Crisis communication

Crisis communication is a sub-specialty of the public relations profession that is designed to protect and defend an individual, company, or organization facing a public challenge to its reputation.[1] The communication scholar Timothy Coombs defines crisis as "the perception of an unpredictable event that threatens important expectancies of stakeholders and can seriously impact an organization's performance and generate negative outcomes"[2] and crisis communication as "the collection, processing, and dissemination of information required to address a crisis situation."[3]

Meaning can be socially constructed;[4] because of this, the way that the stakeholders of an organization view an event (positively, neutrally, or negatively) is a major contributing factor to whether the event will become a crisis.[5] Additionally, it is important to separate a true crisis situation from an incident.[6] The term crisis “should be reserved for serious events that require careful attention from management.”[5]

Crisis management has been defined as "a set of factors designed to combat crises and to lessen the actual damages inflicted."[7] Crisis management should not merely be reactionary; it should also consist of preventative measures and preparation in anticipation of potential crises. Effective crisis management has the potential to greatly reduce the amount of damage the organization receives as a result of the crisis, and may even prevent an incident from ever developing into a crisis.[5]

Theories in crisis communication research

In crisis communication literature, several streams of research exist at the same time. Different theories demonstrate certain ways to look at and explain crisis situations.

Image repair theory (IRT)

William Benoit established image repair theory (IRT) based on apologia studies. IRT assumes that image is an asset that a person or an organization attempts to protect during a crisis. When the person or the organization is attacked, the accused should draft messages to repair its image.[8] Benoit further introduced 5 general and 14 specific response strategies the accused could harness during a crisis. General categories include deny, evading responsibility, reducing offensiveness, corrective action, and mortification.[9]

Situational crisis communication theory (SCCT)

Timothy Coombs started working on situational crisis communication theory (SCCT) in 1995. Originated from attribution theory, SCCT assumes that crises are negative events that stakeholders attempt to attribute responsibility.[10] Coombs believes crisis managers can employ different crisis strategies according to different crisis types. Different from IRT, SCCT is an audience-oriented theory which focuses on stakeholders’ perceptions of crisis situations. This idea is in line with Benoit’s argument that crisis concerns more about perception than reality.

Social-mediated crisis communication (SMCC) model

As social networks and blogs become popular, people spend more time online during crises. SMCC is introduced to investigate crisis management in online context. The model first explains how the source and form of information affect response selections and then proposes crisis response strategies. The model argues that five factors influence an organizations’ communication during a crisis: crisis origin, crisis type, infrastructure, message strategy, and message form.[11]

Integrated crisis mapping (ICM) model

Another line of crisis communication research focuses on stakeholders’ emotional change in times of crises. Jin, Pang, and Cameron introduces integrated crisis mapping (ICM) model to understand stakeholders’ varied emotions during a crisis. ICM assumes that people keep interpreting their emotions during a crisis.[12]

Covariation-based approach to crisis communication

As an extension of SCCT, Andreas Schwarz suggested to apply Kelley's covariation principle (attribution theory) more consistently in crisis communication to better explain the emergence and perception of causal attributions in crisis situations and deduce certain information strategies from this model and/or according findings. In this approach the three informational dimensions of consensus, distinctiveness, and consistency are conceptualized for situations of organizational crises (or other types of crisis) to predict the likelihood of stakeholders to make organizational attributions, entity attributions, or circumstance attributions and subsequently influence responsibility perceptions and evaluations of organizational reputation.[13]

Categories of crisis management

Coombs identifies three phases of crisis management.[2]

  1. Pre-crisis: preparing ahead of time for crisis management in an effort to prevent a future crisis from occurring.[2] This category is also sometimes called the prodromal crisis stage.[14]
  2. Crisis: the response to an actual crisis event.[2]
  3. Post-crisis: occurs after the crisis has been resolved; the efforts by the crisis management team to understand why the crisis occurred and to learn from the event.[2]

Inside the management step, Bodeau-Ostermann identifies 6 successive phases: - reaction, where the group behaves on first sight, - extension, because the crisis dilutes itself and touches neighbours, - means (material and human), which constitutes an overview of success/failures of emergency reaction, - focus, stands as a concrete action or event on which the team leaders concentrate to fight crisis, - retraction, is the moment where the group diminishes means involved, in accordance with its aims, - rehabilitation, where, as a last step, result is, for the group, emergence of new values, stronger than the older. Article published on RIMS (Risk Management), New-York, May 2004.

Crisis response strategy

Both situational crisis communication theory and image repair theory assume organizations should protect their reputation and image through appropriate responses to the crisis. Therefore, how to draft effective message to defend the crisis becomes the focal point of crisis communication research. Image repair theory provides series of options that organizations usually adopt including denial, evade responsibility, reduce offensiveness, corrective action, and mortification. Specifically, denial strategy contains two sub-strategies, simple denial and shift blame. Evade responsibility strategy includes provocation, defeasibility, accident, good intention. Reduce offensiveness strategy garners bolstering, minimization, differentiation, transcendence, attack accuser, and compensation.[9]

SCCT also offers a handful of strategies: denial, scapegoat, attack the accuser, excuse, justification, ingratiation, concern, compassion, regret, apology. Coombs argues different strategy should be adopted according different situations.[3]

Crisis communication tactics


A rapid response crisis communications team should be organized during the pre-crisis stage [17] and all individuals who will help with the actual crisis communication response should be trained.[18]


Crisis communication tactics during the crisis stage may include the following: the identification of the incident as a crisis by the organization’s crisis management team; the collection and processing of pertinent information to the crisis management team for decision making; and also the dissemination of crisis messages to both internal and external publics of the organization.[18]


Timothy Coombs proposes that post-crisis communication should include the following five steps:

In general, Timothy Coombs raises some practices regarding to crisis response strategy based on SCCT that crisis managers should consider carefully.

Crisis communication dilemma

An increasing number of studies are investigating "stealing thunder". The concept originates from law, which indicates that lawyers report flaws in their own cases instead of giving the opponent opportunities to find the flaw. Journal articles frequently demonstrates the advantage of adopting "stealing thunder" strategy in minimizing reputational loss during crises.[19] They argue organizations should report the problems first . However, the strategy itself is fundamentally counterintuitive. Companies are unwilling to disclose their crisis because there is a chance that the public will never know.

Landmark crisis communication case studies


  1. Barrera, Andria. "When Public Scrutiny Requires Crisis Communications". Gutenberg Communications. Retrieved 28 February 2014.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 Coombs 2007.
  3. 1 2 Coombs, W.Timothy; Holladay, Sherry.J (2010). The Handbook of Crisis Communication. Malden:MA: Wiley-Blackwell. p. 20. ISBN 978-1444361902.
  4. Maines, David R. (2000). "The Social Construction of Meaning". Contemporary Sociology. 29 (4): 577. doi:10.2307/2654557. JSTOR 2654557.
  5. 1 2 3 Coombs 2012, p. 19.
  6. Coombs, W. Timothy (2004). "Impact of past crises on current crisis communications: Insights from: Situational crisis communication theory". Journal of Business Communication. 41: 265–289. doi:10.1177/0021943604265607.
  7. Coombs 2007, p. 5.
  8. Benoit, William L. (2014). Accounts, Excuses, and Apologies. Albany:NY: SUNY Press. ISBN 978-1438453989.
  9. 1 2 Benoit, William L. (2014). Account, Excuses, and Aplogies. Albany:NY: SUNY Press. ISBN 978-1438453989.
  10. Coombs, W.Timothy (1995). "Choosing the right words the development of guidelines for the selection of the "appropriate" crisis-response strategies" (PDF). Management Communication Quarterly.
  11. Liu, Brooke Fisher (2011). "How publics respond to crisis communication strategies: The interplay of information form and source". Public Relations Review.
  12. Jin, Yan; Pang, Augustine; Cameron, Glen T. (2012). "The role of emotions in crisis responses: Inaugural test of the integrated crisis mapping (ICM) model" (PDF). Journal of Public Relations Research.
  13. Schwarz, Andreas (2012). "Stakeholder attributions in crises: the effects of covariation information and attributional inferences on organizational reputation". International Journal of Strategic Communication. 6 (2). doi:10.1080/1553118X.2011.596869. Retrieved 1 September 2016.
  14. Finks 1986, p. 21.
  15. 1 2 Coombs, W. Timothy. "Crisis Management and Communications".
  16. Coombs 2012, p. 20.
  17. Alfonso, González-Herrero; Smith, Suzanne (2008). "Crisis Communications Management on the Web: How Internet-Based Technologies are Changing the Way Public Relations Professionals Handle Business Crises". Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management. 16 (3): 143–153. doi:10.1111/j.1468-5973.2008.00543.x. Retrieved 28 February 2014.
  18. 1 2 3 Coombs 2012, pp. 20-21.
  19. Claeys, An-sofie; Cauberghe, Verolien (2012). "Crisis response and crisis timing strategies, two sides of the same coin". Public Relations Review.
  20. Benson, James A. (1988). "Crisis revisited: An analysis of strategies used by Tylenol in the second tampering episode". Central States Speech Journal. 39 (1): 49–66. doi:10.1080/10510978809363234. Retrieved 28 February 2014.
  21. 1 2 Stockmyer 1996.
  22. Benoit, William L. (1997). "Image repair discourse and crisis communication". Public Relations Review. 23 (2): 177–186. doi:10.1016/s0363-8111(97)90023-0. Retrieved 28 February 2014.
  23. Williams, David E.; Treadaway, Glenda (1992). "Exxon and the Valdez accident: A failure in crisis communication". Communication Studies. 43 (1): 56–64. doi:10.1080/10510979209368359. Retrieved 28 February 2014.
  24. Blaney, Joseph R.; Benoit, William L.; Brazeal, LeAnn M. (2002). "Blowout!: Firestone's image restoration campaign". Public Relations Review. 28 (4): 379–392. doi:10.1016/s0363-8111(02)00163-7. Retrieved 28 February 2014.
  25. Sherowski, Elizabeth (1996). "Hot Coffee, Cold Cash: Making the Most of Alternative Dispute Resolution in High-Stakes Personal Injury Lawsuits". J. on Disp. Resol. 521. Retrieved 28 February 2014.
  26. Jacques, Amy. "Domino's delivers during crisis: The company's step-by-step response after a vulgar video goes viral". The Strategist. Retrieved 28 February 2014.
  27. Veil, Shari R.; Sellnow, Timothy L.; Petrun, Elizabeth L. (2012). "Hoaxes and the Paradoxical Challenges of Restoring Legitimacy: Dominos' Response to Its YouTube Crisis". Management Communication Quarterly. 26 (2): 322–345. doi:10.1177/0893318911426685.
  28. York, Emily Bryson. "What Domino's Did Right -- and Wrong -- in Squelching Hubbub over YouTube Video". AdAge. Retrieved 28 February 2014.
  29. De Wolf, Daniel; Mejri, Mohamed (2013). "Crisis communication failures: The BP Case Study". International Journal of Advances in Management and Economics. 2 (2): 48–56. Retrieved 28 February 2014.
  30. Chen, Stephanie (2010). "Crisis management 101: What can BP CEO Hayward's mistakes teach us?". CNN. Retrieved 28 February 2014.
  31. McCarthy, Elizabeth. "Crisis Management Case Study: BP Oil Spill". The PR Code. Retrieved 28 February 2014.
  32. Schwarz, Andreas (2012). The Love Parade in Duisburg: Lessons from a tragic blame game. In A. George & C. Pratt (Eds.), Case Studies in Crisis Communication: International Perspectives on Hits and Misses (pp. 340-360). Routledge.

References and external links

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