Crises Research Demands Nuance with Terminology

Tony Jacques, a former communication professional and an academic, writes frequently about concerns related to crisis communication, issues management, and risk.  In a recent message he complained about how organizations are referring to some crises as disasters.  Jacques connected some of this problem to IT’s use of the term disaster. His point was that these disasters were really crises and that using the terms interchangeably was wrong and confusing.  I would like to echo and extend his concern for the lack of nuance in how we use the term “crisis” when we talk about crisis communication.  This lack of nuance creates confusion for both practitioners and researchers trying to compare and to synthesize research findings.


Crisis is a very broad term and is frequently used when researchers are discussing organizational crises and disasters.  This is the first point that needs clarification.  Organizational crises can create a disaster (Fukushima for example) and disaster can create organizational crises (damage organizational facilities) but they are not the same thing.  At the very least, researchers should be clear when they are focusing on disasters or organizational crises.  For instance, my research focuses on organization crises, what managers say and do in response to a crisis, not disasters.  When reviewing articles, I frequently see people mixing the two literatures and making claims about organizational crises based upon disaster research.  Those are not proper comparisons and create confusion.  I have seen people write about conflicting results in crisis communication when what they have identified are differences in organizational crises and disasters. 


I have argued that there is a need to differentiate between reputational and operational crises within the category of organizational crises.  Again, organizational crises can be a mix of reputational and operational crises.  However, most crises are dominated by either operational concerns (keeping the organization operating) and reputational concerns (addressing reputational threats).  Operational crises are the foundation of crisis communication and crisis management.  The potential disruption to an organization is often associated with threats to stakeholders such as industrial accidents, transportation accidents, and product harm crises.  Yes, these crises create reputational concerns as well but the focus needs to be on the operational concerns and negative consequences they might have for employees, community members, employees, and other stakeholders the crisis might place at risk.  Operational crises require a focus on victims and potential victims.  Reputational crises are more about the organization itself.  The organization is perceived to be doing something inappropriate or irresponsible.  This might be sourcing a raw material from irresponsible suppliers or running an advertisement that is offensive to some stakeholders.  The threat is to the reputation not to operations.  If there is a threat to stakeholders, it is typically to people within the supply chain that has been happening for some time.  Think about the sweatshops in the apparel industry.  There are different drivers in the two organizational crisis types and even different sets of responses that can be effective.  For instance, you can defend practices some people claim are irresponsible and that be an effective response but you cannot defend a factory explosion or a hazardous chemical release and expect people to consider that an effective response.


Other what I call macro-crisis types are emerging from research as well.  Macro-crisis types are broader categories such as organizational crises and there can be micro-crisis types within each category.  For example, the micro-crisis types in organization crises include product harm, management misconduct, and accidents. The work by Elizabeth Avery helps to establish public health crises, an area that mixes ideas from disaster and organizational crises.  Arjen Boin has mapped out political crises and their unique features.  It is possible more of these macro-level crisis types will emerge.  I believe it is critical for researchers to clarify what macro-level crisis type they are actually studying.  Such clarity will help practitioner and researchers to place the results in the proper context for their needs.





1.  What other macro-level crises do you see emerging?

2.  What are the key differences between organizational crises and disasters?



Some References


Avery, E. J., & Kim, S. (2009). Anticipating or precipitating crisis? Health agencies may not be heeding best practice advice in avian flu press releases. Journal of Public Relations Research, 21(2), 187-197.


Boin, A., ‘t Hart, P., & McConnell, A. (2009). Crisis exploitation: political and policy impacts of framing contests. Journal of European Public Policy, 16(1), 81-106.


Coombs, W. T. (2015). Ongoing crisis communication: Planning, managing, and responding. Sage Publications.



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