Crisis Communications - A Dark Art?

Posted on 29 November

Charlie looks at Timothy Coombs' ‘Situational Crisis Communications Theory’ and how you can develop a crisis response strategy from it.


For many years I have slightly shied away from crisis communications. I have developed crisis management plans, emergency plans and business continuity plans at all levels, for a multitude of different organisations and industries. I have also run numerous exercises for senior management teams and feel confident and comfortable running them. When it has come to the media element of the exercise or the plan, I have done the basics, such as identifying stakeholders, working out who should contact each stakeholder and how they should be contacted. What I have not done is get into detail on producing media statements and devising a media strategy. I have always felt that you had to have been a journalist or a newsreader to really understand crisis communications.

I think this is what those who consult in crisis communications would like you to think, and they heavily promote their journalist or TV background as a way of saying ‘this is complicated, you have to hire me’. Looking at crisis communications professionals who have handled crises in the media over the last few years, some of that mystique has become to unravel. The ‘car crash’ interview by Prince Andrew was agreed and signed off by a crisis communications professional and presumably they rehearsed, and risk assessed his answers. After the interview, he is in a much worse position than if he hadn’t done the interview in the first place.

When teaching about crisis management I always talk about how if the organisation has an incident, their communications will define whether they are seen to successfully manage an incident or not. When making this point, I always talk about BP’s response to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and how their poor crisis communications made the incident worse. Their statement from Tony Hayward, their CEO, added to the narrative that the company didn’t really care about the environment and the locals, all they cared about was themselves. My point in this case was about how many expensive PR consultants they hired to help them, and they still got it badly wrong.

I freely admit that if you have 30 years’ experience of PR and crisis communications, you are probably going to give better advice than someone who has very limited experience, but even those with years of experience don’t always get it right. Crisis communications and PR are very much an art, you can have a process for developing them but in the end the right tone, words and whether to communicate at all is a judgement call.

For a long time, I wasn’t sure of the process and how to develop an overall media strategy framework for responding to a crisis, until I came across the works of Timothy Coombs and had an epiphany. I had found a framework which I, as someone without extensive experience of PR and crisis communications, could develop a crisis response strategy from. His ‘Situational Crisis Communications Theory’ (SCCT) gave a number of different options on how respond to a crisis situation. He split the possible responses into four postures and within each posture there were a number of strategies.

In the ‘Denial Posture’, the crisis communications’ strategy is to promote the idea that there is no crisis.

  • ‘Attacking the accuser’ is literally attacking the person, verbal0ly, who is claiming there is a crisis. This could also include the use of a lawsuit to prevent the accusation being repeated. President Trump uses this one all the time, as every time there is negative news he claims that it is ‘fake news’ invented by hostile press.
  • ‘Denial’ is claiming that the crisis doesn’t exist. The example I use for this one is Sepp Blatter's comment "What is a crisis? Football is not in a Crisis".
  • ‘Scapegoating’, this quite simply involves blaming someone else for the crisis.

The ‘Diminishment Posture’ is trying to play down the crisis and claim that it is not as bad as they are making out.

  • ‘Excusing’ involves trying to minimise the organisation’s responsibility for the crisis and making clear that they were not trying to hurt anyone or had no control over the events which led to the crisis. This is often used by companies, such as Equifax, who had a cyber breach and promoted the idea that they were a victim of a crime rather than just poor IT security management which was able to be hacked.
  • ‘Justification’ is where the organisation tries to downplay the incident and claim it is not as bad as is being reported, or that the victims brought the incident upon themselves. A classic case of this was Oxfam’s UK Chief’s line of response to their sex scandal, 'it's not like we murdered babies'.

‘Rebuilding Posture’ is about trying to lessen the impact of the incident on the victims and to try and draw a line under the event.

  • ‘Compensation’, this is where compensation is payed to the victims or those affected by the incident. Often if a generous amount is paid or a gagging order accompanies the compensation, then this takes the story off the front pages as there are no new developments to the story for reporters to write about. United Airlines when they dragged a passenger, David Dao Duy Anh, off one of their planes, were only able to get the story of the front page by compensating him.
  • ‘Apology’ involves the organisation takes full responsibility for the incident and says that this will not happen again.

‘Bolstering Posture’ is about trying to make the organisation look good and reduce the effects of the incident.

  • ‘Reminding’ tells the audience about all the good work the company has done and the money which has been spent to prepare or try to make sure the incident didn’t happen.
  • ‘Ingratiation’ is about praising stakeholders, and this could be praising the emergency service or those external to the organisation, and anyone who responded to the incident.
  • ‘Victimage’ is where the organisation says that they are a victim of the crisis as well.

The option of silence and to say nothing is not on Coombs’ list, but instead he focuses on having a response prepared in case a story breaks and a response is needed.

This list was taken from ‘Ongoing Crisis Communication: Planning, Managing, and Responding’ by W Timothy Coombs.

What I like about this list is that it breaks down and categorises the possible responses. Instead of having to rely on a PR person to deploy their dark arts, as a crisis team, we can look at the possible responses and decide which one best suits the incident. When deciding which strategy to employ, we need to take into account what the incident is, what the impact has been on the victims, the prior reputation of our organisation and whether the incident has happened before. In choosing the strategy to employ, just one strategy may not be enough, and a blended solution might need to be employed.

If you take this list and look at the news, you can very quickly see which organisations are employing which strategies in response to an incident and to being on the news. You are also able to see by the public and stakeholder’s reaction, whether the strategy was successful or whether they should have chosen a different one. To take this one step further, you could think about if you were their PR advisor what strategy you would employ to respond to their incident.

The importance of SCCT is that it democratises crisis response strategies and gives a number of options for those who don’t have 30 year’s PR experience to choose which strategy they would utilise. Yes, experience is necessary, but I think SCCT allows those responding to have more input into the crisis communications strategy and for me it helps demystify what some would try and persuade you is a ‘dark art’.