In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Crisis Communication

  • Introduction
  • Key Texts
  • Journals
  • Definitions and Parameters

Communication Crisis Communication
Kenneth Lachlan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 October 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 February 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0017


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.

    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.

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

    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.

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

    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.

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

    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.

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

    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.

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

    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.

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

    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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