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Table of Contents

Determining Best Practices in Crisis Communication through Social Media to Develop Public Trust - Part 2

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3. Literature review

The primary objective of research is to put together a crisis communication model or framework based on practices in crisis communication. The elements for the best practices in crisis communication would be gleaned from past crises and the strategies and practices implemented by public and private organizations involved in such situations. The review of related literature begins with a description of crisis communication and how the practice has evolved over the years, specifically the type of media adopted by crisis communication practitioners – from the use of traditional media to social media. The review also includes a description of theories in crisis communication and their application in practice. Next, the review covers role and function of social media as a platform for crisis communication.

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3.1 Crisis Communication

Crises occur in many forms. According to Falkheimer and Heide (2006), “crisis” is a wide concept. Nevertheless, for the purpose of discussing crisis communication, crisis may be classified as a societal or organizational crisis. Sundelius and Stern (1997) described societal crisis as “a situation where the central operators experience that significance values are threatened, with only limited time at hand and circumstances which are very unpredictable” (Falkheimer & Heide, 2006). A natural calamity and its detrimental impact on the environment and populations is an example of a societal crisis. Organizational crisis may be described similarly, however, the goals and scope of crisis communication in the organizational level is different from that of societal crisis because the organization becomes the center of the issue instead of the public (Falkheimer & Heide, 2006). Hermann (1963) also introduced three characteristics that define “crisis” and sets it apart from other situations or occurrences. According to Hermann (1963), crisis is characterized as an unexpected occurrence, a threatening experience, and a situation where there is short response time. “A troubling event cannot reach the level of crisis without coming as a surprise, posing a serious level of threat, and forcing a short response time” (Ulmer, Sellnow, & Seeger, 2010). Argenti (2007), on the other hand, discussed other characteristics of crisis communication apart from unpredictability. The managing director at Morgan Stanley in America also mentioned lack of information, the rapid succession of events, and comprehensive scrutiny as characteristics of crisis communication. During crises, the public and stakeholders need direction or guidance and information, and the need to be informed and for their problems and concerns to be addressed are more urgent than ever. Public scrutiny also follows crises, especially organizational crisis, so in crisis communication, leaders should be prepared to face criticisms and answer questions (Argenti, 2007).

Crisis communication is important during crises because it is a form of management, through which public and private organizations and other entities involved could control or alleviate the outcomes of crisis and address the needs of those who were severely affected by these outcomes. Crisis communication, in simplistic terms, refers to management strategies and a response system implemented after a crisis (Seeger, Timothy & Ulmer, 2003). Nevertheless, crisis communication planning also involves management strategies and responses before and during crises. On the whole, crisis management includes “disseminating risk mitigation information, such as warnings, to limit harm; communication with various agencies so that logistics are coordinated; providing clarification of cause, extent of harm, and blame; responding to accusations of wrongdoing; and generally managing the unified public response to the crises” (Seeger, Sellnow & Ulmer, 2010). By providing these types of information to any public or private organizations’ constituents or the public in general, crisis communication becomes an important instrument in creating and maintaining a good image or reputation and culture within the organization, in preventing or managing the detrimental impact of crisis to these organizations or entities, and in addressing the needs of individuals or groups who were affected by the outcomes of crises.

Practitioners in crisis communication fulfill various roles and responsibilities. According to Zaremba (2010), “Crisis communicators conceive, create, and disseminate messages to internal and external receivers, and prepare to receive and respond to feedback from these audiences”. Specifically, crisis communicators are primary responsible for helping public and private organizations prepare for crises. Although unpredictability is one of the main characteristics of crisis, organizations could still prepare for crises with the help of crisis communicators. To prepare for crises, practitioners evaluate the internal and external conditions of the organization and determine what areas or aspects could lead to crises. Moreover, crisis communicators evaluate past events or the history of the organization to make predictions. Aside from preparing for crises, crisis communicators are also responsible for identifying the proper audience. Practitioners should identify which individuals or groups would need information the most before, during, and after crises. Since crisis communicators identify the target audience, they also create the proper and adequate message or information suited for the audience. Crisis communicators identify what kind of information the audience needs to know. Consequently, crisis communicators identify the best media platform to communicate the message. (Zaremba, 2010)

3.1.1 Theories and Models in Crisis Communication

3.1.1.1 The Apologia Theory

The apologia theory refers to the response of organizations following a fault or wrongdoing that would potentially affect its image and reputation in a negative way. Through apologia, the organization that committed a wrongdoing may aim to refute disapproving news or allegations, defend the organization, or apologize to the public through various communication channels. Apologia is a means for organizations to “counteract a negative or damaging charge” through redefinition, dissociation, or conciliation (Fearn-Banks, 2010).

The image restoration theory is closely related to the apologia theory because it aims to help organizations determine the factors that influence its image and reputation, and consequently change, modify, or deal with these factors to improve the public’s perception. Some organizations, for instance, glean feedback from the public. Based on previous studies, the public would more likely trust transparent organizations. As a result, organizations employ the image restoration theory by implementing an open information policy (Fearn-Banks, 2010).

3.1.1.2 The Situational Crisis Communication Theory

The Situational Crisis Communication Theory (SCCT) refers to a set of practices implemented by organizations to shield their image or reputation during crises. Following the SCCT theory, organizations carefully plan their actions and behavior, select appropriate communication tools and content, and structure communication public discourse during crises. To do so, organizations aim to determine what the public and stakeholders expect from them and consequently craft communication and message or content attributed to public and stakeholder standards and expectations, as well as the nature and impact of events leading to crisis (Hazleton, 2006).

3.1.1.3 Diffusion Theory

The diffusion theory, also known as the diffusion of innovations theory, mirrors the formation of crisis communication as a body of knowledge. In crisis communication, the development of strategies and practices were based on past experiences during crises. Similarly, the diffusion of innovations theory refers to the factors that contribute to an organization’s adoption and implementation of communication strategies and practices, which includes the past. Experiences largely contribute to an organization’s communication strategies because they reveal effective and ineffective strategies and practices, as well as the inadequacies of the organization. Moreover, the organization would be able to pinpoint the public’s feedback based on these experiences (Fearn-Banks, 2010).

3.1.1.4 The Crisis and Risk Communication Model

Reynolds and Seeger (2005) developed the Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication (CERC) model to highlight the valuable features of a communication plan. According to Reynolds and Seeger (2005), crisis communication must be flexible to address varying outcomes, needs, and experiences during crises. To do so, a communication plan must include goals, objectives, and plans of action before, during, and after crises. Table 1 below illustrates the stages of crisis communication based on the CERC model.

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Table 1.

The CERC Model

I. Pre-crisis
Develop communication and education campaigns to warn the public and stakeholders and inform them of possible risks or threats to help them prepare for crises
Aim to inform, educate, and increase awareness among the public
Aim to inform the response community about the plan of action
Pre-crisis communication includes the following:
1. Continuous monitoring to identify probable emergencies and risks
2. Increasing public awareness of these risks
3. Planning and preparation for foreseen risks
4. Implementing prevention plans
5. Encouraging the public to take part in fulfilling the objectives of prevention plans
6. Adequate and clear warnings about threats
7. Cooperation and collaboration between response teams and other agencies or institutions
8. Testing and improving pre-crisis communication plan
II. Initial EventTimely distribution and dissemination of warning messages and pertinent information to reduce uncertainties by reassuring the public and stakeholders
Communication in this stage includes the following:
1. Cultivating an atmosphere of empathy and reassurance
2. Diminishing emotional turmoil
3. Organizing and mobilizing response agents and officers
4. Understanding and spreading information about crisis circumstances, consequences, and anticipated outcomes based on available information
5. Reducing uncertainties that may arise due to crises
6. Implementing emergency management plan and mobilizing medical community response teams
7. Understanding self-efficacy and personal response activities (how/where to get more information)
III. MaintenanceSpreading information about goings on during a crisis
Continuous communication with the public and response teams
Communication in this stage includes the following:
1. Spreading accurate information about ongoing and upcoming risks
2. Informing the public about the background, origin, and outcomes of risks
3. Cooperation and collaboration among response and recovery teams and agencies
4. Obtaining feedback from the public
5. Correcting erroneous information, myths, and other false information
6. Sharing responsibility with the public and response teams, agencies, and other organizations in decision-making
IV. ResolutionUpdating the public and stakeholders about planned resolutions
Informing the public and stakeholders to help them understand and face risks and threats
Communication in this stage includes the following:
1. Initiating open communication to facilitate the resolution of issues or problems, often involving cause, blame, responsibility, adequacy of response, timely delivery of response, etc.
2. Continuous improvement of how the public understands the crisis (cause, outcomes, background, etc.)
3. Promoting activities to response, rebuild, and resolve issues
V. EvaluationEvaluating the adequacy of response strategies and practices
Improving the communication plan and practices of response teams and organizations for future application
Communication in this stage includes the following:
1. Evaluating and assessing past responses to determine effectiveness of communication plan
2. Identifying lessons learned from past experiences
3. Determining specific actions to implement to improve the communication plan and improve adequacy and efficiency of practices
4. Implementing improvements
5. Integrating improvements in the pre-crisis plan

Source: Reynold & Seeger, 2005, p. 53

3.1.1.5 Decision Theory

Crisis communication in this theory is related to counseling management, such that the decisions made during crisis is a joint effort by leaders in the organization. The leaders in the organization discuss possible strategies and approaches to deal with the outcomes of crises and make well-informed decisions based on those options, with the objective of lessening the impact of crises on the public and stakeholders. “The best decision possible garners the greatest benefit, the greatest utility for the organization” (Fearn-Banks, 2010).

3.1.1.6 The Excellence Theory

In 1992, Marra (1992) introduced the excellence theory in crisis communication, specifically in the field of public relations. According to Mara (1992), organizations would more likely earn the trust of the public and would decrease potential losses as a result of crises (e.g. financial, emotional, or perceptual damage) if it establishes a positive and interactive relationship with the public and stakeholders prior to crises. In addition, organizations with a well-established crisis communication plan would more effectively address issues or problems that would arise during crises. “An organization with communication ideologies that encourage, support, and champion crisis management preparations, crisis communication plans and actions, and a two-way symmetrical communications practices will suffer less financial, emotional, and perceptual damage than the organization that does not” (Fearn-Banks, 2010).

3.1.1.7 The Three-Stage Model of Crisis

The three-stage model of crisis emerged from a series of research studies that followed the analytical framework in studying crisis communication. Table 2 below illustrates the three-stage model of crisis.

Table 2.

The Three-Stage Model of Crisis


Source: Seeger, Sellnow & Ulmer, p. 98

3.1.2 Crisis Communication in Practice

It is important to note that in aiming to understand the significance of research and its contribution to theory and practice, the framework of crisis communication should be discussed. As a body of knowledge, crisis communication was established based on a review of experiences during crises in the past. Crisis communication eventually grew due to constant research studies about past crises, such as wars, natural disasters, and accidents of broad magnitude (Coombs & Holladay, 2012).

Reynolds and Seeger (2005) discussed the defining features or characteristics of crisis communication. Table 2 below shows the different features and characteristics of crisis communication according to Reynolds and Seeger (2005).

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Table 3. Features and Characteristics of Crisis Communication

Features and Characteristics of Crisis Communication
Messages regarding current state or conditions regarding a specific event; magnitude, immediacy duration and control/remediation; cause, blame consequences

Principally informative, i.e. news disseminated through media or broadcast through warning system

Infrequent/nonroutine

Receiver/situation centered

Based on what is known and what is not known

Short-term (crisis) less preparation, i.e. responsive

Authority figures/emergency manager, technical experts

Personal community, or regional scope

Mediated; press conferences, press releases, speeches, websites

Spontaneous and reactive

Source: Reynolds & Seeger, 2005, p. 48

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