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KeywordsCrisis management Issues management Ethics Relationships Public sector disaster response
Crisis management is the approach an organization takes to handling emerging troubles and rapidly emerging issues of contention, risk, disasters, accidents, emergencies, and characteristically uncontrollable problems. The list of potential crises is almost endless and can vary by industry, so a crisis can be broadly defined as any exigent event that can seriously damage an organization either in its operations, relationships, or reputation and sometimes all of those areas. Crises are considered dangerous complications or turning points in the life cycle of an organization. However, with effective crisis management, the organizations may emerge from the crisis even stronger than they were prior to it because the crisis may contribute to the organizational learning and improvement (Ulmer, Sellnow, & Sellnow, 2013). Crises come in a myriad of forms, such as operational difficulties, product failures, tampering, lawsuits, rumors, regulatory changes, employee problems, scandal, financial complications, or underperformance; natural disasters including hurricanes, floods, fires, or earthquakes; accidents of various kinds; and so forth. Crises are different from incidents. An incident is a minor and localized disruption, with low impact. On the contrary crises affect and disrupt the entire organization with serious impact or have the potential to do so. Crisis management also holds a great deal of responsibility for ethical analysis and constructing morally worthy solutions to complex and rapidly unfolding problems, as discussed below.
Any situation that can damage an organization qualifies as a potential crisis, and often the damage of such an occurrence harms the organization in many ways, from operations to the regulatory environment, to relationships with stakeholders, and to reputation. Some crises, such as rumors, are perceptual and hold most sway on the reputation of an organization; others, such as accidents, are operational and related directly to management activities and responses. As discussed below, the type of crisis faced impacts the response that is used as well as how stakeholders and publics evaluate the organization in crisis.
Stakeholders and publics need and demand explanations of crises, but these are also filtered by their personal experiences. Thus, crisis management uses attribution theory to understand these phenomena, and as a supporting framework for much crisis management research, meaning that publics seek to engage in a causal attribution process whenever a negative, critical, or unexpected event occurs. In situations of emergencies and disasters, it is common that causal attributions are either impossible to make (e.g., natural disasters) or convoluted and slow to unfold because they must depend on lengthy investigations (e.g., terrorism). A broad view of crisis management is applicable in all of these situations when viewed under Heath and Palenchar’s (2013) definition that crisis is risk manifested. Crisis management is the implementation of a response to a risk that has become reality such as a natural disaster, accident, or man-made crisis (Seeger, Sellnow, & Ulmer, 2003). Crisis response is understood to be best when planned so that contingencies can be anticipated, response can be streamlined, and communication can be rapid and accurate. Reality has shown that it is impossible to anticipate all contingencies contained in a crisis scenario. An organization is challenged to find an appropriate crisis management plan for various types of risk, much less those in which disasters and crises merge to create a greater problem through unforeseen consequences and outcomes. Instead, examining the types of crises an organization can face offers a way to plan for contingencies while remaining agile as an organization.
Although crisis management deals with exigent situations, it is an ongoing process and can be divided into three stages: pre-crisis, crisis, and post-crisis. Each stage is discussed in more detail below, after the examination of the core constitution of crises. Crises have, at their core, a common characteristic of being pressing, although, in some cases, management may be slow to act or reticent to admit that a crisis exists. Different types of crises also hold in common the ability to damage an organization, through diverting resources, negative media reports, harming relationships, and straining credibility, or as threats to the operations, financial viability, and existence of the organization.
As early as the 1950s, issues managers were counseling organizations on ethics, proactively managing organizational responses to problems and acting as early crisis managers. Issues management was more well-defined and studied academically through the 1970s and 1980s offering expanded ranges of options for confronting organizational problems. Corporate communication, business management, public affairs, psychology, rhetoric, and public relations scholars offered perspectives on issues and crisis. Crisis management literature grew in its own right by the 1990s and has blossomed in amount of research and theoretical understanding. Issues management, risk management, and crisis management offer organizations a way to deal with environmental turbulence in a strategic manner. Each of these areas is germane to crisis management and will be briefly reviewed to offer a larger context for the management of crises.
Issues Management and Crises
Issues management identifies and seeks to proactively resolve issues, trends, changes, or emerging problems for an organization, yet it cannot prevent all crises. Accidents, malfeasance, weather emergencies, and similar issues are unavoidable. Yet, many organizations that have faced a crisis had ample warning and opportunity for crisis prevention, had they paid attention to issues management. The issues management process must be undertaken at the highest executive level of an organization to be effective and should be based on a lot of research. That research is formal, informal, external, intraorganizational, and primary as well as secondary (such as data from an industry association).
Identify public issues and trends in public expectations
Evaluate their impact and set priorities
Conduct research and analysis
Evaluate strategy (Buchholz, Evans, & Wagley, 1994, p. 41)
Organizations can track and monitor emerging and ongoing issues. By strategically listening to be aware of issues at all levels, issues managers can proactively plan responses, strategy, initiatives, policy, and other responses for issues, lessening the chances that a crisis emerges. If issues management is inattentive or unsuccessful, a crisis usually emerges. A closer look at this life cycle is helpful to understanding how crises often emerge.
Moving from Issue to Crisis
Issues, defined as problems that need attention and resolution, can exist in an ongoing manner. If an issue remains unaddressed or unresolved, it poses a risk of crisis to an organization. If the potential for negative impact on the organization exists, the issue is moving toward becoming a crisis. If warning signs are unheeded, such a transition can happen rapidly or can emerge to become a large crisis over time. These warning signs, sometimes called prodromes, show that issues management has not been undertaken or was ineffective and point toward an impending crisis for the organization if steps are not taken to address outstanding issues. Issues management involves responding to trends, conducting research to identify problems, and solving these matters before they can escalate into a crisis. The earlier an issue is identified, the more time the organization has to conduct research and analyses, plan strategically, enact resolution activities, and act to define the issue. Thereby, issues management maintains organizational autonomy and a wide range of issue resolution options. Another difference between the two functions is that issues management is often engaged in policy – interacting in the public policy arena to shape issue development and the regulatory environment, as well as in the organizational policy space to understand, create, and position a strategic response to the issue for the organization.
Issues management and crisis management are closely related processes, yet some crises are unavoidable and defy proactive problem prevention or interactive problem-solving efforts. Crisis management takes over when a problem or issue is no longer manageable and normally focuses on resolution of the crisis rather than prevention through problem-solving. Some crises are unavoidable; others are preventable through acumen in issues management. Still, organizations are not entirely at the helm of their own destiny, and unavoidable problems arise despite best efforts at prevention. Thus, the larger umbrella function of issues management turns to specialized crisis management, using crisis communication to reach stakeholders and publics among all three phases of pre-crisis, crisis, and post-crisis, with regard to crisis response strategies and restoration of credibility.
The Pre-crisis Phase
The overlap of the pre-crisis phase with issues management is clear, but the pre-crisis phase of crisis management is focused specifically on the potential of exigent situations that unfold rapidly and involve very negative and harmful situations. The pre-crisis phase allows time to research and plan for broad types of crises so that response can be expedited. Publics and stakeholders may provide warning, or prodomes, of a crisis, as well. Crisis may be perceptual based on the view of stakeholders and publics – if they perceive a crisis, there is a crisis, even when management may be reluctant to admit the problem. Examining the environment for trends, using environmental scanning to engage in strategic listening and building of relationships with influential publics, and seeking to understand the potential failures, disasters, and common problems in an industry can help in the identification of areas in need of crisis planning. The unpredictable nature of some crises makes planning for each type impossible, but broad categories can offer assistance in pre-crisis planning, crisis management training, drills, and pre-incident checks. Much of this information rests upon having conducted good research and organizational listening in the issues management function and then applying it to the common specific types of crises one can predict for advanced preparation.
The Crisis Phase and Crisis Response Strategies
Crisis is a negative situation that threatens the organization in some serious manner. That may be the threat of financial or market loss; the loss of autonomy; diminished credibility; congressional hearings; lawsuits; regulatory actions or fines; loss of lives; damaged relationships with stakeholders, publics, and employees; or having to divert resources from planned activities to response efforts for the crisis. Management time, resources, and a loss of autonomy are all involved in efforts to respond in the acute crisis phase.
Much data has been amassed on the best ways to respond during a crisis, from apology to victim status. Coombs grouped years of findings and extended those with further research and theory known as the Situational Crisis Communication Theory (SCCT), finding that managers respond to crises according to the situation faced. The SCCT categorizations Coombs developed are useful in understanding the types of crises.
Coombs (2014) aggregated the myriad crisis types into three basic clusters: victim, accidental, and intentional. The victim cluster includes crises in which the organization is not at fault, such as natural disasters, tampering, rumors, and so on. The accidental cluster includes product failure, technical problems, and industrial accidents. The intentional cluster includes avoidable accidents, misdeeds, malfeasance, and exploitation such as intentionally selling products that may be faulty. Because stakeholders seek to attribute responsibility in a problem situation in a way that makes sense to their perspective, organizations bear less responsibility as victims than when crises are accidental or intentional. Moral responsibility to act with ethical rectitude, value the safety of individuals, and manage an organization with good intention indicates that stakeholders will respond with outrage when crises could have been avoided.
Crises arising from intentional means arouse the most ire among stakeholders because they are avoidable. Further Coombs and Holladay (2006) note that organizations with a history of past crises, poor performance, or reputational problems are judged more harshly than others. Other studies also consistently find a link between crisis responsibility attributions and reputational damage. Therefore, careful issues management is essential to preventing those crises that can be prevented, offset, or minimized for the larger goal of avoiding reputational damage that compounds over time. Crises typically follow a life cycle of event, escalation, intense media interest as a hot issue, decline, problem resolution, and post-crisis. Understanding this cycle and predicting responses and demands – operationally and for information – are key in crisis management and communication.
Recommended Ethical Terms for Public Relations and Media Relations (Reprinted by permission of Elsevier)
Moral philosophy – “revised” recommended term
Philosophical underpinnings and/or synonyms
Life well lived, human flourishing, reflexive, worthy
Honest, contextual, as full as possible, respect, dignity
Candor, moral courage, forthright, rational, autonomy
Multilayered values, societal norms, duty
Moral judgment, discernment, just or justice, fair, right
The ethical responsibility of an organization is visible to all through media attention and is therefore enhanced during the crisis phase. Yet ethical rectitude during the post-crisis phase is equally important for organization-public relationships.
When an organization is returning to normal operations after a crisis, there is still much to be done in crisis communication. Stakeholders need information about crisis response and recovery, as well as priorities moving forward. The organization must engage in investigation and research to learn about the causes of the crisis, as well as areas of improvement in crisis response. Public efforts at rebuilding relationships and organizational reputation will now take much of the resources of communication. The ethical responsibility of an organization is also borne during the post-crisis phase, as it has duties to maintain with regard to honest information, frank response, full contextual disclosure, values reinforced, virtuous efforts to learn and prevent future crisis, and the discernment of fair outcomes for all involved.
Traditionally, crisis management has used Benoit’s (2004) image restoration strategy in which mortification – the acceptance of responsibility, regret, and apology – is the preferred approach for crisis response. However, the SCCT went further by finding that matching the level of crisis responsibility by the organization to the perceptions of responsibility among stakeholders and publics maintains some reputational benefit post-crisis. Increasing perceptions of responsibility for a crisis requires increasing levels of organizational acknowledgement. In other words, when an organization acts with candor and duty in the face of adversity, publics are more understanding, thereby relationships and reputation benefit. Theorists combined these ethical concepts with SCCT to develop a framework for analyzing crises from a moral philosophical perspective in order to build moral value and trust (Bowen & Coombs in press).
Common longer-term strategies in post-crisis phase are those of rebuilding (compensation, apology), bolstering (reminding, ingratiation), and the discourse of renewal (changes, bright future). Ethical responsibility can be added as a way of responding to crisis in the post-crisis phase, as a means of reassurance, learning from analyses and examination, and rectitude. Researchers found that ethics was a precursor for relationships between organizations and publics, meaning that ethical behavior must exist before relationships can form that allows commitment, trust, satisfaction, and shared control. In crises, employees are one of the most vital yet commonly overlooked publics. The extent to which the organization has engaged in ethical relationship building with internal stakeholders predicts how much trust they will have in it under uncertain conditions. Employees can act as informal ambassadors in times of crisis, and an ongoing relationship based on ethical organizational behavior facilitates commitment, high morale, retention, and engagement. As demonstrated in prior cases of hurricane crises, energy firm employees who have a trusting relationship with the firm often go beyond the call of duty in effecting repairs. Internal communication can help keep employees abreast of crisis response, but can have a tangible, lasting outcome by enhancing organizational effectiveness and performance post-crisis.
Post-crisis strategies must be undertaken with ethical rectitude, frankness, and true consideration of stakeholders and publics (sometimes called crisis bearers) so as to be sincere and good intentioned in an ethical sense. Only actions undertaken from a basis of good intention are deemed morally worth in ethical analyses. Bowen and Coombs (in press) argued for ethics as a tri-analytic perspective beyond an organizational orientation, or a stakeholder/public orientation, to a third point of view throughout the three crisis phases: an orientation of moral autonomy to do what is right in each crisis situation.
By engaging in ethical consideration and communication activities post-crisis, organization-public relationships can be rebuilt, maintained, or enhanced. Consideration of the organization’s duty, maintaining dignity and respect for those involved in the crisis at various levels, and acting with good will or good intention are irreplaceable ethical standards in organization-public relationships. Outcomes of these ethical approaches would include satisfaction with the relationship, commitment to continuing the relationship post-crisis, a feeling of inclusion and shared control, as well as enhancing the meeting of expectations, knowability, or reliability of the organization to publics. These types of outcomes can be a valuable resource to the organization both long term and in future crises.
Although these three phases of crisis are organization-centered because corporations and businesses are typically the entities managing crises, it is interesting to turn to the area of risk and crises in the realm of governmental organizations. A special duty of fiduciary and civic ethical responsibility exists between these public sector organizations who manage risks and crisis and the citizenry who depends on their acumen in crisis situations.
Risk Management and the Public Sector
Scholars in public relations have argued that “society is organized for the collective management of risk” (Heath & O’Hair, 2009, p. 6), including groups that organize to control and mitigate risk and act for the management and reduction of conflict and the creation of social understanding. Risk management applies to disaster and emergency response as governmental and state entities assess risk on a routine basis and create disaster and emergency response plans. Public sector organizations have a mission and responsibility to aid citizens in times of crisis, natural disaster, extreme weather events, and other emergencies of an uncontrollable nature.
Risk management involves assessing potentials and their probability of occurrence, applying a priority of responses, working to minimize those risks, and having a crisis or disaster plan in place. Risk managers use risk communication to manage, assess, and inform various stakeholders and publics once an event takes place. As encompassing as the definition of risk communication is, risk communication can be viewed as one component of issues management as applied to issues of risk. The issues management approach allows attention to issue identification and prioritizing the impact of potential issues, key components of successful emergency, and disaster response (Heath, 1997).
During an emergency, public affairs managers and communication professionals from various public sector organizations normally convene in an emergency management response center, organized at the seat of the responsible level of government. They aid in both strategic response and disseminating information to citizens about response measures, through means of traditional media and social media. Communicating with citizens in response to a crisis or disaster requires careful risk management and planning in advance of a crisis situation, often called the pre-crisis stage. Other scholars called the pre-crisis phase the issue phase, in which potential and emerging issues are monitored and assessed for their potential to create harm (Grunig & Repper, 1992). Heath (1997) argued that issues management includes many areas of concern, such as public policy and the collective management of risk. Contributions to overall risk management, emergency preparedness, and crisis management can be made by understanding and employing the six-step approach to issues management (Buchholz et al., 1994) in preparations: identify issues and trends in public expectations; evaluate their impact and set priorities; conduct research and analyses; develop strategy; implement strategy; and evaluate strategy.
Bowen, Rawlins, and Martin (2019) suggested adding an ethical analysis (at the research and analysis phase) to the issues management process as most public issues hold the potential for large-scale consequences on populations. In the pre-crisis or issue phase, scenario building is used to develop various emergency and disaster plans and anticipate the needed changes in strategic response. Scenario building is a tool that can predict and plan rapidly evolving scenarios and assess their potential impact. Changing scenarios and the different needs in infrastructure, agency response, and coordination of various operations are discussed and planned. Changes in the necessary communication flow are also anticipated in scenario building in order to achieve the most effective results. Drills may also be conducted with the emergency management team in charge of various types of crises and disasters so that response time can be assessed and decreased, decision-making can be streamlined, logistics can be organized, and communication can be optimized.
Social Media Environment and Crises
Digital participative platforms and social media have enabled profound transformations in communication’s dynamics among organizations, citizens, and mass media. These dynamics have impacted also on how crises are spread and perceived across the web by different publics (i.e., employees, citizens, mass media, associations, etc.). Social media become relevant also in the so-called paracrises, a concept used to describe crisis situations that primarily involve communicative activities of digital publics. Paracrisis refers to “publicly visible crisis threat on social media that charges an organization with irresponsible or unethical behavior” (Coombs & Holladay, 2012, p. 414). A paracrisis looks like a crisis and may or may not develop into one, but it is rapidly spread on the social web and can impact on the perceptions of media and other strategic publics. Indeed, social media can amplify the reach of these serious events all across the globe, due to messages that are published and shared by online publics on their social media accounts, thus increasing the visibility of the crises in the contemporary communication ecologies. Digital organizations have an emerging and relevant role in diffusing information about potential crises and emergencies. For instance, some platforms automatically create alerts about emergencies (e.g., terrorism) and natural disaster (e.g., hurricanes) asking their users living in specific areas to confirm publicly if they are safe. At the same time, citizens or clients can use their mobile phones to take pictures of critical events to be shared on social media, or they can broadcast contents via online live streaming enabled by such platforms. These user-generated contents are often taken by traditional media in order to cover the event or become sources for news making processes. Thus, these digital platforms create new possibilities to propagate positive and negative perceptions, increasing crisis susceptibility of organizations both a local and a global level. A social-mediated crisis communication model (SMCCM) (Austin et al. 2012) can provide a framework for creating the response to new challenges in the crisis management, highlighting how social media are influencing the practice of crisis communication across different organizations. This model holds that in the context of a crisis, three main types of publics emerge on social media: influentials, who create information that others access and found online; followers who follow the influentials and consume the information they disseminate; and inactive members, individuals who do not directly access information on social media, but they search for it in other channels (e.g., word of mouth or traditional media) or are exposed to it from social media platforms indirectly.
All these transformations have created deep changes in public sector communication. Now it is increasingly strategic and critical for organizations to create an online presence extending beyond official websites into social media channels to maintain direct contact with stakeholders and online publics. Social media can enhance the dialogue between public sector organizations and citizens instead of simply disseminating information. Citizens now expect to hear directly from leaders in government, public administrations, as well as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).
Scholars focused their attention on the potential benefits of social media, how it can enhance participation, promote civic engagement, and revitalize forms of democracy. Political leaders have begun using social media to make announcements and influence public policy in the perception of citizens and mass media. Social media channels can be used to create a crisis or address those situations. Activists groups and NGOs often use social media to gain attention and influence, working to change values, norms, and legislation and standing in the public sector. Yet public sector organizations tend to favor asymmetrical, one-way broadcasting strategies, despite the opportunity for dialogical communication to foster symmetrical relationship building with citizens (Lovari & Parisi, 2015), often creating an evident misalignment between organizational activities and citizens’ expectations and perceptions.
Scholars investigated the use of social media by public sector organizations to strategically manage crisis situations from routine use to critical events, such as pandemics and natural disasters involving floods, hurricanes, and earthquakes. Indeed, social media allow public sector organizations to rapidly spread important messages to the population during an emergency, to collect requests for emergency assistance, to enhance public order, to reduce uncertainty, and to raise relief support.
The presence of official social media channels directly managed by governmental and public sector organizations can be crucial because it could counteract the information overload produced during emergencies. Focusing public attention on verified information can be an ethical use of social media to avoid the spread of false or misleading information, as well as to foster citizen self-organization that can be faster than official response. However, there are barriers to effective use of social media during a disaster or emergency: a lack of trained personnel/time to work on use of social media, a lack of policies and guidelines, and concerns about the trustworthiness of crowdsourced data. These barriers can influence social media use and the quality of digital communication flow between governments, citizens, NGOs, media, and crisis bearers during a disaster.
Inequities, Problematics, Ethics, and the Future
Connectivity is imperfect, especially in areas such as subway systems in metropolitan areas. Further, large-scale weather disasters can render utilities inoperative for a matter of days or weeks; problematics include the fragility of the technology itself and the requirements of light, manual dexterity, sight, digital literacy, and actual literacy in order to use the technology. In that manner, the infirm, elderly, and those with physical challenges can be left behind by the digital divide. Social media cannot be reliably expected to meet the information needs of these populations, but public sector organizations should rely on a multichannel strategy to spread information in broader and more accessible ways. Ethical concerns extend beyond the concerns of the digital divide to include the integrity of information itself. During a disaster, individuals have high degrees of uncertainty and demand for knowledge of both the risk and emergency response. Additionally, electronic devices can be destroyed by floodwaters, fires, earthquakes, and winds, making the technology unreliable in numerous types of disasters. Ethical communication is the precursor to building trust, which affects publics’ ability to communicate knowledgeably on issues of risk.
Complicating matters are the factors associated with how quickly rumors and misinformation can spread via social media due to their lack of editorial gatekeeping which can represent a potential threat for citizens and mass media. Ethical guidelines for social media use have been published, and codes of ethics for professional communicators routinely deal with ethical guidelines for social media, yet there is little doubt that moral issues become more complex during a crisis. Because of rapid dissemination and few credibility checks, misleading, false, inaccurate, or otherwise damaging information can spread quickly through social media in crisis and emergencies. Scholars find that rumors and misinformation can be persistent and exceptionally difficult to correct. Therefore, ethics are a vital consideration in crisis management and disaster communications and increase the ethics of crisis responses in the future. The rapid spread of information via social media channels offers enhanced usability and benefit for crisis management, as messages can move quickly, generate dialogue, allow input and direct communication, and increase crisis management’s understanding of difficult situations.
Effective use of the process of issues management can offer organizations a way to lessen the chances of encountering a crisis. Yet, even the best issues management cannot prevent all crises; negative events will occur, and an organization must know how to respond in a strategic manner. The pre-crisis, crisis, and post-crisis phases of crisis management allow coordination of research, analyses, strategy creation, and communication planning around projected problems. Crises offer numerous opportunities for change and growth, helping an organization to respond resiliently to turbulence. Crises offer opportunities for the public relations function to advise the dominant coalition of senior executives on ethics and crisis response, earning a place at the management table from which it can help the organization think ethically and communicate effectively.
Heightened ethical responsibility in crisis yields better relationships with publics over time as trust is increased on each side; values can be incorporated into strategic planning, and expectations of stakeholders and publics can be met. The challenges and opportunities regarding crises should be clear to public affairs specialists and public relations professionals who will deal with issues and crises, as well as their communicative impacts. Managing crises in an ethical and effective manner is truly one of the most pressing, vital, dynamic, and fulfilling roles in public affairs or communication.
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