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Communication Crisis Communication
by
Kenneth Lachlan

Introduction

In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, scholars from the fields of journalism, communication, management, and psychology paid increased attention to communication efforts that take place before, during, and after organizational crises and other events likely to instigate negative reactions on the part of the public. This subset of communication has come to be known as crisis communication—the construction and dissemination of public messages in the event of organizational incidents, natural disasters, accidents, and other incidents likely to induce fear, anxiety, or unrest. Crisis communication is often delineated from risk communication in that crisis communication deals specifically with events that have taken place as opposed to the risk of events occurring in the future. Given that crisis communication has emerged from several academic traditions, numerous approaches to the study of these messages and their effectiveness can be found in the extant literature. Each of these approaches sheds insight on a particular aspect of the crisis communication process, such as the actions inside an organization, audience response, message construction, or stakeholder relations. This bibliography attempts to capture key works across all of these traditions and is divided into several components. A list of key overview texts is presented along with information regarding journals in which much of the essential scholarship in the field can be found, a series of studies defining the parameters of the field is included, and essential studies in the field are discussed in two sections. One section presents studies that examine crisis communication from several leading methodological perspectives, the other the key studies concerning the prevailing theoretical perspectives in the field.

Key Texts

Shifting thinking in crisis communication and the multitude of approaches to its study can be seen in the key texts of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Auf der Heide 1989 presents an impressive set of maxims and principals for emergency responders based on a synthesis of empirical research and emergency management experience. Benoit 1995 is one of the most cited texts addressing image restoration theory, which explores the varying message strategies that can be used to recover face and public trust in the aftermath of organizational negligence or wrongdoing. In terms of the ongoing nature of crisis communication, Coombs 1999 offers the seminal thinking on considering message strategies and implementation during three stages he identifies as precrisis, crisis, and postcrisis. Ray 1999 also uses a three-stage approach to the conceptualization of crisis communication, relying on case studies from the airline industry to explore not only best practices in crisis scenarios but the varying factors both within and outside the organization that influence these decisions. From a case study standpoint, Fearn-Banks 2002 uses casebooks from several organizational crises to illustrate the practical steps that communication professionals take in their attempts to regain public trust, using these cases as living laboratories for evaluating crisis practices. Seeger, et al. 2003 offers a synthesis of an enormous body of theory and research in organizational crises with a specific focus on crisis communication. Heath and O’Hair 2010 is a state-of-the-art overview of what is known about the intersection of crisis communication and risk communication drawing from empirical scholarship in communication, psychology, sociology, risk analysis, economics, political science, and other social sciences.

  • Auf der Heide, Erik. 1989. Disaster response: Principles of preparation and coordination. St. Louis: Mosby.

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    Auf der Heide presents a thorough, interdisciplinary collection of work grounded in empirical research in disaster management and response. Using a systems perspective, he examines problems and common mistakes that repeat themselves in disaster-prone communities. While these observations are framed for a medical audience, they are of equal value to psychologists, sociologists, and communication scholars.

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  • Benoit, William L. 1995. Accounts, excuses, and apologies: A theory of image restoration strategies. Albany: State Univ. of New York Press.

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    Benoit offers a number of case studies to back up his central theoretical proposition that people and organizations are fundamentally compelled to use language to reduce negative perceptions that others may hold of them. Using a number of high-profile cases, such as the Exxon Valdez spill and Union Carbide’s fatal chemical leak in Bhopal, India, he illustrates different message strategies and their effectiveness.

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  • Coombs, W. Timothy. 1999. Ongoing crisis communication: Planning, managing, and responding. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

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    This practitioner-focused book presents a broad range of state-of-the-art research targeted at managers, researchers, and educators. Using his situational crisis communication theory as a central theme, Coombs continually emphasizes the notion that crisis management is an ongoing process in which preparation is equally critical to response.

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  • Fearn-Banks, Kathleen. 2002. Crisis communications. 2d ed. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

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    This text presents the classic case studies in crisis communication. It is a staple in many undergraduate- and graduate-level crisis communication courses and an invaluable tool in illustrating lessons for public relations practitioners that can be drawn from organizational successes and failures. Natural disasters, product tampering, corporate malfeasance, and industrial accidents are only a few of the many types of crisis discussed.

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  • Heath, Robert L., and H. Dan O’Hair, eds. 2010. Handbook of risk and crisis communication. New York: Routledge.

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    This volume is the first among communication scholars that broadly considers risk and crisis as dual concerns. The book examines crisis from the perspective of risk research, using multidisciplinary approaches drawn from a number of social science and humanities disciplines to shed new insight on our understanding of the management of specific crises.

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  • Ray, Sally J. 1999. Strategic communication in crisis management: Lessons from the airline industry. Westport, CT: Quorum.

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    Airlines often present outstanding case studies, since aircraft incidents and accidents tend to be high-profile, sensational events that result in loss of life and organizational reputation. This text walks readers through the varying stages of crisis management and response, using two airline accidents as case studies.

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  • Seeger, Matthew W., Timothy L. Sellnow, and Robert R. Ulmer. 2003. Communication and organizational crisis. Westport, CT: Praeger.

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    This text provides a comprehensive overview of crisis as an organizational function along with its impact on individuals, communities, and institutions. The authors particularly emphasize the communicative function of crisis management and how organizations construct and manipulate meaning in times of crisis. The text broadly considers the definitions of crisis, stages of crisis development, and methods of crisis management.

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Journals

Crisis communication research is found in a number of refereed journals both within and outside of the field of communication. Crisis communication research as a collection of scholarship traces its roots to numerous academic disciplines. While much of the extant literature has grown out of the field of communication, much of the groundwork of the study of crisis can be found in journalism and public relations; not surprisingly management scholars also have a growing interest in crisis management at an organizational level. The key journals in the field reflect these interdisciplinary origins. The Journal of Communication, the Journal of Applied Communication Research, Communication Studies, Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, and the Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media have roots in traditional communication research. The Journal of Public Relations Research, Public Relations Review, Risk Analysis, and Management Communication Quarterly present scholarship grounded more squarely in the study of the public relations and management professions.

Definitions and Parameters

Scholars have defined crises as “a specific, unexpected, and nonroutine event or series of events that create high levels of uncertainty and threaten or are perceived to threaten high priority goals including security of life and property of the general individual or community well being” (Seeger, et al. 1998, p. 233). Communication efforts that take place before, during, and after crises in order to manage these responses are what are typically referred to as crisis communication. For much of the history of the subfield, crisis communication was thought of only as a response to a crisis that has already occurred. Subsequent conceptualizations of crisis communication offer that communication efforts are a continual process and that adequate preparation and action is important before, during, and after crises. This development in thinking has blurred the definitions distinguishing crisis communication and risk communication or communication efforts designed to inform the public of hazards, preventative measures, and ideal responses. Seeger, et al. 1998 and Seeger, et al. 2001 provide valuable assessments of the definitional terms and conceptual boundaries of the field. Seeger 2002 makes a key contribution by introducing chaos theory as a relevant consideration, couched as chaos theory within organizations. Sellnow and Seeger 2001 further extends the conceptual thinking on the issue by explicating sense making and its importance in crisis scenarios.

  • Seeger, Matthew W. 2002. Chaos and crisis: Propositions for a general theory of crisis communication. Public Relations Review 28:329–337.

    DOI: 10.1016/S0363-8111(02)00168-6Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Presents chaos theory (CT) as a general framework for describing organizational crisis and crisis communication. Discusses principles of predictability, sensitive dependence on initial conditions, bifurcation as system breakdown, emergent self-organization, and fractals and strange attractors as principles of organization.

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  • Seeger, Matthew W., Timothy L. Sellnow, and Robert R. Ulmer. 1998. Communication, organization, and crisis. In Communication yearbook, Vol. 21. Edited by Michael E. Roloff, 230–275. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

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    The authors present a series of definitional parameters for the field, drawing largely from historical accounts, case studies, and narratives. Of particular note, they discuss the specific parameters of crisis that make them unique events worthy of study in terms of the psychological and sociological components of risk.

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  • Seeger, Matthew W., Timothy L. Sellnow, and Robert R. Ulmer. 2001. Public relations and crisis communication: Organizing and chaos. In Handbook of public relations. Edited by Robert L. Heath, 155–166. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

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    A critical overview of the links among public relations, crisis communication, and chaos theory as often used in management scholarship. The article also gives some discussion to conceptual boundaries of the field.

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  • Sellnow, Timothy L., and Mathew W. Seeger. 2001. Exploring the boundaries of crisis communication: The case of the 1997 Red River valley floods. Communication Studies 52:153–167.

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    This article adds to the boundaries of what constitutes crisis communication by addressing the importance of retrospective sense making, crisis communication logistics, and message strategies. It stresses the importance of adaptability in defining the parameters of crisis communication and addressing ideal crisis response on a case-by-case basis, regardless of previous crisis experiences.

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Research Approaches

Conventional thinking on crisis communication evolved greatly in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. While crisis communication was once looked at as an activity that took place strictly in the aftermath of an emergency or organizational crisis, it is increasingly considered to be an ongoing process in which crisis management is continually prepared for and refined. As a result both methodological approaches and theoretical thinking have shifted. The history of crisis communication research when taken as a whole provides a rich tapestry of knowledge concerning both the stages and the strategies that lend themselves best to varying crises and to the audience responses that can be expected under different crisis conditions. This section outlines different approaches to understanding crises that are found in the literature, including case studies, message-centered research, audience-centered research, and scholarship in best practices.

Case Studies

Perhaps the most commonly used means of studying organizational crisis and crisis communication has historically been the case study. Through the study of numerous entities and experienced crises in a historic sense, it is possible for readers to learn ideal crisis response strategies from the successes and failures of other organizations. While case studies provide little in the way of strict scientific predictive power, they are useful for developing a basic understanding of successful and unsuccessful crisis communication practices. Argenti 2004 uses the 9/11 attacks as a case study for illustrating the importance of prompt responses and maintenance of organizational goals. Johnson and Sellnow 1995 examines one of the most common examples of poor crisis management, the Exxon Valdez spill, and provides a valuable exposition of the advantages of considering message strategy. Littlefield and Quenette 2007 examines the other side of crisis management, media relations, and makes a convincing argument for tightly controlling information to minimize negative responses. Pinheiro, et al. 2005 discusses the numerous tactical errors in the crisis communication strategy of a South American food distributor, offering a unique perspective on crisis communication in Brazil. Ulmer and Sellnow 2000 adds to the understanding of message strategy by explaining the use of strategic ambiguity—the intentional lack of detail—in managing public response to a food poisoning outbreak. Ulmer 2001 takes a different but equally important tact, examining the official statements of chief executive officers (CEOs) and communication with key stakeholders.

  • Argenti, Paul. 2004. Comunicación en momentos de crisis: Lecciones del 11 de septiembre. Harvard Duesto Business Review 120:32–39.

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    This article offers examples of organizational responses to large-scale disasters, using the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center as a case study. The article argues for fast responses and contact with the families of those directly affected while not losing sight of larger organizational goals.

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  • Johnson, Darrin, and Timothy L. Sellnow. 1995. Deliberative rhetoric as a step in organizational crisis management: Exxon as a case study. Communication Reports 8:54–60.

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    The case study of the Exxon oil spill in Alaska is used to argue that organizations first need to assess the causes leading to the crisis and then search for solutions to mitigate the existing crisis and to avoid future crises. Deliberative message strategies can be used to achieve these goals, while failure to consider them may rob organizations of a valuable opportunity.

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  • Littlefield, Robert S., and Andrea M. Quenette. 2007. Crisis leadership and Hurricane Katrina: The portrayal of authority by the media in natural disasters. Journal of Applied Communication Research 35:26–47.

    DOI: 10.1080/00909880601065664Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This case study analysis examines how the media characterized authorities following Hurricane Katrina. A textual analysis suggests that positive and negative terms clustered around the military and government entities. This is indicative of the media blaming those in authority and suggests that understanding cases such as these can help authorities consider how to frame their initial responses to crises.

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  • Pinheiro, Murilo Silva, Márcio Gomes Machado, and Fernando Oliveira da Silva. 2005. A comunicação estratégica e a crise de imagem da Coselli. Revista da FAE 8:17–26.

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    This article examines the strategic communication of a Brazilian food wholesaler who was indicted on charges of product tampering. The article points out numerous strategic errors that led to face loss and the eventual decline of the company as a major wholesaler.

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  • Ulmer, Robert R. 2001. Effective crisis management through established stakeholder relationships: Malden Mills as a case study. Management Communication Quarterly 14:590–615.

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    This article provides useful insight into the role of leaders in organizational crises. An analysis of chief executive officer (CEO) statements describes practical implications for precrisis and postcrisis communication. The author argues for the importance of establishing strong communication channels and positive value positions with stakeholders well before crises erupt.

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  • Ulmer, Robert R., and Timothy L. Sellnow. 2000. Consistent questions of ambiguity in organizational crisis communication: Jack in the Box as a case study. Journal of Business Ethics 25:143–155.

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    The authors examine the use of strategic ambiguity by the Jack in the Box management after E. coli poisoning led to several deaths. They argue that the messages provided by Jack in the Box’s leaders were ethically questionable and that this ultimately led to reputational damage among affected publics.

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Message Centered

Further refining the case study approach, a substantive body of research has focused instead on the messages produced by organizations in the times leading up to, during, and (most commonly) following a crisis. This research, such as that grounded in image restoration theory (see Image Restoration Theory) or situational crisis communication theory (see Situational Crisis Communication Theory), typically offers message strategies aimed at minimizing reputational damage and restoring public trust, given variability in the parameters of a crisis. Benoit 1995 is the authoritative explication of image restoration theory and its recommendations for message strategies. Benoit 2006 is a valuable case study exploring the message strategies used by President George W. Bush and their relative effectiveness. Caldiero, et al. 2009 extends image restoration theory by specifically applying it to an instance of corporate malfeasance and examining message strategies in situations where tremendous blame is directed at the organization.

  • Benoit, William L. 1995. Accounts, excuses, and apologies: A theory of image restoration strategies. Albany: State Univ. of New York Press.

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    This text attempts to expand previous scholarship on apologia to form a general theory on the use of apologia in organizational contexts. This image restoration theory is examined through its application to a number of instances of defensive discourse.

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  • Benoit, William L. 2006. President Bush’s image repair effort on Meet the Press: The complexities of defeasibility. Journal of Applied Communication Research 34:285–306.

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    This essay uses image repair to analyze the argument strategies employed by President George W. Bush. The author argues that Bush’s use of the strategy of defeasibility raised doubts about whether he would be able to solve problems in a second term. It is further argued that Bush’s image repair effort was largely ineffectual.

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  • Caldiero, Christopher T., Maureen Taylor, and Lia Ungureanu. 2009. Image repair tactics and information subsidies during fraud crises. Journal of Public Relations Research 21:218–228.

    DOI: 10.1080/10627260802557589Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The authors use image restoration theory to examine several instances of corporate fraud and malfeasance. They argue that secondary information sources like organizational news releases are reported alongside new stories in conventional media, thus providing organizations with an opportunity to tell their side of the story.

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Audience Centered

A 21st-century trend in crisis communication research has been to look at the other side of message-centered research—the audience. This body of research largely attempts to quantify audience responses in an effort to evaluate the effectiveness of different message strategies. This research tends to be grounded more in methods that were originally developed for mainstream media effects research, and some crossover can be seen between this research and traditional media research, such as knowledge gap, media dependency theory, or uses and gratifications. Lachlan and Spence 2007 makes an initial attempt to explicate the measurement of audience responses, such as risk perception and negative affect toward responsible parties, and attempts to operationalize concepts (see Risk = Hazard + Outrage). Lachlan, et al. 2009 examines cultural differences in risk perceptions in the time leading up to Hurricane Katrina through surveys of evacuees who were relocated throughout the country. Lachlan, et al. 2010 moves beyond risk perceptions to examine specific information needs articulated by audiences following an urban infrastructure failure. Spence, et al. 2006 adds to the knowledge of informational needs by further specifying preferred information sources across varying subpopulations in the aftermath of a crisis.

  • Lachlan, Kenneth A., Jennifer Burke, Patric R. Spence, and Donyale Griffin. 2009. Risk perceptions, race, and Hurricane Katrina. Howard Journal of Communications 20:295–309.

    DOI: 10.1080/10646170903070035Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This survey study examines differential responses to warning messages associated with Hurricane Katrina. The results suggest differences between whites and nonwhites, and the authors argue for increased consideration of race and poverty in audience responses to crisis messages.

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  • Lachlan, Kenneth A., and Patric R. Spence. 2007. Hazard and outrage: Developing a psychometric instrument in the aftermath of Katrina. Journal of Applied Communication Research 35:109–123.

    DOI: 10.1080/00909880601065847Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The study focuses on demographic differences in risk perceptions and motivation in the time leading up to Katrina. Perceptions of hazard and outrage during Katrina illustrate the utility of a scale to examine these responses across different demographic groups. The authors discuss ways this information can be used to adequately alert audiences while providing an adequate amount of motivation to take action.

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  • Lachlan, Kenneth A., Patric R. Spence, and Lindsay D. Nelson. 2010. Gender differences in negative psychological responses to crisis news: The case of the I-35W collapse. Communication Research Reports 27:38–48.

    DOI: 10.1080/08824090903293601Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This study looks at gender difference in media dependencies and responses to information following a rush-hour bridge collapse in Minneapolis. The results do not support differences in information seeking but support differences in negative psychological responses. Research on rumination is offered as a potential explanation for these findings along with the practical implications for crisis communication practitioners.

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  • Spence, Patric R., David Westerman, Paul D. Skalski, Matthew W. Seeger, Timothy L. Sellnow, and Robert R. Ulmer. 2006. Gender and age effects on information-seeking after 9/11. Communication Research Reports 23:217–223.

    DOI: 10.1080/08824090600796435Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This study investigates the roles of gender and age in information-seeking behavior after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. Results indicate that women saw radio and TV as more useful, while males reported the Internet as a more useful source of information. Differences for age were also found for use of print media and the Internet. These findings are discussed in terms of their importance for crisis message placement.

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Scholarship in Best Practices

In synthesizing research, some programs have begun to develop programmatic lists of best practices that are intended for use by professionals in organizations. These best-practice typologies are intended to synthesize knowledge gleaned from multiple academic paradigms and present it in a manner that allows organizational decision makers to plan and execute effective crisis plans. Covello 2003 provides a timely and valuable assessment of best practices in health and risk communication, drawing largely from risk psychology. In a message-based approach, Heath 2006 provides a comprehensive evaluation of best practices in message strategy with a particularly influential argument for the importance of message primacy. Seeger 2006 offers a valuable exploration of the use of experts as “grounded theory,” a starting place from which maxims regarding best practices can be tested empirically.

  • Covello, Vincent T. 2003. Best practices in public health risk and crisis communication. Journal of Health Communication 8:5–8.

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    Covello talks about best practices in public health and risk communication, drawing largely from previous research in the psychology of risk and risk assessment. Outlines of best practices are discussed in terms of practical implications for communication practitioners.

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  • Heath, Robert L. 2006. Best practices in crisis communication: Evolution of practice through research. Journal of Applied Communication Research 34:245–248.

    DOI: 10.1080/00909880600771577Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    In this article Heath addresses some of the key terms and best practices that have been identified in previous research. He adds consideration of a crisis as an ongoing narrative to the list of commonly accepted best practices. He also emphasizes the importance of message primacy, stressing that organizations must commit to becoming the primary information sources concerning their own crises in order to maintain as much control over the scenario as possible.

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  • Seeger, Matthew W. 2006. Best practices in crisis communication: An expert panel process. Journal of Applied Communication Research 34:232–244.

    DOI: 10.1080/00909880600769944Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The description of best practices is widely used to improve organizational and professional practice. This analysis describes best practices in crisis communication as a form of grounded theoretical approach for improving the effectiveness of crisis communication specifically within the context of large, publicly managed crises. The results of a panel of crisis communication experts are reviewed. Ten best practices for effective crisis communication, which were synthesized from this process, are presented and described.

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Function Models

As a subset of the discipline, crisis communication has an interesting theoretical history. Given its origins in applied research, traditional journalism, and organizational training, some have argued that true theorizing is only beginning to emerge in crisis communication. Nonetheless numerous theoretical approaches can be examined or taken into consideration when approaching crisis communication. Some scholars have proposed stage-based conceptualizations of organizational crises to create usable heuristics for understanding influences, considerations, and audience expectations as they evolve over the life cycle of a crisis. Image restoration theory, on the other hand, provides a taxonomy of message strategies that is effective in restoring public trust under varying types of crises and crisis conditions. Situational crisis communication theory offers a similar message strategy response while considering perceptions of responsibility on the part of affected stakeholders as critical in the selection of these strategies. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s crisis and emergency risk communication (CERC) model integrates image restoration logic and situational theory to produce a tangible set of recommendations for emergency practitioners. Audience-centered approaches offer psychometric assessments of audience responses, while Peter M. Sandman’s risk = hazard + outrage model similarly emphasizes the need to simultaneously consider audience perceptions of risk and their affective responses to crisis messages.

Multistage Approaches

It is difficult to attribute multistage theorizing to any one particular scholar or research team, as it has emerged organically in management-based crisis scholarship. Numerous scholars have argued for a three-stage model, including an acute stage in which organizational decisions affect outcomes, a chronic stage in which these decisions lead to lasting effects on the public, and a resolution stage in which a crisis clearly ends. Mitroff 1994 and other studies extend this model to include what Ian L. Mitroff categorizes as signal detection, probing and prevention, damage containment, recovery, and learning. Santana 1998 offers a tangible example of ways stage approaches can be integrated into specific organizational contexts, in this case sport tourism. While not explicitly predictive in terms of public response, these stage approaches offer valuable insight into the crisis life cycle and decisions that must be made accordingly.

  • Mitroff, Ian L. 1994. Crisis management and environmentalism: A natural fit. California Management Review 36:101–113.

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    In this article Mitroff articulates a five-part crisis management model. This model includes consideration for signal detection, probing and prevention, damage containment, recovery, and learning. The model is discussed in terms of its implications for crisis management in environmental contexts.

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  • Santana, Gui. 1998. Sports tourism and crisis management. Journal of Sport and Tourism 4:12–29.

    DOI: 10.1080/10295399808718639Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The author introduces the relevance of crisis management and discusses its pertinence to sports tourism using multistage approaches such as those proposed by W. Timothy Coombs, Ian L. Mitroff, and Robert L. Heath. Critical issues in crisis management, such as crisis anatomy, are discussed, and a simplified crisis management model is presented and discussed.

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Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication (CERC)

The crisis and emergency risk communication (CERC) model of crisis communication was developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2002 as a training module for health professionals, first responders, and crisis managers. By integrating multiple models and approaches, including stage approaches and message strategy approaches, the model aims to provide practical steps for crisis practitioners. Given existing threats, such as pandemic flu and bioterrorism, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention developed the program to make crisis and risk communication knowledge palatable to a relatively new audience of health care managers and administrators. Hewitt, et al. 2008 offers a useful simulation indicating the utility of the model, with particular emphasis on the importance of leadership actions under conditions of crisis and duress. Reynolds and Seeger 2005 bridges the gap between stage approaches and crisis and emergency risk communication by connecting varying crisis and emergency risk communication competencies with the conceptual stages of disaster and crisis development. In more of a case study, Quinn, et al. 2005 offers an example of the dissolution of leadership practices and the resultant distrust between affected publics and health professionals, using crisis and emergency risk communication as a backdrop. Veil, et al. 2008 wraps up this literature with a comprehensive overview of what has been learned through the crisis and emergency risk communication model over the first part of the 21st century, including a set of propositions and discussions of future directions for both academic researchers and practitioners.

  • Hewitt, Anne M., Susan S. Spencer, Rameshsharma Ramloll, and Heidi Trotta. 2008. Expanding CERC beyond public health: Sharing best practices with healthcare managers via virtual learning. Health Promotion Practice 9:83S–87S.

    DOI: 10.1177/1524839908319090Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    In this example graduate students applied the crisis and emergency risk communication (CERC) best practices guidelines in a real-time virtual learning scenario, learning leadership competencies, collaboration, and other skills. This intervention is used to demonstrate the utility of the model for the effectiveness of emergency preparedness plans to better serve the public.

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  • Quinn, Sandra C., Tammy Thomas, and Carol McAllister. 2005. Postal workers’ perspectives on communication during the anthrax attack. Biosecurity and Bioterrorism: Biodefense Strategy, Practice, and Science 3:207–215.

    DOI: 10.1089/bsp.2005.3.207Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This article examines the responses of postal workers following the anthrax attacks through the lens of the crisis and emergency risk communication (CERC) model. Interviews reveal that social context and shifting messages produced distrust between postal workers and public health professionals. The results are discussed in terms of adding to the body of knowledge available to public health professionals charged with responsibility for communicating with at-risk publics.

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  • Reynolds, Barbara, and Matthew W. Seeger. 2005. Crisis and emergency risk communication as an integrative model. Journal of Health Communication 10:43–55.

    DOI: 10.1080/10810730590904571Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The model is outlined as a merger of many traditional notions of health and risk communication with work in crisis and disaster communication. The specific kinds of communication activities that should be called for at various stages of disaster or crisis development are outlined. Although crises are by definition chaotic situations, the model is presented as a tool for managing these complex events.

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  • Veil, Shari, Barbara Reynolds, Timothy L. Sellnow, and Matthew W. Seeger. 2008. CERC as a theoretical framework for research and practice. Health Promotion Practice 9:26S–34S.

    DOI: 10.1177/1524839908322113Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This essay examines crisis and emergency risk communication (CERC) as a general theoretical framework for explaining how health communication functions within the contexts of risk and crisis. The authors provide an overview of crisis and emergency risk communication and examine the relationship of risk communication to crisis communication, the role of communication in emergency response, and the theoretical underpinnings of crisis and emergency risk communication. The article offers an initial set of propositions based on the crisis and emergency risk communication framework and concludes with a discussion of future directions.

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Image Restoration Theory

Image restoration theory was developed as a means of explaining the message strategies used by organizations. It is based on the fundamental assumption that communication efforts by organizations are goal directed and that one of the key goals is the maintenance of public image. Thus in the face of a crisis, external communication exists almost solely to repair the image of the organization. Image restoration theory offers several message strategies used by organizations, including denial, blame shifting, evading responsibility, reducing the offensiveness of the crisis, corrective action, and mortification. Image restoration theory posits that history tells us that mortification, or the acceptance of responsibility and expression of regret, is typically the most effective message strategy. Benoit 1997 gives a comprehensive overview of the underpinnings of image restoration theory, while Benoit and Hanczor 1994 gives a clear and visceral assessment of the Tonya Hardin scandal through this theoretical lens in a manner useful for those learning the theory and its application. In a similar manner Brinson and Benoit 1996 applies image restoration theory to a widespread product failure, this time providing evidence in support of the argument that mortification is the ideal response strategy. Zhang and Benoit 2004 extends image restoration theory to a macro level, examining reputational maintenance on a national level when political ramifications are potentially dire.

  • Benoit, William L. 1997. Image repair discourse and crisis communication. Public Relations Review 23:177–186.

    DOI: 10.1016/S0363-8111(97)90023-0Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This author gives a broad theoretical treatment of the use of image restoration theory in crisis communication endeavors. The article begins by describing and illustrating the basic concepts of the image restoration theory. It then goes on to offer suggestions for crisis communication campaigns based on past theory and research in image restoration theory.

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  • Benoit, William L., and Robert S. Hanczor. 1994. The Tonya Harding controversy: An analysis of image restoration strategies. Communication Quarterly 42:416–433.

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    This essay analyzes Tonya Harding’s image defense strategies using image restoration theory. While image restoration theory would argue that these strategies are often effective, they were not well used in this instance. Several contradictory statements and denial of incriminating evidence led to her loss of face in the eyes of the public. Thus their use was rather ineffective.

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  • Brinson, Susan L., and William L. Benoit. 1996. Dow Corning’s image repair strategies in the breast implant crisis. Communication Quarterly 44:29–41.

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    This essay uses image restoration theory to analyze the strategies used by the Dow Corning Corporation in its efforts to restore its image following criticism concerning the safety of its silicone breast implants. They argue that Dow Corning’s strategy of denial prolonged attacks against the company’s image and that these attacks subsided only when Dow Corning admitted responsibility. They also argue that this illustrates the utility of image restoration theory in an applied context.

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  • Zhang, Juyan, and William L. Benoit. 2004. Message strategies of Saudi Arabia’s image restoration campaign after 9/11. Public Relations Review 30:161–167.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.pubrev.2004.02.006Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The research applies image restoration discourse to Saudi Arabia’s attempt to repair its damaged reputation after 9/11. The country was accused of supporting terrorism and of failing to support a possible US attack on Iraq. It was suggested that by relying heavily on denial and bolstering, the image repair effort was partially successful at dispelling the first concern; it was notably less effective in responding to the second accusation.

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Situational Crisis Communication Theory

Situational crisis communication theory (SCCT) addresses the variables, assumptions, and relationships that should be considered in selecting crisis response strategies to protect an organization’s reputation. As a theory, situational crisis communication theory argues that perceived responsibility is a critical component in making these decisions and that variables and perceptions of responsibility interact to suggest best practices for message strategy. Coombs 1999 reveals some of the logic underlying situational crisis communication theory using an experimental procedure to examine message strategy impact on perceptions of organizations. Coombs and Holladay 2002 is a complete explication of the theory, including its central tenets regarding the connection between ascribed responsibility and impact on reputation. Coombs 2004 and Coombs 2007 offer broad and clear articulations of the theory and its implications for crisis planners using examples from crises and emergencies with a particular focus on message strategy relative to the level of organizational responsibility.

  • Coombs, W. Timothy. 1999. Information and compassion in crisis responses: A test of their effects. Journal of Public Relations Research 11:125–142.

    DOI: 10.1207/s1532754xjprr1102_02Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This article reports an experimental study that tested the effect of compassion and instructing information in crisis response strategies on organizational reputation, honoring accounts, and intended potential supportive behavior. The literature analysis sets up the rationale of examining compassion and instructing information in accident crises. In general, experimental studies like this one help advance the understanding of crisis communication strategies and the crisis management process. The specific implications of the study for crisis management are discussed.

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  • Coombs, W. Timothy. 2004. Impact of past crises on current crisis communication: Insights from situational crisis communication theory. Journal of Business Communication 41:265–289.

    DOI: 10.1177/0021943604265607Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This study provides a broad test of situational crisis communication theory to better assess its role in crisis communication. The authors argue that a history of similar crises intensifies the reputational threat of a current crisis even when that crisis might not be directly attributable to the actions of the organization. Implications for the practice of crisis communication and further development of situational crisis communication theory are discussed.

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  • Coombs, W. Timothy. 2007. Protecting organization reputations during a crisis: The development and application of situational crisis communication theory. Corporate Reputation Review 10:163–176.

    DOI: 10.1057/palgrave.crr.1550049Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This article presents a broad theoretical overview of situational crisis communication theory, including its basic premises related to attribution and involvement. The article discusses the ways situational crisis communication theory projects how people will react to the crisis response strategies used to manage the crisis. Drawing from numerous empirical studies, a set of guidelines is proposed for addressing multiple variables that will influence response.

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  • Coombs, W. Timothy, and Sherry J. Holladay. 2002. Helping crisis managers protect reputational assets: Initial tests of the situational crisis communication theory. Management Communication Quarterly 16:165–186.

    DOI: 10.1177/089331802237233Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The study assesses whether the predicted relationship between crisis responsibility and organizational reputation occurs across a range of crisis types. Results support the situational crisis communication theory, and means are suggested to refine the theory further. The findings are discussed in terms of further research and practical application.

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Risk = Hazard + Outrage

Peter M. Sandman and his colleagues have derived a heuristic model for understanding audience responses during times of crisis based largely in psychometric work in risk analysis and risk assessment. This model, which is expressed loosely as risk = hazard + outrage, calls for the separate consideration of risk assessments and negative responses on the part of an affected public. These negative responses can often take the forms of fear, dread, anger, and other forms of negative affect. Notably Sandman argues that crisis messages should induce an appropriate amount of outrage for a given crisis, enough to motivate people to action but not so much as to lead to hopelessness or antisocial behavior. The model also typifies crises as existing along two continua, from low to high hazard and from low to high outrage. Sandman 1999 articulates the model and the different crisis scenarios that may be expected along these continua and then ties the model and its implications to a particular type of industrial accident. While event specific, this article does a fine job of illustrating the utility of the model and its applicability to highly specified contexts. Sandman and Lanard 2005 and Sandman 2006 provide valuable commentary on the consideration of both risk perceptions and negative affective responses in specific public health crises.

  • Sandman, Peter M. 1999. Risk = hazard + outrage: Coping with controversy about utility risks. Engineering News-Record, 4 October, A19–A23.

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    In the article the risk = hazard + outrage model is applied to utility risks and specific risk scenarios associated with this type of engineering. Discusses risk perception and level of fear on the part of the general public concerning routine hazards posed by utility operations. The arguments are framed in a managerial sense, and the author encourages successful risk management as an essential part of the organizational management function.

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  • Sandman, Peter M. 2006. Crisis communication best practices: Some quibbles and additions. Journal of Applied Communication Research 34:257–262.

    DOI: 10.1080/00909880600771619Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Sandman critiques the best practices offered by the National Center for Food Protection and Defense (NCFPD) and adds additional arguments for considering the roles of risk perception and fear in the construction of crisis messages.

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  • Sandman, Peter M., and Jody Lanard. 2005. Bird flu: Communicating the risk. Perspectives in Health 10:2–9.

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    The authors provide insight in the utility of addressing both risk perceptions and affective responses in raising awareness about the avian influenza and the ramifications and realities about a potential pandemic.

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LAST MODIFIED: 02/23/2011

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780199756841-0017

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