Tip Sheet: What Research Can Teach Us About Crisis Communications

"Most major crises start with a bad idea." That from a slide used by Gary Sheffer, executive director of Communications & Public Affairs at General Electric. But how much of what we think we know about crisis communications is borne out by high quality research?

Dr. Tim Coombs of Eastern Illinois University has authored a new paper for the Institute for Public Relations Web site that synthesizes research-based knowledge in this area. The paper, "Crisis Management and Communications," reviews best practices from pre-crisis to post-crisis with links to the original sources. Here's a sampling of major findings:

1. The accepted common wisdom in crisis communication is often right. Especially when it comes to the basics, organizations do better when they have a crisis management plan and update it annually. They also need to appoint a crisis management team, run exercises to keep the team in shape and prepare generic crisis statements in advance.

2. A quick response shows that an organization is in control and builds credibility. This is clear in research going back to the early 1990s and continuing into this decade. But don't believe it if you've heard that one person must speak for the organization to maintain control. That's simply impossible when a major crisis lasts for days or weeks or more. More important is to have relevant experts speak for the organization while the public relations department takes responsibility for preparing spokespersons, making sure the story is consistent, and doing the followup.

3. If it happened before, don't let it happen again. Attribution theory holds that people seek to explain why bad things unexpectedly happen. It often comes down to blaming either the organization or the situation. The greater an organization's perceived culpability, the more anger and reputation damage it will encounter. Furthermore, experimental studies have documented that letting the same bad thing happen more than once leads to even greater blame and reputational threat. (And if you didn't treat stakeholders right in any past crisis, that too will fuel a downward spiral of blame and damage.)

4. Expressing concern and sympathy for victims can help cut your losses. The empirical and experimental records are clear in this regard. Lawyers worry that expressions of concern might be twisted into admissions of responsibility. But research shows that early expressions of concern actually reduces the number of claims while bolstering your reputation as a caring organization.

5. The right reputation repair strategy depends on the situation, but it needn't be guesswork. "'Situation Crisis Communication Theory' argues that crisis managers should use increasingly accommodative strategies as the reputational threat intensifies," writes Coombs. He offers a detailed list for guidance. If the organization bears minimal responsibility for what happened - such as false rumors or natural disasters - it may suffice to counter those who are accusing you or shift attention to the real cause of the crisis. When public safety is a concern, speedy and accurate "instructing information" is critical so that people can protect themselves - finding safe water, food and shelter, for example. As you move up the continuum toward more responsibility, you should be ever more accommodative of the victim's needs, to the point of compensation and assurances that the organization will not let this happen again. Any of these can work in the right situation. Knowing when and where is the key to success.

6. Never forget employees and their families during a crisis. They often feel like victims themselves, even if they suffered no physical injuries. They may need stress and trauma counseling, or more prosaic information - such as when to show up for work. If kept well-informed, they provide an especially credible channel to reach other stakeholders.

The bottomline, not-to-be forgotten takeaway: "While crises begin as a negative/threat, effective crisis management can minimize the damage and in some cases allow an organization to emerge stronger than before the crisis." PRN


Frank Ovaitt, president & CEO of the Institute for Public Relations, can be reached at [email protected] or through http://www.instituteforpr.org. Dr. W. Timothy Coombs, associate professor, Eastern Illinois University, can be reached at [email protected].