning occurs when organizations observe the crisis responses of similar organizations. Organizations can increase their resilience by adopting successful strategies from comparable organizations that have experienced crisis. Elements of organizational learning appear in crisis communication studies where corrective action is a featured element.
In the best circumstances, organizations emerge from crisis with a sense of renewal (Ulmer et al. 2007). Renewal occurs when the organization has a fresh sense of purpose and a renewed commitment to its stakeholders. Leaders in the organization communicate in ways that embrace a new normal, and employees feel a commitment to rebuild, move beyond the crisis, and rededicate themselves to serving their stakeholders. Renewal is prevalent in crisis communication research that focuses on communication ethics. Malden Mills’ recovery from a devastating fire and Cantor Fitzgerald’s response to losing 658 employees in the World Trade Center on September 11 are examples of crisis studies focusing on renewal.
Three primary methods are used to conduct crisis communication research. Case studies comprise the most common research method. Most frequently, theoretical frameworks are evaluated on the basis of outcomes of actual crises (Hearit 2006). Survey research methods are also prevalent in crisis communication research. Victims of crises, first responders, or organizational employees who have faced a crisis are often surveyed to build a better understanding of the impact crisis has on individuals in a variety of positions (Greenberg 2002). Finally, message testing research is often done prior to a crisis in hopes of predetermining effective communication strategies (Heath 1997; Reynolds 2002). Crisis planners share a variety of message types with subjects in an attempt to predict how various messages would be interpreted in an actual crisis situation.
Crisis communication research has expanded and evolved considerably since the initial work in apologia. The increasing complexity of organizations and the expanding threat of terrorism portend an increase in the frequency and intensity of crises in the future. Crisis communication scholars must continue to adapt their theoretical concepts and research methods to match this evolving threat. The considerable expansion of crisis communication theory in the past three decades suggests that scholars will succeed in meeting this challenge.
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