In the current fast-paced media environment, organizations need to adapt and learn how to timely respond to media hype. Many communities, corporations and nations choose silence in times of crisis. Theorists have attempted to analyse the undertone of using silence or the absence of communication with the media.
Sellnow, Ulmer, and Snider (1998) argue that organizations refrain from any communication because of the possibility that it may be used against them in court. Regardless, Coombs (2012) argues that silence conveys ‘uncertainty’ and allows others to ‘take control’, further suggesting that the organization is ‘not in control’. In fact, Richards (1998) mentions that silence indicates the organization may be guilty or might have something to hide. The Volkswagen case on emissions standards is an apt example where the California Air Resources Board and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency exposed the company for illegally installing software in its cars to dodge standards for reducing pollution (Pandelaere, et al., Companies Fare Worse When the Press Exposes Their Problems Before They Do). It was found that the CEO, Michael Horn, was tight-lipped about this ordeal even though he was notified a year earlier. Additionally, Volkswagen kept their silence even when EPA gave them a chance to come clean. As a result, the company faced negative publicity as this ‘information vacuum’ gave media a reason to suspect the organization and ‘build a case’ against it.
To fill the information vacuum, it is of critical essence for the organisation to be proactive with its narrative.
Heath (2004) elaborates on story guidelines: state an account of all elements (like characters, location, audience) in the story; elaborate on the organization’s control over the situation; double check the story in terms of logic and evidence; test whether the story is, in fact, ‘verifiable’. If an organization can follow these guidelines and timely fill the information vacuum with its narrative, it stands a good chance to manage the crisis successfully.
United Airlines PR disaster
Giving an account of the recent United Airlines PR disaster, the response by the company CEO, Oscar Munoz was inefficient to say the least. It was an unprecedented unfortunate event where a passenger was forcedly removed from a boarded flight. This was filmed and viewed worldwide, costing the company not only long-term reputational damage but also a loss of millions in market share (Winston, Pepsi, United, and the Speed of Corporate Shame). As a response to this fiasco, Munoz’s first statement wasn’t aligned with the seriousness of the contents in the video. The elements in his story weren’t rightfully mentioned as he referred to forcibly removing a passenger as simply ‘reaccommodating customers’ (Image 1). To curb the damage caused by the crisis, it was vital for Munoz to fill the information vacuum with an earnest response. Not only was his response one day late (Sakzewski, United Airlines: What can we learn from company’s ‘breathtakingly bad’ crisis management?), he was completely out of touch with the narrative and associated emotions of his stakeholders. While the video itself was ‘verifiable’ content, Munoz’s subsequent attempts at apologizing were evidently inadequate to pacify the crisis. Eventually, his fourth statement via television mentioned that he felt ‘ashamed’, acknowledged that ‘no one should even be mistreated this way’ and apologized to the passenger (Anon., United Airlines will stop using police to remove passengers from full flights, CEO Oscar Munoz says). Munoz’s final apology was cohesive and aligned to Heath’s guidelines for a proactive narrative.
Pepsi’s Kendell Jenner Ad
In contrast, when crisis hit Pepsi for its advertisement where Kendell Jenner is seen skipping a photo shoot to join a protest, the organization was quick to fill the information vacuum. After it received huge backlash for incorporating imagery from a Black Lives Matter protest and portraying protests as a fun event rather than a serious gathering, the advertisement was taken down immediately (Taylor, Pepsi’s new ad shows Kendall Jenner joining a protest and giving a cop a soda — and people are furious). Responding to the negative reactions, the company released a statement where they stated they wanted to convey the message of ‘unity, peace and understanding. The statement (Image 2) went on to acknowledge their mistake by stating: ‘clearly we missed the mark and we apologise. We did not intend to make light of any serious issue’. Pepsi followed through Heath’s guidelines as it had a proactive narrative, quick apology and took ownership for their tone-deaf campaign.
To approach crisis management on social media, Cheng’s article examines crisis communication strategies and describes an Interactive Crisis Communication (ICC) model which focuses on the importance of measuring stakeholders at a time of crisis and strongly suggests building a long-time positive dialogue between the organization and stakeholders through a reliable third party. The ICC model mentions numerous strategies across different stages of crisis out of which ‘stealing thunder’ has noticeably proved successful in mitigating crisis. Claeys, Cauberghe and Pandelaere (2016) reveal findings from their research on ‘stealing thunder’ which involves disclosing the crisis before the media does.
Studies show that when an organization discloses its crisis, not only is it identified as a more credible firm, the problems disclosed are also perceived as less severe.
Additionally, another study confirms that people pay less attention to self-disclosing news from an organizational crisis due to its nature of being perceived as old news (Pandelaere, et al., Companies Fare Worse When the Press Exposes Their Problems Before They Do).
While it might be tempting for organizations to hide a crisis from their most important stakeholders – the public, dealing with the situation upfront, self-disclosing crisis details, ultimately stealing thunder can prove to be a sensible option because it evades negative attention and reputational damage to the company.
Another successful practice for crisis management is choosing the right channel to target the right stakeholders.
Gilpin (2010) mentions that:
social media has reduced the time for an organization to react to a crisis, thus, when responding to a crisis, organizations must choose the right platform to convey their message
For example, Domino’s 2009 YouTube crisis involved responding to a fraudulent video published on the same platform. First, to respond to the crisis, Domino’s choice of platform (YouTube) was apt as this approach entailed a direct relationship with its targeted audience; second, the company could communicate through visually-rich content in place of a traditional press release waiting to get picked up by news reporters. Managing crisis through the right channel proved to be fast, engaging and effective for Dominos.
Bowen and Heath (2007) elaborate on the following five perspectives that reinforce an ethical narrative by organizations:
- the company should embed ‘moral obligation to society’;
- focus on its relationship with its stakeholders;
- delicately handle any form of harm it could cause;
- lawfully execute ethical actions;
- should be truthful as an organization
After relevant research and a deeper look into the case studies mentioned, it is clear that crisis communication is more important than ever before much due to the increasing need for ‘immediacy’ in communication with stakeholders.
Best practices for crisis management on social media include identifying evolving crisis and timely filling the information vacuum with a logical narrative. It is essential for organizations to understand the implications of keeping silent during crisis and steal thunder by self-disclosing crisis details through the right platform.
In conclusion, organizations worldwide are functioning in a space where stakeholders can point out and magnify any errors made. There is a dire need for organizations of every size to comprehend the importance to regularly monitor the media in order to pacify any evolving negative PR story – called crisis creep (Regester and Larkin, 1997). Scholars agree that being upfront about the situation in times of crisis and investing in transparent conversations with stakeholders ultimately helps limit fake stories and negative publicity surrounding the company (Carmichael, Putting the Right Information on Twitter in a Crisis). Since crisis management in the digital age is still an evolving territory, we are bound to learn more about dealing with information vacuum in the near future.
This research essay was first put together as a part of my coursework for master of marketing communications at the University of Melbourne.