One of the challenges in crisis communication research is connecting the academic research with the practice. Toward that end, I would like to highlight key research lines and some individual articles that provide value to the practice. I would like to start with the stealing thunder research. Arpan and Pompper started crisis research down the stealing thunder road (sort of a Bruce Springsteen reference) in 2003. Stealing thunder is a concept from law that says that information damaging to your case does less harm to your case when it comes from you and not opposing counsel. Translated to crises, the announcement of a crisis does less damage to an organization (especially its reputation) when the organization is the first source to release the information that a crisis exists. In other words, a crisis does less damage to an organization if stakeholders hear about the crisis from the organization than if they first here about the crisis from another source such as the news media. Stealing thunder has been proven to exist repeatedly in studies in the U.S. and Europe. It is a robust and reliable finding.
An-Sophie Claeys has developed stealing thunder in a sophisticated line of crisis communication research. She has helped to explain how it works, when it works, and even why practitioners are hesitant to use the advice. I want to highlight just a few of the most interesting insights into stealing thunder emerging from the research projects she has lead. First, stealing thunder can reduce the effects of the crisis response (Claeys & Cauberghe, 2012). The data show that when an organization steals thunder, the crisis response has little effect on valued outcomes such as reputation. Think about it this way. Crisis communication can benefit an organization by 10 units (the units are arbitrary and represent a general benefit from crisis communication). When stealing thunder is used, the organization gets all 10 units and even an appropriate/effective crisis response has nothing left to add. When the organization does not steal thunder, the crisis response does matter and can be used to earn those 10 units. Keep in mind that a really inappropriate/ineffective response can cause an organization to lose some or all of the 10 units gained by stealing thunder. This data is a strong argument for using stealing thunder because it places less pressure on the crisis response. The organization needs to be competent and not outstanding to earn its 10 units.
Second, stealing thunder is an effective means of framing the crisis—presenting the organization’s side of the story (Claeys, Cauberghe & Leysen, 2013). There are limits to the framing power of stealing thunder. Attempts to create frames to minimize crisis responsibility can backfire on the organization (Claeys, Cauberghe & Vyncke, 2010). What is beneficial is a stealing thunder response that includes an emotional component of sadness over what had happened. Spokespeople expressing sadness were viewed as more sincere and that is the reason the message frame with sadness has a great positive effect on reputation than a rational message frame. The research provides deals and evidence that can help crisis managers create crisis responses that maximize the reputational benefits for the organization (Claeys et al., 2013).
Third, stealing thunder is a well-documented but practitioners often avoid it. I have had my own experiences where top managers are impressed with the findings but say it would be hard to sell stealing thunder in their own organization. Claeys and Opgenhaffen (2016) interviewed practitioners to find out why they might not use stealing thunder and discovered there reasons. One reason is the evidence is ambiguous so organization’s wait for fear of taking responsibility or announcing a crisis when they do not need to do so. Instead, there is a possibility the crisis will be resolved internally and stakeholders will never learn of it. A second reason is that managers fear the announcement will be taken as a sign of admitting fault and not just a recognition the crisis exists. Practitioners would rely on the nature of the issue hand when choosing whether or not to steal thunder. A third and final reason are legal or managerial concerns take precedent over stealing thunder. The article is an interesting read on why certain crisis communication ideas are not always adopted in the practice.
Whether you are a practitioner, research, or a student, you should read through the research on steaking thunder. It is solid line of advice that is back by some excellent and interesting research
POINTS TO CONSIDER
- In what circumstance do you think stealing thunder would be eth most and least acceptable by managers?
- How might you use the results from the stealing thunder research to sell your manager on using stealing thunder during a crisis?
Arpan, L. M., & Pompper, D. (2003). Stormy weather: Testing “stealing thunder” as a crisis communication strategy to improve communication flow between organizations and journalists. Public Relations Review, 29(3), 291-308.
Claeys, A. S., & Cauberghe, V. (2012). Crisis response and crisis timing strategies, two sides of the same coin. Public Relations Review, 38(1), 83-88.
Claeys, A. S., & Cauberghe, V. (2014). What makes crisis response strategies work? The impact of crisis involvement and message framing. Journal of Business Research, 67(2), 182-189.
Claeys, A. S., Cauberghe, V., & Leysen, J. (2013). Implications of stealing thunder for the impact of expressing emotions in organizational crisis communication. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 41(3), 293-308.
Claeys, A. S., Cauberghe, V., & Vyncke, P. (2010). Restoring reputations in times of crisis: An experimental study of the Situational Crisis Communication Theory and the moderating effects of locus of control. Public Relations Review, 36(3), 256-262.
Claeys, A. S., & Opgenhaffen, M. (2016). Why practitioners do (not) apply crisis communication theory in practice. Journal of Public Relations Research, 1-16.