Definition

A crisis can occur in a myriad of contexts, including organizational, family, national, or interpersonal. The communication before, during and after a crisis is a transactional activity that helps individuals or organizations to prepare for or cope with the crisis event (Reynolds & Seeger, 2005). Crisis communication is studied primarily in the context of organizations (e.g., Benoit 1995, Fearn-Banks, 2009), although it is critical in coping with crises in all contexts.


Organizational Crisis Communication

By definition, crisis communication in an organization is an interaction, dialogue, or conversation between an organization and its public and stakeholders before, during, and after the crisis occurrence (Benoit, 1995). In addition, crisis communication is a part of the crisis management process, which details a strategic plan and procedure for recovery for an organization that has suffered a negative impact as a result of a crisis and helps the organization to control the damaging situation (Coombs, 1999).

Prior to 1980, crisis communication was believed to be part of the process of organizational reputation recovery after the crisis (Gottschalk, 1993); however, according to Fearn-Banks, (2006) contemporary crisis communication is viewed as an ongoing process rather than a one-time strategic response. Public relations practitioners have echoed this more expansive view of crisis communication by including stages of a crisis including crisis planning, development of contingencies, risk identification, and crisis avoidance (Gudykunst, 2002).

Moreover, communication serves several important functions before, during, and after a crisis. First, resources for crisis response are systematically organized through communication (Heath, 2004). Professional crisis management agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) rely on communication for this function as a core element of crisis management procedures (Heath, 2004). In addition, communication can mitigate the damage of a crisis by coordinating the provision of tangible goods like insurance or organizational communication flow charts. According to enactment-based perspectives, communication frames the meaning of crisis events (Van Ruler & Vercic, 2005). Crisis participants determine the meaning of events through communication by asking questions of cause, blame, and the ultimate consequences of the crisis (Williams & Olaniran, 1998).


Family/Interpersonal Crisis Communication

Communication is also a central process in interpersonal and family crisis management. In fact, interpersonal influence was the earliest form of crisis communication, because information was passed through interpersonal channels before technology was possible (Garnett & Kouzmin, 2007). The primary mode of interpersonal crisis communication is face-to-face, and although this type of communication may lack the perspective of organizational communication, it often has more direct relevance (Garnett & Kouzmin, 2007). Moreover, communication functions to help individuals in families to resolve problems, promote resilience, and affirm beliefs (Walsh, 1996). Although this body of research is less developed than literature on organizational crisis communication, it does acknowledge the critical role of communication during a crisis.


Crisis Communication Research: The Role of Theory

Most research on crisis communication has focused on guidelines and procedures gathered from practitioners, rather than taking a more theoretical perspective (Ziaukas, 1999). However, Grunig (2002) argued that public relations and crisis communication need to conceptualize theoretical frameworks for their bodies of knowledge.

Modern research on crisis communication has developed in two directions (Hearit, 1995). One encompasses theoretical models on corporate apologia and impression management (e.g. Benoit, 1995, 1997; Coombs, 1995). The aim of this approach is to develop strategies that will improve an organization’s image after a crisis has occurred. The other direction looks beyond post-crisis communication by focusing on the role of issues management and risk communication during "crisis incubation." Crises often result from poor communication between organizations and the public (Coombs, 1999) and communication problems tend to intensify in a multicultural context. Hence, crisis communication does focus on the distribution of news releases and media relations, but also concerns community relations, consumer relations and other field related to public elations.

Crisis Communication Models:
Grunig & Grunig (2002) outlined four models for public relations and crisis communication that indicate the relationships between an organization and its public or stakeholders:
  1. Press Agentry/ Publicity Model: In this model, Crisis Communication practitioners may or may not offer truthful statements to their target audience(s). They are more interested in making their organization famous; and do not expect feedback from their public.
  2. Public Information Model: The key characteristic of this model is that the practitioners of Crisis Communication resemble an information distributer. The primary difference with respect to other models one is that truthfulness and accuracy in the information that is distributed is required.
  3. Two-way Asymmetric Model: This model is also known as the social science model. In other words, Crisis Communication Practitioners should use social science theories or research methods, such as surveys, to help themselves achieve their goals. They attempt to understand the characteristics of their public; however, the level of informational transparency between an organization and public is unequal. The public rarely, if ever, enjoys opportunities to access information about the organization.
  4. Two-way Symmetric Model: This model is also known as the mutual understanding model. This is to say, there is a two-way dialogue between the public and an organization, and it is not simply a one-way form of communication. The purpose of research and social science methods in this model is not for propaganda or persuasion purposes but rather for purposes of communication and fuller understanding.


Moderate revisions by Erin Basinger (July 2012).

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References

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Walsh, F. (1996). The concept of family resilience: Crisis and challenge. Family Process, 35, 261-281.

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