Crisis Communication Strategies


Statement of Problem

Literature Review

Communication Theories


Jack in the Box
Union Carbide


Reference List

Team Members

Communication theories
All case studies were grouped under one of Coombs' four crisis types: faux pas, terrorism, accidents, or transgressions (Coombs, 1995). A faux pas is an unintentional action that an external agent tries to transform into a crisis. Accidents are unintentional and happen during the course of normal organizational operations. Transgressions are intentional actions taken by an organization that knowingly place publics at risk or harm. Terrorism refers to intentional actions taken by external actors designed to harm the organization directly or indirectly (Coombs, 1995, p. 456-457).

The type of crisis faced by Denny's was transgression because the crisis was created internally by a small group of Denny's employees. NASA's challenger incident falls under two of Coomb's categories - transgression and accident because NASA ignored warnings from the O-ring manufacturer regarding their potential to fail in cold weather. Jack in the Box's E. coli crisis falls under Coombs' accident category. Johnson & Johnson's Tylenol tampering falls under Coomb's terrorism category. The Union Carbide crisis overlaps into two of Coombs' identified matrix. Aspects of the incident can be categorized as an accident or as a transgression depending on the viewpoint of the various participants.

Case studies were also used to group crisis-response strategies into five different categories: refutation strategies, avoidance strategies, attachment strategies, forgiveness strategies, and sympathy strategies. While these categories reflect Coombs' overall concepts, for the purpose of our analysis, we have recategorized the strategies with the above distinct titles to more accurately depict the particular cases we studied. This unique nomenclature is internal to this study only.

Refutation strategies seek to eliminate the crises. Elimination is achieved by denying a crisis exists, or clarifying why there is no crisis. Organizations can also attack, or confront those who have wrongly reported that a crisis exists. The most aggressive refutation strategy is intimidation. Intimidation is most often the threat of legal action against those who say an organization is experiencing a crisis. If an organization uses refutational strategies the leaders must be absolutely sure they are correct that a crisis does not exist (Coombs, 1995).

Avoidance strategies acknowledge the crisis and attempt to create public acceptance of the crisis while weakening the linkage between the crisis and the organization. Organizations attempt to excuse or justify the crisis when using avoidance strategy. An organization can excuse the crisis by denial of intention, "we didn't mean to hurt anyone," or by denial of violation, "no laws were broken here" (Coombs, 1995).

Justification is an avoidance strategy that seeks to minimize the damage associated with the crisis. Organizations can minimize a crises by denying the seriousness of injury, or claiming the victim disserved what happened, "our oil spill was a drop in the bucket compared to the Exxon Valdez," or "its is tragic that someone was killed in a Ford, but they didn't have their seatbelt on" (Coombs, 1995).

Attachment strategies seek to gain public approval for the organization during a crisis. This is done by bolstering the organization's attributes, "our organization ads $ 1 billion to the local economy," or transcendence, "the soldiers were killed in the defense of freedom," or by praising others, "the heroic efforts of those that helped clean this oil spill can not be overstated" (Coombs, 1995).

Forgiveness strategies attempt to win forgiveness of the publics and to create acceptance for the crises. There are three forgiveness strategies: remediation, repentance, and rectification (Marcus & Goodman, 1991). Remediation offers some sort of compensation to the victims of a crisis (usually money). Negative feelings may be lessened if an organization takes positive actions to help the victims of a crisis. The airline industry is particularly adept at this following a crash (Coombs, 1995).

Repentance is a forgiveness strategy that simply asks for forgiveness. If an organization apologizes for the crises the negatives associated with the crisis should be lessoned as people accept the apology and forgive the organization for its misdeeds. Rectification is a forgiveness strategy that normally follows repentance. Rectification involves taking action to prevent recurrence of the crisis in the future.

The final crisis response strategy is sympathy strategy. An organization attempts to portray itself as the victim of a malicious outside entity. If the CIA had agents sell secrets to a foreign adversary they could claim they were victims of a malicious employee gone bad.

We will attempt to answer the following research questions in our case study analysis to determine if there are any implications for Department of Defense public affairs professionals.

RQ1: What are the types of crises identified in the case studies?

RQ2: What are typical crisis response strategies used in selected case studies?

RQ3: What are the common successes and failures identified among the case studies?

RQ4: What are the implications for the Department of Defense?

DoD Joint Course in Communication, Class 02-C, Team 1