Crisis Communication Strategies


Statement of Problem

Literature Review

Communication Theories


Jack in the Box
Union Carbide


Reference List

Team Members

Literature review
Organizations 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 hits.

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 (Ulmer, 2001).

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 review.

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.

Crises Defined
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 (Heath, 1997).

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, 2001).

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 (Dougherty, 1992).

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, 1992).

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.

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