Welcome to Digiaide! Get access to over 2000 videos on Marketing, Sales & Management!

Welcome to Digiaide! Get access to over 2000 videos on Marketing, Sales & Management! Try for free now


Crisis Communication – Definition, Steps, Theories and Examples

Published by: Hitesh Bhasin

& Last updated:

SAVE 80% OFF on Digital Marketing Course Bundles!

What is Crisis Communication?

Definition – Crisis Communication involves alerting people to the extent and nature of a potential crisis and the fallout of that crisis. It seeks to educate stakeholders about how they can reduce the likelihood of a crisis evolving. The crisis here refers to an event that tarnishes the image of an organization or person. Crisis communication seeks to protect and rebuild that reputation.

Understanding the meaning of a situation is subjective. People involved might interpret a situation very differently. Some may see it as a good development, others as a bad one. Nevertheless, others might ignore it entirely. Stakeholders can be taught to interpret situations correctly. Their interpretation of a situation is central to crisis aversion.

However, it is essential not to refer to a situation that potentially leads to a crisis as a crisis itself. The word must be used only for unique scenarios where the senior management has to intervene.

Crisis management, in general, consists of a series of procedures whose aim is to deal with crisis situations. It involves finding out actions that can avert the possibility of a crisis. It involves more than just alerting people about what the response in the event of a crisis should be. They must know how to avert the disaster. They must be prepared for the possibility of it. Crisis management aims to reduce the harm done in case of a threat coming true. In order for it to be effective, crisis communication can also nip a situation evolving into a potential crisis in the bud.

Crisis communication comes under the umbrella of Public Relations.

Who needs crisis communication?

Every company imaginable can face many types of crises. In current times, news about an event spreads swiftly. Therefore, all businesses need to be prepared to react to a development strongly and at the earliest.

Crisis communication sends out messages to different groups of people. Some of these are: Government Officers, Local law enforcement & first responders, Security staffs, Division heads, IT team, PR team, Crisis management team, Management, and Staffs

Steps of Crisis Communication

Steps of Crisis Communication

1. Pre-crisis

Gathering and assessing data about potential hazards that might affect a firm, and having systems and strategies for them in place.

Assigning responsibility of tasks to various people/teams well before a crisis occurs. This is a key part of a larger plan of action.

Have the PR team create ready-made messages that can be communicated to the media when a crisis situation occurs.

There should be a hierarchy assigned that will control how the information will flow from the employees to the broader audience.

A special group of employees must be organized and trained in advance to react to a crisis. This team will move in swiftly as the crisis develops. However, before the crisis itself, the aim should be to uncover potential threats.

2. In-crisis

The crisis management team recognizes a situation as a crisis.

Gathering and analyzing data that can help the team deal with the crisis better.

The pre-decided strategies and messages must be conveyed to audiences that are within the firm and outside it.

3. Post-crisis

Once a crisis is believed to have ended, the team’s performance has to be evaluated. First, it must be assessed where they succeeded and where they failed in their process. Then, new employees can be hired, new methods, practices and channels can be introduced. Finally, the organizational procedure can be changed.

These assessments are crucial post-crisis. Timothy Coombs has laid out five stages for communication after a crisis occurs:

  1. The firm should partake in events commemorating the disaster. Families of those aggrieved can be consulted for the same.
  2. It is vital to find memorials online.
  3. A lot can be learned from the way the crisis situation was tackled. This information can then become part of the organization’s current crisis response plans.
  4. Stakeholders should have immediate access to information.
  5. They should know how the firm is recuperating post-crisis. They should be kept abreast of assessments, inquiries, and changes made.

Coombs bases the post-crisis actions that he has suggested off of his SCCT model. Managers will find these to be insightful.

The core of the response strategy involves two practices. One is to keep victims abreast of instructions (such as recall information). The other practice is the care reaction. It is to extend solidarity and sympathy to the victims. They should be keyed in on what changes are being made. In addition, they should have access to psychological support.

If an organization is held accountable for a crisis situation, it has to add other steps to this response strategy. However, sometimes, the factors exacerbating a crisis are low. The organization isn’t accused of being the cause of a crisis. In such cases, further responses are not essential. Nevertheless, a firm can still use additional steps.

Theories of Crisis Communication

Multiple ideas of crisis communication have evolved. They look at and explain crisis events from different perspectives. In addition, there exists academic literature behind each of the many avenues of research.

1. Apologia Theory

Apologia here does not imply apology. This approach in crisis communication is used to react to a crisis. It tries to distance the company from what people are saying about it. It is done to prevent its reputation from being tarnished.

2. Situational crisis communication theory (SCCT)

Situational Crisis Theory argues that a firm’s response in case of a crisis changes from one crisis to another. They try and assign responsibility for the negative development, i.e., the event. The theory tries to assess crisis from the audience’s (stakeholders) point of view and examines how they interpret a situation.

SCCT was developed from attribution theory in 1995 by Timothy Coombs. Coombs agrees with the Image Repair Theory that responses to a crisis involve altering how the crisis is seen rather than addressing ground realities.

3. Social-mediated crisis communication (SMCC) model

SMCC finds relevance in an era when blogging sites, and social media networks prevail. The model takes into account that more people flood to social media in the event of a disaster. Furthermore, it observes that the type of information and its origin influence the crisis management strategy adopted. This model was developed to study crisis management from the internet perspective.

Social Mediated Crisis Communication says that a company’s messages during a crisis depend on five attributes. These are the source of the crisis, the nature of the crisis, infrastructure, the response strategy, and the form of response.

4. Image repair theory (IRT)

IRT has evolved from apologia research and was coined by William Benoit. Image repair Theory (IRT) says that the perception of a company or a person is an asset that must be shielded in the event of a crisis. Therefore, when the image takes a hit, the defendant should develop response messages to safeguard its image.

The theory goes on to list five general scenarios. These are denial, avoiding accountability, making the scene look less terrible, remedial activities, and mortification. There are also 14 responses for particular scenarios.

5. Integrated crisis mapping (ICM) model

Integrated Crisis Mapping observes that as the crisis progresses, the investor’s emotions keep changing. Moreover, the emotions differ from crisis to crisis and range from sorrow and fear to fury.

Cameron, Pang, and Jin developed the model to study the reactions and changes in investors’ emotions over a crisis. The team studied 14 real-life cases before coming to its conclusions. They observed that the most frequent emotional response was anxiety.

6. Covariation-based approach to crisis communication

The covariation approach tries to find whether the stakeholders will assign responsibility to organizational reasons, the situation itself, or an entity in the event of a crisis. It tries to predict how this will impact their assessment of the organization’s image. It also tries to figure out how this will change their assessment of where the responsibility lies.

Three dimensions of information are constructed to this end: consistency, distinctiveness, and consensus. The model can also be used to makes predictions in the event of an organizational crisis.

The model tries to explain people’s assessment of the causes of a crisis and how this perception comes about. The model uses Kelley’s covariation from attribution theory to this end. Andreas Schwarz conceptualized the covariation approach. He also suggested that the model and its observations be used to construct information strategies. The model derives from SCCT.

7. Discourse of renewal

Organizations might experience difficulty in the immediate aftermath of a crisis. The discourse of renewal theory studies the various tools the organization can use in the midst of a crisis to avert these future hurdles.

Timothy Sellnow, Gregory Ulmer, and Mathew Seger have observed that the theory focuses on prospective and moral communication. It also concentrates upon taking lessons in the event of a crisis. It also tries to influence organizational behavior through efficient messaging.

8. Rhetorical Arena Theory (RAT)

Rhetorical Arena Theory assumes that multiple “actors” voicing their ideas inside a rhetorical arena creates a conversation regarding a crisis. The model tries to study how these actor’s voices engage with one another. Here, the phrase ‘rhetorical arena’ means an area for communication that forms after a crisis.

The actors involved can be the news agencies, specialists, activists, businesses, and political entities. These actors keep engaging with each other. The theory had been proposed by Frandsen and Johansen in 2010, 2017. It is unique because of its emphasis on the many voices that contribute to creating the understanding of a crisis.

Tips for Crisis Management

Tips for Crisis Management

Public relations teams should plan out situations well in advance. If they identify that a situation can lead to a crisis, the following reactions might help.

  1. Preparation (Plan a crisis). All firms should have a crisis plan. Team members must sit down and work out potential crises scenarios. These can then be used to alter plans. In addition, all firms must have ready-made statements that can be reactions to the development of a crisis, whether it be a natural disaster or a man-made one.
  2. Implement. When a crisis arises, it’s vital to respond quickly. The crisis team should be aware of what is expected of them. This can only be done with practice. The representatives of the firm must rehearse their responses as many times as possible.
  3. Be Accountable. Accepting accountability is crucial when a company is responsible for a situation. This helps the public regain faith. Attempts at denial and distancing from responsibility generate backlash. Statements must only be released via approved channels once all the data has been gathered. Although, basic crisis communications can be done without it.
  4. Consistency is key. It is crucial to keep the spokesperson and the message itself consistent. The spokesperson is in charge of all information flow. No one else must intercede unless it has been planned that way.
  5. Act like the country’s watching. It can be difficult to keep emotions in check amidst a crisis. Loose words might find their way to the public thanks to new tech. Therefore, it is vital to have measured responses.
  6. Reduce the Damage: The reaction to the crisis should be swift. However, it is essential not to lose sight of practicality and consistency in haste.
  7. An organization’s messages should be realistic. There should be consistency. Otherwise, it is counterproductive and will be called out by the media for what it is. The media should be kept informed with realistic and honest messages.
  8. Assessment. Successes and failures in messaging must be assessed post-crisis. It is crucial to assess how the crisis could have been dealt with better and work towards it.

Example – Samsung’s Crisis Communication Plan

1. The Crisis

In 2016, reports emerged that Samsung’s latest Note 7 was bursting into flames. A South West flight had to be vacated after an incident aboard. It had been released in Britain just some days ago. The phablet started smoking while boarding was proceeding. Though no one was injured, Samsung had to withdraw the cell phones.

2. The Effect

Samsung had to withdraw all Galaxy Note 7’s. As a result, the mobile manufacturer stood to lose US$17 billion in income, according to Credit Suisse. In addition, the brand image of the firm would also be badly hurt. The effects could be seen as sales plummeted by 15% by October that year.

3. The Response

Samsung decided to respond quickly and took responsibility for this major disaster. The firm’s head of global marketing, cellphones, Pio Schunker, showed concern and released a statement saying, “We knew we couldn’t afford the luxury of a fetal position and just lie there, so the first thing that we did to make things right was to take accountability. For Samsung, it wasn’t just the right thing to do, it was the only thing to do.”

By Jan 2017, Samsung spoke about the concern in a press conference. It announced that it would be introducing an 8 point battery safety check the next day. In addition, there would be an improved quality assessment system in place.

It was honest and said that the leading cause had not been identified. Samsung assured its customers that it would get to the bottom of the issue. The brand took concrete steps in that direction. It formed a task force of 700 engineers and researchers. It also brought external auditors on board.

Upwards of 200,000 phones and 30,000 batteries were tested in various intense situations. The brand prioritized rebuilding the faith of the customer, post-crisis. Samsung used constant innovation of its brand to become more prominent. The ethos is summed up with “Do What You Can’t.” its campaign slogan.

Photo of author

Article by:

Hitesh Bhasin

Hitesh Bhasin is the CEO of Digiaide and his vision is to make business knowledge accessible to everyone.