Academic journal article The Journal of Business Communication

When in Rome? the Effects of Spokesperson Ethnicity on Audience Evaluation of Crisis Communication

Academic journal article The Journal of Business Communication

When in Rome? the Effects of Spokesperson Ethnicity on Audience Evaluation of Crisis Communication

Article excerpt

An experiment was conducted to examine the effects of using organizational spokespersons of ethnic backgrounds similar to or different from possible stakeholders of a multinational organization. The investigation used a fictitious crisis in the United States and varied the home country of the organization involved in the crisis (United States, Mexico, and Japan), as well as whether the organization used a spokesperson from its home country. Although the participant groups did not generally prefer similar spokespersons, path analyses found that the degree to which each participant identified with his or her own ethnic group affected spokesperson similarity ratings, which, in turn, predicted spokesperson credibility ratings. Additionally, the extent to which participants accepted the crisis response given by the organization was predicted by spokesperson credibility ratings. Implications for multinational organizations experiencing a crisis in host, or foreign, countries are discussed.


When Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. was in the midst of a major tire recall crisis in the summer of 2000, the company placed full-page advertisements in newspapers around the United States consisting of open letters about the recall from CEO Masatoshi Ono and from President John Lampe. Ford Motor Company, involved in the crisis through its use of Firestone tires on the Ford Explorer, sought to reassure the American public through print and television ads featuring its CEO, Jacques Nasser.

Nasser, a native of Australia, was criticized by some advertising industry experts for being ineffective and a distraction in the television ads by virtue of his accent, stiff manner, and even his name and its correct pronunciation (Frank, 2000; Garfield, 2000; Taylor, 2000). While the choice of a spokesperson used to deliver crisis information should take into account the severity and complexity of the crisis, the credibility of the spokesperson also should be a key concern (Caponigro, 1998; Elsbach & Sutton, 1992). For multinational organizations, such as Ford and Bridgestone, it seems prudent to consider how perceived spokesperson credibility is affected by the ethnicity of the spokesperson.

The choice of an organizational spokesperson is particularly crucial in a crisis situation when an organization's credibility is under intense scrutiny. An organization facing a crisis needs effective communication that inspires renewed or continued public faith and support (Allen & Caillouet, 1994). Crises such as high-profile lawsuits, product flaws resulting in injuries to consumers, and environmental damage caused by an organization may result in several possible negative consequences for the organization, such as decreases in company stock prices, losses in sales and production, increased media or government scrutiny, and damage to the organization's image or reputation (Guth, 1995; Kaufmann, Kesner & Hazen, 1991; Marcus & Goodman, 1991).

During a crisis, an organization's publics or stakeholders will simultaneously assess the organization's degree of responsibility and the extent to which it should be trusted in the future (Williams & Treadaway, 1992). Typically, an appointed spokesperson for the organization involved in the crisis will deliver an official crisis response or account that attempts to explain the organization's involvement (or lack thereof) in the crisis to the media and to the organization's relevant publics or stakeholders (Benoit, 1995; Coombs, 1998; Williams & Treadaway, 1992). This crisis account largely determines how members of the public will assess the organization's behavior (Coombs, 1999). Scholarly research in crisis management thoroughly addresses the types of accounts organizations can and do offer to explain the crisis and an organization's behavior (Allen & Caillouet, 1994; Benoit & Brinson, 1994; Coombs, 1999; Coombs & Holladay, 1996; Elsbach, 1994; Fitzpatrick & Rubin, 1995; Hearit, 1994; Hobbs, 1995; Ice, 19 91; Kernisky, 1997; Lyon & Cameron, 1998; Marcus & Goodman, 1991; Sellnow, 1993; Sellnow & Ulmer, 1995). …

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