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The OCR Glossary

Situational Crisis Communication Theory

W. Timothy Coombs

Situational crisis communication theory (SCCT) uses attributions of the organization’s responsibility for a crisis to prescribe the crisis response strategies that should maximize the protection of the organization’s reputation. SCCT argues that as stakeholders increasingly perceive the organization as responsible for the crisis, managers need to utilize crisis response strategies that show a greater concern for the crisis victims if the managers want to use communication to protect reputational assets. SCCT is evidence based, meaning that it relies on empirical research to validate its claims.

SCCT research relies heavily on experimental methods to demonstrate a cause-and-effect relationship between crisis communication (the crisis response) and postcrisis reputation. This entry begins by reviewing the development of crisis communication as a research field to provide a context and a rationale for the creation of SCCT, moves on to a detailed discussion of SCCT, and finishes with a summary of the theory and its strong connection to reputation.

Development of Crisis Communication as a Research Field

In the United States, a serious and sustained interest in crisis communication began to emerge in communication practice and in research during the 1980s. As is common in an applied field, the practice was ahead of the research. Applied research seeks to solve real-world problems. Practitioners have to address problems whether or not there is a theory to illuminate the problem. Knowledge begins to emerge as people seek to determine what works and what does not work in solving those problems. The knowledge creation should serve to improve responses to the problems. We find this pattern in crisis communication.

The Tylenol poisonings in 1982 provided the focusing event for crisis communication in the United States. It was in the 1980s that the practitioner literature on crisis communication developed, and short articles in practitioner-oriented journals began to appear. These articles were typically reports of what practitioners had done when facing a crisis. From these early publications came lists of what managers should do and not do when facing a crisis. In 1986, Steven Fink published the first U.S. book on crisis management, titled Crisis Management: Planning for the Inevitable.

While these early practitioner sources provided advice based on experience, there was a lack of rigor to this research, which was dominated by cases and speculation derived from the cases. The speculations were about what actions worked or failed in the crisis. The advice was speculative because it was based on an interpretation of events and there was no hard evidence that specific actions resulted in specific outcomes. In other words, there was no hard data to support the causal claims.

By the late 1980s, academic interest in crisis communication was created. In 1986, a special issue of a communication research journal published a set of articles about the Challenger disaster. While the articles were not overtly studies in crisis communication, the topic was moving into academic circles of communication studies. Still, most of the academic crisis communication research was based on case studies, offering speculation rather than evidence for its recommendations.

On a parallel course to communication studies was the development of interest in crisis management in the management research. Marketing researchers were examining product harm crises in hopes of developing more effective responses to these crises. Marketing research utilized attribution theory as a guiding framework. A more effective response was one that protected organizational assets such as purchase intentions and reputation. Crisis communication was a variable in this marketing research but not the focal point of the research.

In 1988, a piece in Communication Studies provided a commentary on the emerging field of crisis communication. The author noted that there are lists of crisis response strategies (the words and actions used in response to a crisis) and lists of crisis types but there was no theoretical link between the two. The crisis communication field was lacking theoretically grounded and empirically tested connections between crisis response strategies and crisis types. SCCT was developed specifically to bridge the gap by proving theoretically derived and empirically tested relationships between crisis response strategies and crisis types.

Explication of SCCT

SCCT began with the publication of a decision tree in 1995 that could guide the selection of crisis response. The decision tree was grounded in attribution theory and the belief that situational factors help determine what makes for effective communication in a given situation. Attribution theory holds that people naturally attribute causes to an event, especially a negative event such as a crisis. Stakeholders will attribute varying degrees of crisis responsibility to the organization in crisis depending on the nature of the crisis situation. Crisis responsibility is the key variable in a crisis situation. As attributions of crisis responsibility increase, managers must become more accommodative in their crisis responses, focusing on the needs of the crisis victims. SCCT is influenced by research in interpersonal communication and rhetoric that claims that the effectiveness of communication strategies is influenced by situational factors.

The nature of the crisis situation was conceptualized as the crisis type, as proof that there was a crisis, as the amount of damage inflicted by the crisis, and as performance history (prior reputation). The crisis type was the starting point. Four crisis types were identified based on the attribution theory dimensions of locus of control and controllability. Locus of control indicates whether the source of the crisis was inside the organization or external to the organization. Controllability is whether the action creating the crisis was intentional or unintentional.

The two dimensions create a 2 × 2 matrix of crisis types: faux pas, terrorism, accidents, and transgressions. Faux pas are actions taken by an organization that managers believe were appropriate but that stakeholders view as negative (external and uncontrollable). Terrorism acts are purposeful, external attacks on the organization (external and controllable). Accidents are internal actions that were uncontrollable (internal and uncontrollable). Transgressions are actions by organizational actors that knowingly place stakeholders at risk (internal and controllable).

The crisis types were combined with evidence, damage, and performance history to create the decision tree. The decision tree begins with the crisis type and moves through the other situational factors, ending in the crisis responses that should be appropriate for the given crisis situation.

The list of crisis response strategies was culled from the existing literature on crisis responses. The literature was examined closely, and crisis response strategies that appear more than once on the different lists were included in the final list of crisis response strategies. The crisis response strategies were placed on a defensive-accommodation continuum. Defensive strategies prioritize organization goals and needs, while accommodation strategies emphasize the goals and needs of the crisis victims (those injured by the crisis in some way). The defensive-accommodative continuum was adapted from the interpersonal literature for classifying communication strategies.

The primary crisis response strategies originally were seen as nonexistence strategies, distance strategies, ingratiation strategies, and mortification strategies. Nonexistence strategies seek to show that there is no crisis or that the organization is not responsible for the crisis. Distance strategies seek to reduce perceptions of the severity of the crisis and/or the organization’s responsibility for the crisis. Nonexistence and distance strategies both focus more on the organization than on the victims. Note how the nonexistence strategy denies the existence of or the responsibility for the victims. Ingratiation strategies seek to build some goodwill with stakeholders. There is a shift from the organization to the victims with ingratiation. Mortification strategies directly address the needs of victims and appear to take responsibility for the crisis. (There was also a suffering strategy, but that was for unique crisis situations where the organization was a victim of the crisis too, such as in a product-tampering case.)

The primary outcome variable was reputation. The appropriate response to a crisis was the crisis response strategy that best served to reduce the reputational damage inflicted by the crisis. The 1995 article that discussed the decision tree guiding crisis response was the theoretical piece that served as the foundation for what was to become SCCT.

A series of studies were conducted to test the assumptions and recommendations for SCCT. The first assumption was that the strong correlation between crisis responsibility and reputational damage holds across the full array of crisis types. There was evidence for the connection between crisis responsibility and reputation in product harm crises, but the connection had to be proven to exist in all major crisis types. The data found that the connection between crisis responsibility and reputation held across all the crisis types tested. Later research linked attributions of crisis responsibility to the additional outcomes of anger, purchase intentions, and negative word of mouth.

The second assumption was that people attributed different amounts of crisis responsibility to the various crisis types. The research mapped the amount of crisis responsibility people were likely to attribute to a given crisis type. The data suggested that it was best to collapse locus of control and intention (controllability). Hence, the matrix of crisis types was changed to a continuum of crisis responsibility. The data suggested that crisis types could be organized into three categories based on the attributions of crisis responsibility that each generated: (1) victim, (2) accidental, and (3) preventable.

The victim crisis type produces very low attributions of crisis responsibility. Product tampering and workplace violence are common crises that fall into the victim crisis type. The accidental crisis type produces minimal attributions of crisis responsibility. Technical-error product harm and technical-error accidents are common crises that fit into the accidental crisis type. The preventable crisis type produces very strong attributions of crisis responsibility. Management misconduct and human-error accidents are common crises in the preventable crisis type. In the preventable crisis, people can very easily imagine a course of action whereby the crisis could have been avoided. People find it very difficult to imagine such an alternative for the victim and accidental crisis types.

The third assumption involved how people would perceive the crisis response strategies. The key element of the response was the perception of taking responsibility for the crisis associated with each crisis response strategy. The assumption was that more accommodative strategies would be perceived as taking greater responsibility for the crisis. Crisis responsibility was the theoretical link between the crisis types and the crisis response strategies. As stakeholders attribute greater crisis responsibility to the organization, the more the organizational crisis response must be perceived as taking responsibility for the crisis. The data suggested that the primary crisis response strategies could be classified into three groups: (1) deny, (2) diminish, and (3) rebuild.

The deny crisis response strategies include denial, attacking the accuser, and scapegoating. These crisis response strategies deny any responsibility for the crisis and may even claim that no crisis exists. The diminish crisis response strategies include excuse and justification. These crisis response strategies seek to reduce organizational responsibility for the crisis and/or the severity of the crisis. The rebuild crisis response strategies include compensation and apology. These crisis response strategies focus directly on the victims and attempt to demonstrate that the organization is addressing victim concerns.

The fourth assumption was that the other situational variables in the theory actually do influence stakeholder attributions of crisis responsibility for the crisis. The research studies found evidence that prior reputation (performance history) and a crisis history (the organization has had past crises) do alter attributions of crisis responsibility. A negative prior reputation and a history of crises both serve to intensify attributions of crisis responsibility. Negative prior reputation and crisis history influence the stability dimension of attribution theory. Both a negative prior reputation and a history of crises suggest negative associations in the organization’s past. Hence, the current crisis is part of a pattern of negative behavior (a stable trait) rather than an anomaly. The variables were called intensifying factors.

Once the four basic assumptions of SCCT were in place, a model of the crisis communication process could be developed. The model posited that crisis type and intensifying factors determine the anticipated level of crisis responsibility. Based on that level of crisis responsibility, the crisis managers would choose among a set of crisis response strategies to maximize reputational protection during a crisis. In 2002, the various elements of the theory were first published using the name situational crisis communication theory.

Subsequent research on SCCT has led to recommendations for communication that involve three types of crisis response strategies: (1) instructing information, (2) adjusting information, and (3) reputation repair. Instructing information involves telling stakeholders how to protect themselves physically from the crisis. A crisis can be a threat to physical safety when there is a hazardous chemical release or a harmful product in the marketplace. Examples of instructing information would include warning sirens and notices of product recalls. Adjusting information helps stakeholders cope psychologically with the crisis. Crises create anxiety as people worry that the events could happen again. Adjusting information includes explaining what actually happened, any corrective actions taken to prevent a repeat of the crisis, expressions of sympathy, and providing counseling.

Instructing and adjusting information often go together. Instructing and adjusting information both need to be used before considering reputation repair efforts. SCCT states that instructing and adjusting information, what has been called the ethical base response, must be delivered before any efforts at reputation repair. Clearly, the ethical base response will help repair reputation damage, but the primary emphasis is on helping stakeholders who might be adversely affected by the crisis. SCCT recommends that any time there are victims or potential victims in a crisis, the ethical base response must be used.

The SCCT assessment of crisis responsibility is used to determine if and what types of reputation repair strategies might be added to the ethical base response. When crises are perceived as accidental, crisis managers might add diminish strategies to the ethical base response. However, the addition of diminish strategies seems to add very little in terms of reputation protection. When the crisis is perceived as preventable (this includes accidental crisis types that also have an intensifying factor), the crisis manager must add the rebuild strategy to the ethical base response to maximize the reputational protection afforded by crisis communication.

Bolstering is treated as a secondary strategy. Bolstering can be added to the ethical base response and be used in combination with any of the reputation repair strategies. Denial is used when the crisis is a result of misinformation—there really is no crisis or the organization is uninvolved in the crisis. For instance, during a 2009 peanut butter and peanut paste recall, some consumers wrongly believed that major national brand peanut butters were part of the recall, although the recall did not involve products sold under these brands. The name brands used denial to establish that they were not part of the recall. However, crisis managers should avoid using attack the accuser or scapegoating tactics because stakeholders generally react negatively to these crisis response strategies.

Research has tested the recommendations offered by SCCT. The data support that the recommended crisis response strategies are more effective than the nonrecommended crisis response strategies. Being effective is defined primarily as being able to reduce the reputation damage inflicted by a crisis. The SCCT recommendations have been shown to reduce anger and to lessen the effect of a crisis on purchase intentions.

The negative communication dynamic is one other phenomenon that has emerged from the SCCT research. SCCT researchers began exploring the role of affect to determine where it should fit in the SCCT model—how it related to the existing variables identified and tested in SCCT. Crises can generate a number of emotions including anxiety, sympathy, and anger.

Anger seems to be the most common emotion associated with a crisis. It is logical that people are angry about negative events such as the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Anger is correlated with crisis responsibility. People become angrier, the more they perceive the organization to be responsible for the crisis. Anger can be a motivator for people. Of particular interest to crisis managers is the way anger might motivate a person to engage in negative word of mouth about an organization. Word of mouth can spread beyond the initial message and can have a long life span if the message is posted online.

An experiment was conducted to determine the relationship between anger, crisis responsibility, and negative word of mouth. The data indicated that anger mediated the relationship between crisis responsibility and negative word of mouth. As hypothesized, anger acted as a motivator to move people to say that they would engage in negative word of mouth about the crisis. The study showed that anger could be a valuable variable for crisis managers to understand.


SCCT is an evidence-based approach to crisis communication that is driven by theory. The idea was to move beyond the limits of speculation offered by the case study–based recommendations that had emerged in the crisis communication research. SCCT is based on a model of how the crisis situation should influence attributions of crisis responsibility and how crisis response strategies should affect people’s reactions to the crisis and the organization in crisis. Theory informs the communication recommendations provided by SCCT.

The primary outcome from SCCT was the development of crisis communication responses that would maximize the reputational protection of communication during a crisis while still honoring the victim concerns. SCCT answers the basic question “What is the best way to respond to a crisis?” It is a cognitive approach to crisis communication, informed by attribution theory, which uses experimental methods to determine cause-and-effect relationships between crisis response strategies and crisis outcomes.

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Coombs, W. T. (1995). Choosing the right words: The development of guidelines for the selection of the “appropriate” crisis response strategies. Management Communication Quarterly, 8, 447–476.

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Coombs, W. T., & Holladay, S. J. (2002). Helping crisis managers protect reputational assets: Initial tests of the situational crisis communication theory. Management Communication Quarterly, 16, 165–186.

Coombs, W. T., & Holladay, S. J. (2007). The negative communication dynamic: Exploring the impact of stakeholder affect on behavioral intentions. Journal of Communication Management, 11, 300–312.

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Holladay, S. J. (2009). Crisis communication strategies in the media coverage of chemical accidents. Journal of Public Relations Research, 21(2), 208–217.

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Sturges, D. L. (1994). Communicating through crisis: A strategy for organizational survival. Management Communication Quarterly, 7, 297–316.

See Also

Attribution Theory; Crisis; Reputation Crisis

See Also

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