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EN - Crisis Communication: an intriguing niche

17 mei 2023Wouter Jong

On Monday, 8 May, a webinar hosted by the Crisis Communications Talk Team (CCTT) from the University of Georgia and the Centrum Strategische Communicatie (Logeion) took place. Wouter Jong, chairman of Logeion's Crisis Communication and Issue Management department and lecturer in Crisis Communication at Leiden University published a spoken column about this happening, which you can view here. 


Crisis communication: an intriguing niche

Crisis communications is a strategic concept related to the collecting and sharing of information in challenging times. From an academic point of view, it is up to debate when exactly an event can be considered a crisis. To authors from public administration, it all comes down to the classic definition of Rosenthal et. al. [1], where a crisis is deemed “a serious threat to the basic structures or the fundamental values and norms of a system, which under time pressure and highly uncertain circumstances necessitates making vital decisions”. In short, it must be a serious threat, very uncertain and with a fundamental impact on society. Their main focus lies with mega-crises, like for example the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the devastation of Hurricane Katrina or the covid-19 pandemic.

We, as crisis communication scholars, take a different approach. To us, a crisis can be any situation that can be regarded as a crisis. There is no need for complete disruption. A crisis mainly means that something goes wrong, and that this ruins the expectation of our most important customers and stakeholders. Having to take a product off the shelves because of a product failure, for example, is already part of the realm of crisis communication. As Timothy Coombs, one of the key authors in our field, states; “A crisis is a situation that is perceived as an unpredictable event that threatens important expectancies of stakeholders and can seriously impact  an organization's performance and generate negative outcomes”. [2] This implies that it’s all about perception. When people believe an organization is in crisis, we are supposed to act upon this sentiment. Perception is key and when current perceptions and expectations are not aligned, we, as crisis communicators, should work and communicate to bridge this gap.

Where crisis communication comes from

Crisis communication as a discipline originates in marketing studies. The earliest publication on crisis communication dates back to the 1990s when scholars discussed the preferred ways of responding to different types of crisis situations. Later on, these concepts were further developed. Coombs for instance distinguished different sets of circumstances which define the preferred crisis response strategies. As you can imagine, the options in responding to a crisis when you are the victim of a situation, for instance when someone threatens to poison your products, are quite different from responses to, for example, the 2015 Dieselgate scandal, where Volkswagen deliberately used software to illegally change tests results. What hasn’t changed since the early 1990s is the need for to respond fast. As Robert A. Jensen, the former CEO of Kenyon Emergency Services once said, “You cannot control the crisis, but you can control the response.” [3] And that’s where crisis communication kicks in.

Where crisis communication is heading

In terms of theory development, I notice several trends. First, I expect there will be a further and intensifying interaction between public administration and crisis communication. We already know from the aftermaths of disasters and terrorist attacks, how important it is for public leaders to be visible and use the right words to support a community in stress and help it cope with the situation. Not only in the aftermath of 9/11, but more recently during the pandemic as well. Think of public leaders such as presidents, governors and mayors who informed the general public how to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic. Their performance was key in convincing the general public to take the necessary measures, such as wearing facemasks, keeping distance, and taking a vaccine. That’s where public leadership blends with crisis communication and I expect these tactics will integrate more strongly in the coming years.

Another trend I notice is the voice of the affected and victims after crises. While communication tended to focus on restoring the brand value, the reputation and the image of a company or organization, we’re more aware of the importance of finding the right words to support victims and their families to cope with a situation. [4] Victims and their families are an important audience and their part in crisis communication cannot and will not be neglected in the (near) future.

Last but not least, I expect another trend. The first signs already appear in the US where you can  notice that employees raise their voices on social issues. In so-called Employee Resource Groups, employees build pressure on the management of their organizations to take a stance in current social developments. And they don’t hesitate to go public. As an example, Disney personnel asked their board to take a stance in the Florida debate on the “Don’t Say Gay”-bill. Under similar circumstances, employees expect the companies they work for to raise their voices in debates such as Black Lives Matter. Compared to years ago, when a company just sold some consumer goods and no one expected their view on current, social matters, this is a big change. Even though Michael Jordan’s famous remark ‘Republicans buy sneakers, too’ was intended as a joke, the response shows that corporate communication have become more and more politized.

I believe we can also confirm this trend from a Dutch point of view. When we look at the negative public backlash to the promise by the Heineken beer company to leave Russia when it did not leave at all, it shows that organizations are now operating in a political context. Nowadays, you’re not just selling beer, but anything and everything you do will be assessed in a much broader scope. We, as communication and crisis communication professionals should be aware of these developments and act upon them. We are in the position to anticipate on future crises and act as the so-called canary in the coal mine to our boards, to be prepared and warn our organizations for the new and bumpy road that might lie ahead of us.

Wouter Jong

Voorzitter Logeion-werkgroep Issue Management & Crisiscommunicatie

Docent crisis communication in de Master Crisis & Security Management, Universiteit Leiden

View the recap

[1] Uri Rosenthal et al, Coping with crises: The management of disasters, riots and terrorism (1989). Springfield: Charles C. Thomas.

[2] Timothy Coombs, Parameters for crisis communication (2010). In Coombs and Holladay (Eds.). The handbook of crisis communication (pp. 17–53). Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell. Download: https://media.wiley.com/product_data/excerpt/13/14051944/1405194413.pdf

[3] Robert A. Jensen, Personal Effects: What Recovering the Dead Teaches Me About Caring for the Living, 2021

[4] E.g. Wouter Jong & Kjell Brataas, Victims as stakeholders: Insights from the intersection of psychosocial and crisis communication paths (2021). Download at https://stars.library.ucf.edu/jicrcr/vol4/iss1/3/