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][2] Crisis communication is aimed at raising awareness of a specific type of threat, the magnitude, outcomes, and specific behaviors to adopt to reduce the threat.[3] 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"[4] and crisis communication as "the collection, processing, and dissemination of information required to address a crisis situation."[5]

Meaning can be socially constructed;[6] because of this, the way that the stakeholders of an organization perceive an event (positively, neutrally, or negatively) is a major contributing factor to whether the event will become a crisis.[7] Additionally, it is important to separate a true crisis situation from an incident.[8] The term crisis “should be reserved for serious events that require careful attention from management.”[7]

Crisis management has been defined as "a set of factors designed to combat crises and to lessen the actual damages inflicted."[9] 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.[7]

Theories in crisis communication researchEdit

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.

Apologia TheoryEdit

"It is, as one would assume, an effort to defend and protect image. But it is not necessarily an apology."[10] This theory would be used by an organization to deny public discourse and address a crisis.

Image repair theory (IRT)Edit

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.[11] 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.[12]

Situational crisis communication theory (SCCT)Edit

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.[13] 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 management concerns perception more so than reality.

Social-mediated crisis communication (SMCC) modelEdit

As social networks and blogs become popular, people spend more time online during crises. Social-mediated crisis communication (SMCC) model 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.[14]

Integrated crisis mapping (ICM) modelEdit

Another line of crisis communication research focuses on stakeholders’ emotional changes in times of crises. Jin, Pang, and Cameron introduces integrated crisis mapping (ICM) model to understand stakeholders’ varied emotion during a crisis. ICM assumes that people keep interpreting their emotions during a crisis.[15] Through Jin, Pang, and Cameron's analyzation of fourteen real-life crisis case studies, they found that "anxiety was the default emotion in most, if not all, crisis posited in the model."[15] However, common dominant emotions expressed during a crisis also include anger, fright and sadness; these vary depending on the nature of the crisis.[15]

Covariation-based approach to crisis communicationEdit

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.[16]

Discourse of renewalEdit

The discourse of renewal theory examines the components an organization can employ when navigating a crisis in order to mitigate significant issues within the organization when entering the post-crisis stage. It is a theory assessed by Gregory Ulmer, Timothy Sellnow, and Matthew Seeger as a framework that "emphasizes learning from the crisis, ethical communication, communication that is prospective in nature, and effective organizational rhetoric".[17]

Rhetorical Arena Theory (RAT)Edit

Developed by Frandsen and Johansen (2010; 2017),[18][19] RAT distinguishes itself from other crisis communication research due to its multi-vocal approach. RAT assumes that there are various voices which all communicate with one another inside a 'rhetorical arena' to co-construct the crisis dialogue. Therefore, RAT focuses on understanding the patterns of interaction between said various voices. For the purpose of their theory, the term 'rhetorical arena' is used to denote a space that opens during a crisis where different actors, including other corporations, political actors, activists, experts, and the media, talk to and about each other.[20]

Categories of crisis managementEdit

Coombs identifies three phases of crisis management.[4]

  1. Pre-crisis: preparing ahead of time for crisis management in an effort to prevent a future crisis from occurring.[4] This category is also sometimes called the prodromal crisis stage.[21]
  2. Crisis: the response to an actual crisis event.[4]
  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.[4]

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.

Auer (2020),[22] challenges the three phases approach to crisis communication, arguing that a crisis communicator can mistakenly assume that the post-crisis stage is underway, when in fact, there is merely a “lull” in the crisis. The risk is heightened for crises that are long-lasting or that have “waves” – like Covid-19.

Crisis response strategyEdit

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.[12]

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.[5]

Crisis communication tacticsEdit


  • Researching and collecting information about crisis risks specific to the organization.
  • Creating a crisis management plan that includes making decisions ahead of time about who will handle specific aspects of a crisis if and when it occurs.
  • Conducting exercises to test the plan at least annually.[23]
  • Preparing press release templates for the organization's public relations team in the event of a crisis.
  • The chain of command that all employees will follow in the dissemination of information to all publics during a crisis situation.[24]

A rapid response crisis communications team should be organized during the pre-crisis stage [25] and all individuals who will help with the actual crisis communication response should be trained.[26] At this stage the communication professional focuses on detecting and identifying possible risks that could result in a crisis.


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.[26]


  • Reviewing and dissecting the successes and failures of the crisis management team in order to make any necessary changes to the organization, its employees, practices, or procedures.
  • Providing follow-up crisis messages as necessary.[26]

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

  • Deliver all information promised to stakeholders as soon as that information is known.
  • Keep stakeholders updated on the progression of recovery efforts including any corrective measures being taken and the progress of investigations.
  • Analyze the crisis management effort for lessons and integrate those lessons in to the organization's crisis management system.
  • Scan the Internet channels for online memorials.
  • Consult with victims and their families to determine the organization's role in any anniversary events or memorials.[23]

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

  • All victims or potential victims should receive instructing information, including recall information. This is one-half of the base response to a crisis.
  • All victims should be provided an expression of sympathy, any information about corrective actions and trauma counseling when needed. This can be called the “care response.” This is the second half of the base response to a crisis.
  • For crises with minimal attributions of crisis responsibility and no intensifying factors, instructing information and care response is sufficient.
  • For crises with minimal attributions of crisis responsibility and an intensifying factor, add excuse and/or justification strategies to the instructing information and care response.
  • For crises with low attributions of crisis responsibility and no intensifying factors, add excuse and/or justification strategies to the instructing information and care response.
  • For crises with low attributions of crisis responsibility and an intensifying factor, add compensation and/or apology strategies to the instructing information and care response.
  • For crises with strong attributions of crisis responsibility, add compensation and/or apology strategies to the instructing information and care response.
  • The compensation strategy is used anytime victims suffer serious harm.
  • The reminder and ingratiation strategies can be used to supplement any response.
  • Denial and attack the accuser strategies are best used only for rumor and challenge crises.

Benoit's 5 Major StrategiesEdit


There are two forms of denial:[27] Simple denial which involves denying the involvement or the act, and shifting the blame, which is also known as Scapegoating.[28][better source needed]

Evasion of ResponsibilityEdit

Evading responsibility involves the following 4 steps.

  1. Provocation, suggesting that the accused only responded after being provoked.
  2. Defeasibility, suggesting that lack of control or information is to blame.
  3. Accidents, suggesting that it was an accident
  4. Good intentions, suggest that it was done with good intentions in mind, despite the negative outcome.


The apologists will attempt to reduce the offensiveness of the acts by:

  • Bolstering by describing positive attributes
  • Minimizing to decrease the negative view of the situation
  • Differentiation by comparing the act to other similar acts that ended in worse terms
  • Transcending by discussion in terms of abstract values and group loyalty.
  • Attacking the accuser in an attempt to eliminate credibility
  • Offering compensation to victims

Corrective ActionEdit

The apologist will express corrective action when they attempt to correct the situation and prevent it from ever happening again.


When the apologist admits wrongful behavior and asks for forgiveness while apologizing.

Crisis communication dilemmaEdit

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.[29] They argue organizations should report the problems first.[30] However, the strategy itself is fundamentally counter-intuitive. Companies are unwilling to disclose their crisis because there is a chance that the public will never know.

Landmark crisis communication case studiesEdit


  1. ^ Barrera, Andria. "When Public Scrutiny Requires Crisis Communications". Gutenberg Communications. Retrieved 28 February 2014.
  2. ^ Bundy, J.; Pfarrer, M. D.; Short, C. E.; Coombs, W. T. (2017). "Crises and crisis management: Integration, interpretation, and research development". Journal of Management. 43 (6): 1661–1692. doi:10.1177/0149206316680030. S2CID 152223772.
  3. ^ Reynolds, Barbara; Seeger, Matthew W. (2005-02-23). "Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication as an Integrative Model". Journal of Health Communication. 10 (1): 43–55. doi:10.1080/10810730590904571. ISSN 1081-0730. PMID 15764443. S2CID 16810613.
  4. ^ a b c d e Coombs 2007.
  5. ^ a b Coombs, W.Timothy; Holladay, Sherry.J (2010). The Handbook of Crisis Communication. Malden:MA: Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 20. ISBN 978-1444361902.
  6. ^ Maines, David R. (2000). "The Social Construction of Meaning". Contemporary Sociology. 29 (4): 577–584. doi:10.2307/2654557. JSTOR 2654557. S2CID 62900803.
  7. ^ a b c Coombs 2012, p. 19.
  8. ^ Coombs, W. Timothy (2004). "Impact of past crises on current crisis communications: Insights from: Situational crisis communication theory". Journal of Business Communication. 41 (3): 265–289. doi:10.1177/0021943604265607. S2CID 154326081.
  9. ^ Coombs 2007, p. 5.
  10. ^ Fearn-Banks, Kathleen (2017). Crisis communications : a casebook approach (Fifth ed.). New York, NY. ISBN 978-1-138-92373-7. OCLC 914225291.
  11. ^ Benoit, William L. (2014). Accounts, Excuses, and Apologies. Albany:NY: SUNY Press. ISBN 978-1438453989.
  12. ^ a b Benoit, William L. (2014). Account, Excuses, and Aplogies. Albany:NY: SUNY Press. ISBN 978-1438453989.
  13. ^ Coombs, W.Timothy (1995). "Choosing the right words the development of guidelines for the selection of the "appropriate" crisis-response strategies". Management Communication Quarterly. 8 (4): 447–476. doi:10.1177/0893318995008004003. S2CID 146500170.
  14. ^ Liu, Brooke Fisher (2011). "How publics respond to crisis communication strategies: The interplay of information form and source". Public Relations Review. 37 (4): 345–353. doi:10.1016/j.pubrev.2011.08.004.
  15. ^ a b c Jin, Yan; Pang, Augustine; Cameron, Glen T. (2012). "The role of emotions in crisis responses: Inaugural test of the integrated crisis mapping (ICM) model". Journal of Public Relations Research.
  16. ^ 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): 174–195. doi:10.1080/1553118X.2011.596869. S2CID 145650806.
  17. ^ Ulmer, Robert R.; Sellnow, Timothy L.; Seeger, Matthew W. (2014-01-09). Effective crisis communication : moving from crisis to opportunity (Third ed.). Thousand Oaks, California. ISBN 9781452257518. OCLC 855491795.
  18. ^ Frandsen, Finn; Johansen, Winni (2013), "Rhetorical Arena (Crisis Theory)", Encyclopedia of Public Relations, Sage Publications, Inc., pp. 798–800, doi:10.4135/9781452276236.n431, ISBN 9781452240794, retrieved 2020-02-16
  19. ^ Frandsen, Finn (2017). Organizational crisis communication. Johansen, Winni. London: SAGE Publications. ISBN 978-1-4462-9706-3. OCLC 966654886.
  20. ^ Raupp, Juliana (2019-11-01). "Crisis communication in the rhetorical arena". Public Relations Review. 45 (4): 101768. doi:10.1016/j.pubrev.2019.04.002. ISSN 0363-8111. S2CID 159425608.
  21. ^ Finks 1986, p. 21.
  22. ^ Auer, Matthew (2021). "Covid-19 crisis communications: The challenge for environmental organizations". Environmental Science and Policy. 115: 151–155. doi:10.1016/j.envsci.2020.08.009. S2CID 226340084. Retrieved 12 November 2020.
  23. ^ a b Coombs, W. Timothy (2014-09-23). "Crisis Management and Communications".
  24. ^ Coombs 2012, p. 20.
  25. ^ 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.
  26. ^ a b c Coombs 2012, pp. 20–21.
  27. ^ Benoit, William L. (1 June 1997). "Image repair discourse and crisis communication". Public Relations Review. 23 (2): 179. doi:10.1016/S0363-8111(97)90023-0.
  28. ^ "Benoit's Five Major Strategies". 2007-05-31. Retrieved 2018-02-25.
  29. ^ Claeys, An-sofie; Cauberghe, Verolien (2012). "Crisis response and crisis timing strategies, two sides of the same coin". Public Relations Review. 38: 83–88. doi:10.1016/j.pubrev.2011.09.001.
  30. ^ Spence, P. R.; Lachlan, K. A.; Omilion-Hodges, L.; Goddard, A.K. (2014). "Being First Means Being Credible? Examining the Impact of Message Source on Organizational Reputation". Communication Research Reports. 31: 124–130. doi:10.1080/08824096.2013.846259. S2CID 59479591.
  31. ^ 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.
  32. ^ a b Stockmyer 1996.
  33. ^ 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.
  34. ^ 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.
  35. ^ 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.
  36. ^ 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.
  37. ^ 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.
  38. ^ 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. S2CID 145786248.
  39. ^ York, Emily Bryson (2009-04-20). "What Domino's Did Right -- and Wrong -- in Squelching Hubbub over YouTube Video". AdAge. Retrieved 28 February 2014.
  40. ^ 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.
  41. ^ Chen, Stephanie (2010). "Crisis management 101: What can BP CEO Hayward's mistakes teach us?". CNN. Retrieved 28 February 2014.
  42. ^ McCarthy, Elizabeth (2013-04-02). "Crisis Management Case Study: BP Oil Spill". The PR Code. Retrieved 28 February 2014.
  43. ^ Benoit, William L. (2014-10-15). Accounts, excuses, and apologies : image repair theory and research (Second ed.). Albany. ISBN 978-1-4384-5400-9. OCLC 893439325.
  44. ^ 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.
  45. ^ "What's behind Rob Ford's 'mind-boggling' PR strategy? | CBC News".
  46. ^ "Top 3 marijuana claims your clients will likely make".
  47. ^ "Mayor of Toronto Rob Ford: A lesson of what not to do in crisis public relations | PR Firm - The Publicity Agency". Archived from the original on 2016-06-24.
  48. ^ Zafra, Norman; Maydell, Elena (2018-04-30). "Facing the information void: A case study of Malaysia Airlines' media relations and crisis communication during the MH370 disaster". Asia Pacific Public Relations Journal. 19: 41–65. ISSN 1839-8227.
  49. ^ Howell, Gwyneth V. J. (2015). "MH370 All lives lost: the 'Black Swan' Disaster Confirmed with a 26 Word Txt". Asia Pacific Public Relations Journal. 16 (1): 8–21. ISSN 1839-8227.
  50. ^ "United Airlines shows how to make a PR crisis a total disaster". 2017-04-11.
  51. ^ "4 Important Crisis Communications Lessons from the United Airlines PR Disaster". 2017-04-13.
  52. ^ Benoit, W. L. (2018). "Crisis and Image Repair at United Airlines: Fly the Unfriendly Skies". Journal of International Crisis and Risk Communication Research. 1: 11–26. doi:10.30658/jicrcr.1.1.2.
  53. ^ "A leader's guide to crisis communication during coronavirus | McKinsey".
  54. ^ "10 Ways to Manage Crisis Communications During the COVID-19 Pandemic".

References and external linksEdit