Top 10 management models for your business #7: Situational crisis communication theory, Timothy Coombs (1995)
How should an organization communicate during a crisis?
According to Timothy Coombs, crises are negative events that cause stakeholders to make ‘attributions’ (interpretations) about crisis responsibility, affecting how stakeholders interact with the organization. Attribution theory holds that people constantly look to find causes, or make attributions, for different events, especially if those events are negative or unexpected. In his situational crisis communication theory (SCCT), Coombs suggests that effective crisis response depends on the assessment of the situation and the related reputational threat.
To support this assessment, Coombs distinguishes three clusters of crises:
- Victim: Where the organization is a victim of the crisis (e.g. natural disasters, rumours) – minor reputational threat;
- Accident: Where the organizational actions leading to the crisis were unintentional(e.g. equipment or product failure, accusations from external stakeholders) – medium reputational threat;
- Intentional: Where the organization knowingly took inappropriate risk – major reputational threat.
Additionally, reputational threat is potentially ‘intensified’ (positively or negatively) by crisis history (were there similar crises in the past with this organization?) and prior relational reputation (how is the organization known for treating stakeholders?).
How to use the model
Once the levels of crisis responsibility and reputational threat have been determined,
SCCT builds on communications professor William L. Benoit’s image restoration model by identifying a limited set of primary crisis response strategies:
- Denial (attacking the accuser, denial of the story, scapegoating);
- Diminishment (offering excuses, justification of what happened);
- Rebuilding (compensation of victims, offering apologies, taking full responsibility).
A secondary, supporting crisis response strategy is bolstering, or reinforcing: reminding stakeholders about the good works of the organization and/or how the organization is a victim as well. Neither Benoit nor Coombs considers silence as a strategy, with Coombs stating that ‘Silence is too passive and allows others to control the crisis’ (Coombs and Holladay, 2012). Indeed, much has changed since 1882, when entrepreneur William Vanderbilt could say ‘The public be damned’.
For monitoring purposes, professor Marita Vos developed a crisis communications scorecard to measure clarity, environmental fit, consistency, responsiveness, effectiveness and efficiency of concern communications, marketing communications, internal communication and the organization of communications. Detailed information is available at www.crisiscommunication.fi.
SCCT identifies as crisis outcomes: organizational reputation, effect (emotions of stakeholders, like sympathy or anger) and behavioural intentions (of stakeholders, like purchase intention or word of mouth). Coombs points out that the effectiveness of the crisis response is also influenced by how the organization managed the pre-crisis phase (prevention and preparation) and the post-crisis phase, (learning from mistakes and successes). Whereas the dynamics of social media limit the time for thinking a crisis response through, time can be won in the preparation phase, as social media offers various opportunities to see a crisis coming.
Similar to corporate apologia theory and image repair theory, SCCT has a strong focus on corporate reputation repair. In developing a crisis response strategy, there are factors not included in SCCT that might also be considered to determine reputational threat. Potentially influential factors might be the role of culture, the role of visual elements in crisis media coverage, or other factors that are recognized by attribution theory, contingency theory (built on the idea that there is no best way to organize a corporation) and complexity theory (dealing with the ‘black swans’, or uncertainty about the unknown unknowns).
As SCCT is a model for understanding crisis communication on a strategic level, it does not provide detailed guidelines on the tactics of crisis communication. As a general guideline, the advice of PR consultant and author Leonard Saffir applies: ‘Be quick with the facts, slow with the blame.’
Benoit, W.L. (1997) ‘Image Restoration Discourse and Crisis Communication’, Public Relations Review, 23:2, pp. 177–186.
Coombs, W.T., Holladay, S.J. (2012) The Handbook of Crisis Communication, Oxford, Wiley-Blackwell.
White, C.M. (2012) Social Media, Crisis Communication, and Emergency Management: Leveraging Web 2.0 Technologies, Boca Raton, Taylor & Francis.