Crisis communication is a sub-specialty of the public relations profession that is designed to protect and defend an individual, company, or organization facing a public challenge to its reputation. The communication scholar Timothy Coombs defines crisis as "the perception of an unpredictable event that threatens important expectancies of stakeholders and can seriously impact an organization's performance and generate negative outcomes" and crisis communication as "the collection, processing, and dissemination of information required to address a crisis situation."
Meaning can be socially constructed; because of this, the way that the stakeholders of an organization perceive an event (positively, neutrally, or negatively) is a major contributing factor to whether the event will become a crisis. Additionally, it is important to separate a true crisis situation from an incident. The term crisis “should be reserved for serious events that require careful attention from management.”
Crisis management has been defined as "a set of factors designed to combat crises and to lessen the actual damages inflicted." Crisis management should not merely be reactionary; it should also consist of preventative measures and preparation in anticipation of potential crises. Effective crisis management has the potential to greatly reduce the amount of damage the organization receives as a result of the crisis, and may even prevent an incident from ever developing into a crisis.
Theories in crisis communication research
In crisis communication literature, several streams of research exist at the same time. Different theories demonstrate certain ways to look at and explain crisis situations.
Image repair theory (IRT)
William Benoit established image repair theory (IRT) based on apologia studies. IRT assumes that image is an asset that a person or an organization attempts to protect during a crisis. When the person or the organization is attacked, the accused should draft messages to repair its image. Benoit further introduced 5 general and 14 specific response strategies the accused could harness during a crisis. General categories include deny, evading responsibility, reducing offensiveness, corrective action, and mortification.
Situational crisis communication theory (SCCT)
Timothy Coombs started working on situational crisis communication theory (SCCT) in 1995. Originated from attribution theory, SCCT assumes that crises are negative events that stakeholders attempt to attribute responsibility. Coombs believes crisis managers can employ different crisis strategies according to different crisis types. Different from IRT, SCCT is an audience-oriented theory which focuses on stakeholders’ perceptions of crisis situations. This idea is in line with Benoit's argument that crisis management concerns perception more so than reality.
Social-mediated crisis communication (SMCC) model
As social networks and blogs become popular, people spend more time online during crises. Social-mediated crisis communication (SMCC) model is introduced to investigate crisis management in online context. The model first explains how the source and form of information affect response selections and then proposes crisis response strategies. The model argues that five factors influence an organizations’ communication during a crisis: crisis origin, crisis type, infrastructure, message strategy, and message form.
Integrated crisis mapping (ICM) model
Another line of crisis communication research focuses on stakeholders’ emotional changes in times of crises. Jin, Pang, and Cameron introduces integrated crisis mapping (ICM) model to understand stakeholders’ varied emotion during a crisis. ICM assumes that people keep interpreting their emotions during a crisis.
Covariation-based approach to crisis communication
As an extension of SCCT, Andreas Schwarz suggested to apply Kelley's covariation principle (attribution theory) more consistently in crisis communication to better explain the emergence and perception of causal attributions in crisis situations and deduce certain information strategies from this model and/or according findings. In this approach the three informational dimensions of consensus, distinctiveness, and consistency are conceptualized for situations of organizational crises (or other types of crisis) to predict the likelihood of stakeholders to make organizational attributions, entity attributions, or circumstance attributions and subsequently influence responsibility perceptions and evaluations of organizational reputation.
Discourse of renewal
The discourse of renewal theory examines the components an organization can employ when navigating a crisis in order to mitigate significant issues within the organization when entering the post-crisis stage. It is a theory assessed by Gregory Ulmer, Timothy Sellnow, and Matthew Seeger as a framework that "emphasizes learning from the crisis, ethical communication, communication that is prospective in nature, and effective organizational rhetoric".
Rhetorical Arena Theory (RAT)
Developed by Frandsen and Johansen (2010; 2017), RAT distinguishes itself from other crisis communication research due to its multi-vocal approach. RAT assumes that there are various voices which all communicate with one another inside a 'rhetorical arena' to co-construct the crisis dialogue. Therefore, RAT focuses on understanding the patterns of interaction between said various voices. For the purpose of their theory, the term 'rhetorical arena' is used to denote a space that opens during a crisis where different actors, including other corporations, political actors, activists, experts, and the media, talk to and about each other.
Categories of crisis management
- Pre-crisis: preparing ahead of time for crisis management in an effort to prevent a future crisis from occurring. This category is also sometimes called the prodromal crisis stage.
- Crisis: the response to an actual crisis event.
- Post-crisis: occurs after the crisis has been resolved; the efforts by the crisis management team to understand why the crisis occurred and to learn from the event.
Inside the management step, Bodeau-Ostermann identifies 6 successive phases: - reaction, where the group behaves on first sight, - extension, because the crisis dilutes itself and touches neighbours, - means (material and human), which constitutes an overview of success/failures of emergency reaction, - focus, stands as a concrete action or event on which the team leaders concentrate to fight crisis, - retraction, is the moment where the group diminishes means involved, in accordance with its aims, - rehabilitation, where, as a last step, result is, for the group, emergence of new values, stronger than the older.
Crisis response strategy
Both situational crisis communication theory and image repair theory assume organizations should protect their reputation and image through appropriate responses to the crisis. Therefore, how to draft effective message to defend the crisis becomes the focal point of crisis communication research. Image repair theory provides series of options that organizations usually adopt including denial, evade responsibility, reduce offensiveness, corrective action, and mortification. Specifically, denial strategy contains two sub-strategies, simple denial and shift blame. Evade responsibility strategy includes provocation, defeasibility, accident, good intention. Reduce offensiveness strategy garners bolstering, minimization, differentiation, transcendence, attack accuser, and compensation.
SCCT also offers a handful of strategies: denial, scapegoat, attack the accuser, excuse, justification, ingratiation, concern, compassion, regret, apology. Coombs argues different strategy should be adopted according different situations.
Crisis communication tactics
- Researching and collecting information about crisis risks specific to the organization.
- Creating a crisis management plan that includes making decisions ahead of time about who will handle specific aspects of a crisis if and when it occurs.
- Conducting exercises to test the plan at least annually.
- Preparing press release templates for the organization's public relations team in the event of a crisis.
- The chain of command that all employees will follow in the dissemination of information to all publics during a crisis situation.
A rapid response crisis communications team should be organized during the pre-crisis stage  and all individuals who will help with the actual crisis communication response should be trained. At this stage the communication professional focuses on detecting and identifying possible risks that could result in a crisis.
Crisis communication tactics during the crisis stage may include the following: the identification of the incident as a crisis by the organization's crisis management team; the collection and processing of pertinent information to the crisis management team for decision making; and also the dissemination of crisis messages to both internal and external publics of the organization.
- Reviewing and dissecting the successes and failures of the crisis management team in order to make any necessary changes to the organization, its employees, practices, or procedures.
- Providing follow-up crisis messages as necessary.
Timothy Coombs proposes that post-crisis communication should include the following five steps:
- Deliver all information promised to stakeholders as soon as that information is known.
- Keep stakeholders updated on the progression of recovery efforts including any corrective measures being taken and the progress of investigations.
- Analyze the crisis management effort for lessons and integrate those lessons in to the organization's crisis management system.
- Scan the Internet channels for online memorials.
- Consult with victims and their families to determine the organization's role in any anniversary events or memorials.
In general, Timothy Coombs raises some practices regarding to crisis response strategy based on SCCT that crisis managers should consider carefully.
- All victims or potential victims should receive instructing information, including recall information. This is one-half of the base response to a crisis.
- All victims should be provided an expression of sympathy, any information about corrective actions and trauma counseling when needed. This can be called the “care response.” This is the second half of the base response to a crisis.
- For crises with minimal attributions of crisis responsibility and no intensifying factors, instructing information and care response is sufficient.
- For crises with minimal attributions of crisis responsibility and an intensifying factor, add excuse and/or justification strategies to the instructing information and care response.
- For crises with low attributions of crisis responsibility and no intensifying factors, add excuse and/or justification strategies to the instructing information and care response.
- For crises with low attributions of crisis responsibility and an intensifying factor, add compensation and/or apology strategies to the instructing information and care response.
- For crises with strong attributions of crisis responsibility, add compensation and/or apology strategies to the instructing information and care response.
- The compensation strategy is used anytime victims suffer serious harm.
- The reminder and ingratiation strategies can be used to supplement any response.
- Denial and attack the accuser strategies are best used only for rumor and challenge crises.
Benoit's 5 Major Strategies
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Evasion of Responsibility
Evading responsibility involves the following 4 steps.
- Provocation, suggesting that the accused only responded after being provoked.
- Defeasibility, suggesting that lack of control or information is to blame.
- Accidents, suggesting that it was an accident
- Good intentions, suggest that it was done with good intentions in mind, despite the negative outcome.
The apologists will attempt to reduce the offensiveness of the acts by:
- Bolstering by describing positive attributes
- Minimizing to decrease the negative view of the situation
- Differentiation by comparing the act to other similar acts that ended in worse terms
- Transcending by discussion in terms of abstract values and group loyalty.
- Attacking the accuser in an attempt to eliminate credibility
- Offering compensation to victims
The apologist will express corrective action when they attempt to correct the situation and prevent it from ever happening again.
When the apologist admits wrongful behavior and asks for forgiveness while apologizing.
Crisis communication dilemma
An increasing number of studies are investigating "stealing thunder". The concept originates from law, which indicates that lawyers report flaws in their own cases instead of giving the opponent opportunities to find the flaw. Journal articles frequently demonstrates the advantage of adopting "stealing thunder" strategy in minimizing reputational loss during crises. They argue organizations should report the problems first. However, the strategy itself is fundamentally counter-intuitive. Companies are unwilling to disclose their crisis because there is a chance that the public will never know.
Landmark crisis communication case studies
- The Tylenol-Tampering Crisis – 1982 & 1986
- The Exxon-Valdez-Oil Spill Crisis — 1989
- The Bridgestone/Firestone & Ford-Tire Crisis – 1990s
- The McDonald's-Hot Coffee Crisis – 1992
- The Pepsi-Syringe Crisis - 1993
- The Dominos-YouTube Crisis - 2009
- The BP-Gulf Oil Spill — 2010
- The Love Parade stampede crisis in Duisburg (Germany) 2010
- The Toronto Mayor Rob Ford scandals of 2013–2014.
- Malaysia Airlines' MH370 crisis 
- The 2017 United Express Flight 3411 incident
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