New Research on Crisis Communication from IPRRC 2021

An image of picketers to illustrate the concept of new research on crisis communication.

As it does every year, the 2021 International Public Relations Research Conference included plenty of new research on crisis communication.

Video is essential if you want to maintain your relationships

Military public affairs officers took advantage of their constant-crisis environment to provide us civilians with really useful information. This year they presented data on the impact of including video of the crisis or the solution in your crisis communications strategy. Short answer: you must.

Marine Public Affairs Officers Jim Stenger and Dave Morris, and Naval PAOs Katie Diener and Andrew Bertice are in the graduate communications degree program at San Diego State. For them, as for all PAOs, nary a day goes by without some real or potential crisis. Last year at IPRRC a different team from San Diego State tested the use of virtual reality in crisis communications. It definitely helped shape opinions but was difficult to operationalize. So, it wasn’t surprising that this year another group of San Diego State stars decided to test the use of another alternative medium, video.

The idea behind their experiment was to discover whether using video shifted opinion on who is to blame in a crisis (“Does Video Make a Difference? A Study of Visual Information and Crisis Responsibility.”) They measured the change in subjects’ perceptions of the military in response to a crisis, with visual information delivered with video and without video. They hypothesized that the use of video might help ameliorate the impact on a brand’s reputation. They were right.

After subjects heard about a simulated crisis based on the COVID-19 scare aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt, their relationships with the U.S. Navy decreased. The decline in the relationship was less among participants who viewed a video. It turns out men who saw the video attributed less responsibility and greater credibility toward the Navy than those who did not see a video. Among female participants, the relationship decrease was significantly less in the video cell than the non-video cell.

Authenticity works best in crisis communications

In 2014 the Copenhagen Zoo euthanized Marius, a healthy male giraffe. Mikkel Soelberg Christensen of Georgia College and State University became inspired to investigate authenticity by the way the ensuing crisis played out. He wondered what role authenticity of the Zoo’s spokesperson played in the tamping down of the furor after the incident. At that time he used a combination of interviews with Zoo staff, editors, and other influencers to conclude that the audience felt that the Zoo Director was so authentic that they understood the Zoo’s side of the story.

So Christensen decided to conduct an experiment using three other crises to explore the role of authenticity in crisis communications. His key question was: “Does authenticity lead to better outcomes, at least in terms of public perceptions?” (“Does Being Real Pay Off? Examining the Impact of Perceived Authenticity in Crisis Communication”)

Positive identification leads to positive perceptions, and both are generated by authenticity. Prior research has established that when someone positively identifies with a brand, that person has more positive perceptions of that organization’s behavior, has better relationships with its stakeholders, and engages in more positive megaphoning of that brand’s messages.

Christensen defined the components of authenticity as:

  • Truthfulness
  • Transparency
  • Consistency

He conducted two studies to determine whether a crisis response perceived as authentic would lead to better crisis outcomes than one that was not seen as authentic. He also explored accommodation—as opposed to standing your ground—in a crisis situation.

He first tested his definitions of authenticity on 170 students using a Likert scale (strongly agree to strongly disagree) for the following statements:

  • “This organization always tells the truth.”
  • “I believe that this organization’s concern is genuine.”
  • “I believe that this organization’s behavior matches its core values.”

He then recruited another 200 participants and randomly assigned a crisis response to each one, and then used four actual crisis scenarios to test his theories on 170 students. The students were asked to evaluate the organization after being exposed to the crisis scenario. Their responses were judged on the following criteria: 

  • Blaming the organization
  • Diminished organizational reputation
  • Anger
  • Positive word-of-mouth intentions

It turns out that authenticity, not accommodation, is the right choice when communicating in a crisis. Authenticity was found to have a significant positive impact on outcomes while accommodation was not found to have an impact.

Engagement and authenticity are vital when communicating to marginalized communities during a crisis

When you’re in the middle of defending yourself in a crisis, you tend to think of your audience as one big hostile group of skeptics wielding pitchforks, with only a small group of employees and loyal customers to defend your reputation. But history shows that treating any group of stakeholders as a monolith today leaves you open to attacks from unexpected directions.

Which is why Julie O’Neil, Ashley English, and Jacqueline Lambiase of Texas Christian University set out to better understand how to talk to marginalized stakeholders following a crisis (“Listening and Inclusive Dialogue with Marginalized Stakeholders Following a Crisis“). Their aim was to define “effective listening” and determine the elements of inclusive dialogue.

The study couldn’t be timelier. In the wake of the tragic shooting of a black woman, Atatiana Jefferson, by a white police officer, the authors conducted a qualitative survey of 25 community leaders who were knowledgeable about the shooting and issues affecting the community. While the interviews were unstructured, the team developed 10 questions related to listening, communications, trust, and relationship building. Each interview lasted an hour on average, and was conducted last summer via Zoom.

From these discussions they identified a codebook of best practices that professional communications would do well to memorize. Specifically:

  1. Show care, connection, and empathy.
  2. Create a welcoming and inviting environment.
  3. Use affirming postures, body language, and attire.
  4. Acknowledge past and current racism and civil rights problems.
  5. Use proactive issues management and problem-solving approaches.
  6. A powerful speaker is more likely to be heard. Not surprisingly, the people most likely to be listened to were tied to political engagement, wealth, or business.
  7. Leaders who listen and are relatable can connect with marginalized communities.
  8. True listening needs care and empathy.
  9. Listening means willingness to admit mistakes.

The authors’ advice in a nutshell:

  • Practitioners should focus less on output and messaging and more on authentic engagement and listening.
  • Practitioners should focus on sharing key listening performance indicators with the public.
  • Focus less on town council-driven participation formalities and more on personal engagement, especially with minoritized groups.

Image by Niek Verlaan from Pixabay.

About Author

Katie Paine

I've been called The Queen Of Measurement, but I prefer Seshat, the Goddess.