Crisis Response Communication Challenges: Building Theory from Qualitative Data

Article excerpt

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

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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). …

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