Crisis Response Communication Challenges: Building Theory from Qualitative Data
Hale, Joanne E., Dulek, Ronald E., Hale, David P., The Journal of Business Communication
This article reports results of a qualitative study that examined communication challenges decision makers experience during the response stage of crisis management. Response is perhaps the most critical of the three stages (prevention, response, recovery) identified in crisis research literature. Response is the point when crisis managers make decisions that may save lives and mitigate the effects of the crisis. Actions at this point also significantly influence public opinion about the crisis and an organization's handling of the event. This study provides additional insight into the complexities of the response stage through analysis of 26 interviews conducted with crisis decision makers involved in 15 organizational crises. Ten additional crises were analyzed through secondary data sources. The result of these analyses is the identification and explication of four crisis response steps: observation, interpretation, choice, and dissemination.
Keywords: crisis management; crisis response; crisis communication; case study
The same day the authors completed a near final draft of this article, the power grid that linked major portions of the Eastern United States and Canada became overloaded and shut down. We have since learned that a tree fell on a power line somewhere in Ohio, caused the lines to overheat, and triggered a rolling shutdown. The general public seemed shocked to learn the power systems throughout major parts of the country are tightly linked and dependent on one another. But the public should not have been surprised, however. The event is simply one more reminder that the world is interconnected and that a crisis occurring in rural Ohio may have worldwide consequences. Moreover, the public seemed amazed as the power system failure rapidly cascaded to transportation, telecommunication, and health care systems, which in turn affected the quality of life far beyond the initial shut-down site. Again, we should not have been surprised. Recent events have shown that such challenges are "par for the course" in a crisis situation. The power failure in Ohio joins other recent events such as the bombing of commuter trains in Spain and the World Trade Center tragedy of September 11 as reminders of the devastating, cascading impact of crises. In light of increasingly frequent and catastrophic failures to public and private infrastructure, crisis management is becoming an increasingly important research topic.
Organizational crises are events characterized by high consequence, low probability, ambiguity, and decision-making time pressure (Pearson & Clair, 1998). Research during the past two decades has focused significant attention on how companies handle such events. Collectively, this literature develops the rubric of crisis management (Lagadec, 1990, 1993; Marcus & Goodman, 1991). Crisis management consists of three distinct phases: crisis prevention, crisis response, and recovery from the crisis. Fink (1986) explicitly subdivided crisis prevention (i.e., avoiding and averting potential crises) into three stages (mitigation, planning, and warning), thus developing his five-stage interdependent model consisting of crisis mitigation, planning, warning, response, and recovery.
The response stage is entered when avoidance efforts fail and events trigger a crisis. At this point, organizations shift their resources and efforts to minimizing damage to the environment, facilities, and people. Crisis response communication includes conveying ongoing crisis events to stakeholders, decision making within the crisis management team, and organizational decisions regarding whether and what amount of information to share. Over time, the risk of additional direct damage subsides, and organizations enter the final stage of the crisis management process, recovery. Recovery involves attempts to learn from the event internally and "handle" the event externally. Managing public perception often drives the goals of the recovery stage (Horsley & Barker, 2002).
Scholars have long recognized the important role communication plays in effective crisis management (Barton, 1993; Rice, 1990; Williams & Treadway, 1992; Winsor, 1988, 1990). Thus far, however, the vast majority of the work examining crisis communication has focused on the prevention and recovery stages. Winsor (1988, 1990) documented how communication failures in the warning stage led to the Challenger accident and showed how communication breakdowns in the warning stage can actually exacerbate a crisis situation. Additional studies providing extensive coverage of communication aspects of the warning stage include Moore (1992), Tompkins (1993), Coombs (1999), and Tompkins and Tompkins (2004).
The multifaceted communication strategies companies employ during the recovery stage have often been reported. Included in this category are studies of image restoration strategies (Benoit, 1995), examinations of the public narratives companies construct to respond to a crisis (Venette, Sellnow, & Lang, 2003), identification of correlations between the ethnicity of the organizational spokesperson and the audience's evaluation of the crisis (Arpan, 2002), detailed examinations of issue advertising's impact on the public relations damage of a crisis (Cowden & Sellnow, 2002), and studies that quantify the relationship between effective crisis recovery and stakeholder perceptions of organizational legitimacy (Massey, 2001). The public availability of documents that demonstrate these strategies make this last stage of crisis management a natural outlet for academic examination. Additional studies of this dimension of the crisis communication process include those conducted by Benoit (1995): Coombs (2000); Ice (1991); Kaufmann, Kesner, and Hazen (1994); Marcus and Goodman (1991): O'Rourke (1998); and Tyler (1997).
Driving the present study is the absence of published research examining communication practices during crisis response. As a first step into a better understanding of crisis response communications, this study examines communication challenges within the response stage--the stage that involves the immediate minutes, hours, days, or weeks after the crisis is triggered but while significant risk of immediate damage is still present. It is at this point that the crisis characteristics of short decision time, complexity, and ambiguity surface (Bouillette & Quarantelli, 1971; Shrivastava, Mitroff, Miller, & Miglani, 1988). It is also at this point that communication decisions make a vital difference, not just to the public's eventual perception of an organization's behavior but also often to the health and safety of the organization's employees, community residents, and the public in general. Appropriate communication decisions within the response stage may simplify the crisis recovery stage by containing or lessening the crisis. Finally, effective communication within the response stage may save lives. This study's aim, then, is to build a qualitatively based model of crisis response communication a model that explicitly depicts areas in which communication issues occur and provides propositions to direct further study of crisis response communication strategies.
Crisis Management Processes
By its very nature, crisis management is multidisciplinary (Fink, Beak, & Taddeo, 1971: Mitroff, 1988: Shrivastava, 1993). Pearson and Clair (1998) and Horsley and Barker (2002) provide two of the best and most comprehensive cross-discipline perspectives of the crisis management process. Both studies unite management theory with psychological, social-political, and public relations perspectives to create a comprehensive model of the crisis process.
Pearson and Clair (1998) suggested that during Fink's mitigation, planning, and warning phases, the adoption of effective crisis management programs follows from executive concern for, and attention to, crisis preparations. The model also suggests that as organizations achieve a modest level of crisis preparation, executives develop a false sense of security in their ability to prevent crises. Following a triggering event--that is, during the response and recovery stages--effective crisis management involves reconstructing shared meaning and roles, and readjusting basic assumptions. Studies with similar findings include Massey (2001), Cowden and Sellnow (2002), and Prasad and Mir (2002). The key tenet of Pearson and Clair's model, as well as these other studies, is that each crisis contains degrees of both success and failure. Individual and group actions, before and after the triggering event, significantly affect the relative number of these successes and failures.
Horsley and Barker (2002) developed a model similar to Fink's but dramatically extended the focus for crisis preparation from an internal to an external perspective. Specifically, Horsley and Barker advocate including a conscientious image-building and a media relations campaign as part of the crisis preparation process. The development of positive relationships, goodwill, and trust in positive times, Horsley and Barker argue, will serve organizations effectively later during the recovery stage. What Horsley and Barker ultimately suggest is a concentric view of crisis communication, that is, a model united by an ongoing awareness of public relations. The concentric model, along with the recognition that public relations is an ongoing concern throughout the crisis communication process, is an important addition to the crisis communication literature. The model and its focus offer a differing perspective to Fink (1986) and Pearson and Clair's (1998) linear, step-by-step perspectives. Furthermore, Horsley and Barker's model hints at a repetitive, iterative structure to the crisis communication process. The underlying model may be a loop rather than a straight line forward.
Crisis Communication--Response Stage
Early work on the response stage of crisis communication focused on channels and information flow. March and Simon (1958) found that stress and time pressure impede crisis decision makers' search for information. Williams (1957) found that the amount of information that must flow through existing channels greatly increased during a crisis. Causes of these increases include elevated complexity of the situation: the number of …
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Publication information: Article title: Crisis Response Communication Challenges: Building Theory from Qualitative Data. Contributors: Hale, Joanne E. - Author, Dulek, Ronald E. - Author, Hale, David P. - Author. Journal title: The Journal of Business Communication. Volume: 42. Issue: 2 Publication date: April 2005. Page number: 112+. © 2008 Association for Business Communication. COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group.
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