Jack in the Box
that fail to communicate adequately with various audiences during a crisis
can suffer serious consequences. One only needs to look at the several
highly publicized organizational crises over the years to know the importance
of effective communication when things go badly. From the Challenger Space
Shuttle disaster, to the Exxon Valdez oil spill, to the recent problems
at the Enron Energy Company, public and private organizations have established
a track record of their communications successes and failures when a crises
The purpose of this literary review is to look at the available literature
to gain an understanding of crises communications. This paper will accomplish
its stated purpose by first defining what crises communications are. Many
organizations feel that every problem is a crisis. Thus, understanding
what constitutes a real crisis will help to determine the kinds of communications
strategies that should be employed.
Organizations often give full attention to crises communications after
the fact, or once a crisis is publicly revealed. An important part of
crises communications is the communications that take place in an organization
before a crisis strikes. Effective crises management through the establishment
of stakeholder relationships is an important pre-crises strategy for success
During a crisis numerous response strategies have emerged. Attribution
theory provides a useful framework for the conceptualization of crisis
communications management (Wilson, Cruz, & Rao, 1993). Attribution
theory maintains that public perception of an organization is based upon
the dimensions of locus, stability, and controllability of the crises
by the organization. This paper will look at communications strategies
during a crises using Attribution Theory as a framework for the literature
The final part of this literature review will cover post crises communications.
Organizations are often relieved to simply have the crises behind them
and not much emphasis is given to the importance of understanding what
kinds of communications strategies were successful, and what mistakes
should be avoided in the future.
Understanding crises communication before, during, and after a crisis
will help to further the exploration of this interesting and important
subject. This literature review begins with the goal of advancing the
understanding of crises communications, so that future scholars can explain
and predict this phenomenon.
A problem in crises communications literature is the lack of a common
definition for what constitutes a crisis. I have analyzed the many definitions
to determine if the majority of the literature had similar components
in the various definitions of a crisis.
Webster's Dictionary (1990, pg. 307) defines a crises as, "An unstable
or crucial time or state of affairs in which a decisive change is impending;
especially one with the distinct possibility of a highly undesirable outcome."
A shorter definition is, "A turning point for better or worse"
(Fink, 1986, p. 15). A longer example is, "A major unpredictable
event that has potentially negative results. The event and its aftermath
may significantly damage an organization and its employees, products,
services, financial conditions, and reputations.
A more esoteric definition is provided by Pauchant and Mitroff, "A
company's corporate image- describing how favorable and accurate public
perceptions are about an organization-reflects its reputation but does
not represent its essence. A crisis delves into the soul of an organization
and dissects its core identity" (1992, p. 117).
Finally, Seeger, Sellnow and Ulmer offer the following definition, "
A specific, unexpected, and non-routine event or series of events that
create high levels of uncertainty and threaten or are perceived to threaten
an organization's high priority goals" (p. 233).
The main components appearing in most of the literature that defined a
crisis were a negative event with potentially serious ramifications that
would result in profound change for an organization. These components
will be used as the accepted definition for this literature review. It
is important in crises communication to differentiate a crisis from an
emergency or a problem. A crisis contains the element of being serious
enough so that the end result of the crisis could drastically change an
organization. This could mean the very existence of the organization could
be in jeopardy, like the Enron crises, or the organization could be fundamentally
changed by the crises, as in NASA's case with the Challenger disaster.
An example of an organizational problem, or emergency, would be an employee
killing a coworker. This is a serious problem, but it would most likely
not be serious enough to drastically change the organization.
Finally, it is important to understand an organizational crisis is an
entity in itself. Organizational leaders will often make the mistaken
conclusion that a crisis is a public relations problem, thus assuming
that public relations can fix it (Austin & Pinkerton 2001). Organizational
communications can do nothing to ameliorate the crisis itself, but can
affect public perception of the crisis and the organization where it occurred.
Organizational Communications Defined
Defining organizational communications offered the same problem that defining
a crisis presented. There are hundreds of possible definitions presented
by scholars found in the research material. Most definitions of organizational
communications focused on inter communication between individuals, or
groups within an organization. Infante, Rancer, and Womack offered the
following definition, "Communication between and among the individuals
and groups which make up an organization" (pg. 549).
The most important definition of organizational communication in the study
of organizational crisis communications should focus on how individuals
or groups within an organization communicate with persons, organizations,
or groups external to the organization dealing with a crisis. Infante,
Rancer, and Womack's definition of mass communications comes the closest
to defining the type of communications used by organizations during a
crisis, "Communication to large audiences which is mediated by electronic
media or print media" (pg. 548). Infante, Rancer, and Womack's mass
media definition, with one addition, will serve as the organizational
communications definition for this literature review. The additional component
is communications, to the internal audience, with or without mediation
from the media.
Organizational pre-crisis communications
An important but often forgotten component of crisis communications is
pre-crisis communications. Pre-crisis communications involves how an organization
communicates with various audiences to establish a positive image and
credibility, so that when a crises comes perception of the organization
is easier to mold in the organization's favor.
Organizations must operate under the assumption that a crisis will hit
the organization. Once this realization is understood organizations can
proactively implement plans and strategies before a crises, which can
help when a crises inevitably strikes the organization (Dougherty, 1992).
A dominant theory in pre-crisis communications is Stakeholder theory.
This theory suggests that in order for organizations to be successful,
they must look beyond just their stockholders and expand their critical
relationships to other groups or stakeholders (Fishman, 1999).
Stakeholder theory was later expanded to pre-crises communications. Stakeholder
theory under pre-crises communications stresses the importance of establishing
mutually beneficial relations with stakeholders that focus on an appropriate
sense of corporate responsibility. These standards of corporate responsibility
must meet key publics' expectations before a crisis. Strong stakeholder
relations will not help an organization avert a crisis, but can play an
important role in how the organization resolves a crises it cannot avoid
The benefits of establishing stakeholder relations before a crisis are
twofold. First, stakeholders have a vested interest in the success of
the organization, thus they may provide a network of support during a
crises. Second, stakeholders are often affected negatively by a crisis
and may withdrawal their support if stakeholder relations are not strong.
This could prolong or even worsen the crises (Ulmer, 2001).
Under Stakeholder theory there are two categories of stakeholders: primary
and secondary. Primary stakeholders are those individuals or groups that
are directly affected by the success or failure of an organization. Primary
stakeholders include the community were the organization is located, and
the workers in the organization. Organizations must establish themselves
as important reputable members of the community. By establishing a reservoir
of goodwill in the community it is often easier to gain community support
during a crisis (Sellnow, 1993).
The workers in an organization are an equally important primary stakeholder.
If workers feel the organization's leadership is on their side they are
more likely to bond or rally around the organization during a crisis.
Organizational leaders establish credibility with workers by fairness
in collective bargaining negotiations, providing advancement opportunities,
and empowering workers by making them part of major decisions (Sellnow,
Secondary stakeholders include an organization's customers and the media.
Customers are stakeholders because they have committed themselves to the
organization by selecting the organization's product. If the product and
service of the organization is positive the customer may be loyal to the
organization during a crisis. Organizations must also communicate the
importance of the organization to their customers. Customers are more
likely to back an organization that contributes to society in some positive
way (Sellnow, 2001).
The media is a secondary stakeholder because they need information form
the organization and an organization needs the media to communicate with
the public. Organizations that deal openly and honestly with the media
are more likely to be treated fairly by the media during a crisis. An
organization must be open, candid, and accessible before a crisis to establish
creditability with the media during a crisis (Sellnow, 2001).
Organizational communications during a crisis
As previously stated a key element in the definition of a crisis is that
it is a negative event effecting an organization. Once the public is aware
of a crisis affecting an organization the organization must do something
about the negative image it will most likely suffer. A major theory used
during a crisis is Attribution theory. This theory says that people make
judgments about the causes of a crisis based upon the attributes: locus,
stability, and controllability (Wilson, Cruz, & Rao, 1993).
Locus refers to locus of control, whether the cause of the crises was
internal or external to the organization. If a tornado wipes out an organization
in Oklahoma City the locus of control would be external and the public
should perceive the crises as external. This means the organization destroyed
by the tornado should implement communications strategies that will ensure
the public understands the locus of control was external (Wilson, Cruz,
& Rao, 1993).
If the same organization hit by a tornado in the above example failed
to have adequate disaster insurance then the locus of control would be
internal. This would require the organization to use an entirely different
communications strategy (Wilson, Cruz, & Rao, 1993). Stability refers
to whether the cause of a crisis is always there or if it varies over
time. The threat of a tornado is always present in the springtime in Oklahoma.
If an organization does not have a plan to protect employees during the
spring (shelters, tornado drills) then the organization could be perceived
by the public as negligent if employees were injured. If a tornado hit
the organization in the middle of winter the public may not perceive the
organization as negligent (Wilson, Cruz, & Rao, 1993).
Controllability refers to whether an organization can affect the cause
of a crisis or if the cause is beyond the organization's control. No organization
can control the weather, so in the tornado example the organization would
not be responsible for the crisis itself (Wilson, Cruz, & Rao, 1993).
A crisis situation should vary in terms of how the public perceives the
three attributions, locus, stability, and controllability. Internal locus,
controllability, and stability create the perception that an organization
is responsible for a crisis. The reverse is true when the crises attributes
are external, uncontrollable, and unstable (Wilson, Cruz, & Rao, 1993).
The stronger the attributions of organizational responsibility, the more
likely it is that the negative aspects of the crises will damage the organization.
Crises-response strategies attempt to repair organizational damage by
altering how publics perceive the three attribution dimensions and by
affecting the feelings created by the attributions (Brody, 1991).
Organizational communications during a crisis are composed of crisis response
strategies that use messages to repair the organization's image. Several
scholars have created list of response strategies over the years with
Benoit (1992), and Caillouet (1994) being the most notable. Coombs (1995)
combined Benoit and Caillouet's work to create a comprehensive list of
communications crises response strategies (Coombs, 1995).
Organizational post-crisis communications
The primary focus of post crisis communications is on ensuring the organization
follows up with key publics to further establish a positive relationship.
The first step, however, is to make sure the crisis is in fact over.
As stated earlier a crisis is an entity in itself. A crisis may be over
after the train wreck is cleaned up and rail service is restored, but
the image of the organization, and the media interest may not have culminated
An organization's leaders may focus on the crisis itself and think it
is over when they have addressed the issues with the crisis (Cleaning
up the train-wreck and restoring service). The organization's public relations
representative must remind leaders there may be communications messages
that need to get to the primary and secondary stakeholders (Dougherty,
Even if the media is no longer inquiring about the crisis it is important
to follow-up with them to ensure they got all the information they needed.
It is also important to give them any new details about the crisis. Proactively
dealing with the media in post-crisis communications will help to establish
trust with the media (Dougherty, 1992).
It is also important to communicate with primary stakeholders in post-crisis
communications. Organizations should continually update employees on actions
taken by the organization; especially anything the organization is doing
to help employees affected by the crisis (Dougherty, 1992).
Post-crisis communications are ultimately a version of Stakeholder theory
in that they focus on relationships with key publics. What makes post-crisis
communications unique is the messaging directly relates to a crisis event
that had already occurred in the organization.
In conclusion, the literature on crisis communications displayed more
practical analysis of the phenomena than actual theory. In pre-crisis
communications Stakeholder theory expressed a large amount of highly useful
procedures needed by an organization prier to a crisis. Stakeholder theory
is theoretical only in the scholar's assumption that if an organization
builds relations with stakeholders support by the key publics will come
more easily during a crisis.
A needed area of research would be to test stakeholder theory by looking
at organizations that went through a crisis to see if they applied the
theory before the crisis. Researchers would then be required to develop
a measure of effectiveness to determine if the organizations using Stakeholder
theory were able to more successfully communicate during the crisis.
Attribution theory, for communications during a crisis, is more in line
with traditional scholarly theory. How people make judgments about the
causes of a crisis based upon the attributes, locus, stability, and controllability
is theoretical, but also a very practical set of principles an organization
can use to determine the type of strategy that should be employed to communicate
during the crisis.
An important area of research in pre-crisis communication would involve
determining how many organizations used the main crisis response strategies
while in a crisis. Once this is done researchers would be able to analyze
the strategies to determine their effectiveness in the various types of
crises confronted by organizations.
Post-crises communications is not often considered by organizations, and
the dearth of literature on this subject reflects this. The extension
of Stakeholder theory into post- crisis communications provides a solid
foundation for scholars to analyze the phenomena and for organizations
to use after a crisis.