Situational Crisis Communication Theory and Image Repair Theory’s Erroneous Attacks

December 1, 2014

I was reading the second edition of Benoit’s Accounts, Excuses, and Apologies and was very surprised to find rather scathing attacks on other crisis communication theories including Corporate Apologia, Discourse of Renewal, and Situational Crisis Communication Theory (SCCT).  The names associated with these theories have all written at least one book each on crisis communication.  None of them saw the need to attack the other theories.  Rather, these volumes are respectful of the other theories and note how they have contributed to the field.  Each theory has its own focus and limitations.  When I teach, I talk about limitations and use the term constructively.  Limits are natural, all theories have boundaries.  Knowing the limitations helps students understand when to use a particular theory for an analysis.  I take great pains in the courses not to critique the theories because each has value.  I would rather focus on what the theory can add to the field and when each can be used most effectively for analysis.

What was most troubling was the inaccurate nature of the attacks.  I will speak to SCCT since that is the theory I know the best.  The first critique is the a priori nature of crises.  SCCT does base its assessment of crisis threats on crisis types.  In most organization crises (SCCT is designed for organization crises and is not a generic theory of crisis communication), there are identifiable types.  For instance, there are hundreds of product harm crises a year and those are easy to identify.  Yes, there will be those crises that are blurred and unclear, that is when crisis consultants are needed and make their money.  But most crises are specific types and crisis managers examine the contextual clues to see how the crisis is being defined.  Organizations can attempt to redefine the crisis but successes are rare.  The example given is deception.  The evidence redefined Tylenol as product tampering (the rarest of crisis types) not Johnson & Johnson.  The carnage of failed attempts to redefine crises include:  Intel, Union Carbide, Audi, and Rail World.  SCCT limits its discussion of redefinition to rumors (misinformation crises) and challenges. This is a rather minor point and a clear point of different between the two theories in terms of the emphasis on redefinition.

Second point is that SCCT ignores audience beliefs and attitudes.  SCCT is actually driven by attributions of crisis responsibility—an audience factors.  SCCT does assess crisis responsibility in its studies.  Image Repair Theory has been critiques for being too sender oriented (Lee, 2005) and the latest version does note audiences more.  Again, more of a limit than a critique.  It is wrong to say SCCT ignores the audience when its key driver—attributions of crisis responsibility—is the audience.  The audience is the primary factors that drives the evaluation of the crisis situation.  SCCT does not focus on creating different messages for different segments of the audience.  The reasoning for that is two-fold.  First, today’s media environment means it is difficult to send a message just to one specific segment of the audience without the others seeing it.  Hence, there is a great need for consistency in crisis messages.  This demands the crisis communicators focus messages on the most difficult segment—the victims.  If the managers handle communication with victims well, the other segments will be taken care of as well.  Yes, you can find segments in crisis audiences (there are a number of empirical studies that do) but it is problematic creating and disseminating separate messages for them.  Second, the messages elements for specific publics is done on the tactical level.  For instance, adjusting information for employees differs from that of employees but that is the tactical level of how the strategy is operationalized.  Again, SCCT does not focus on the different segments but that is consistent with the assumptions of the theory.  Benoit does a poor job of articulating the assumptions that guide SCCT including its roots in Attribution Theory.

Point three is about innocence and guilt.  I agree with that point.  In fact we have done SCCT research that looks at the effects of guilt or innocence on the use of crisis response strategies.  It is more difficult to manage a crisis when an organization is innocent.  That is why SCCT recommends denial only when in a misinformation crisis.  Denial can be used in challenge crises but the reconfiguration of SCCT (presented in 2013) addresses the unique aspects of the challenge crisis.  I think the two theories actually agree on this point but that is not how this point is written.

Point four is about corrective action.  SCCT has always included corrective action.  However, SCCT considers it a part of adjusting information, not a reputation repair strategy.  It is a serious oversight to claim SCCT does not discuss corrective.  Simply read any recent use of SCCT and you will find corrective action is part of adjusting information.  It is odd this point is missed given that adjusting and instructing information serve as the ethical base response and that is THE initial response recommended by SCCT whenever there are victims or potential victims created by a crisis.  This is a serious oversight on Benoit’s part.

Point five and six is about no differences between response strategies.  Some studies have, some studies have not.  For instance, there are no differences between effects of crisis response strategies in the same grouping on outcomes such as reputation and purchase intention.  Also, as in the study cited by Benoit, moderating factors can render the crisis response strategies’ effects moot.  An excellent example is the work by Claeys that shows stealing thunder makes the crisis response strategy meaningless.  Some using Image Repair Theory have argued that the success of a response was due to specific strategies in the same grouping—see the study on Dow’s crisis response strategies.  Again, there is agreement on this point so why is it a critique?  However, the study also showed the recommended strategy was superior to the simple information strategy when there was no stealing thunder.  The current recommendations for SCCT (as set forth in 2007) have experimental support.  Benoit only looks at the 1996 study (initial one) and critiques the reliability of the external control and stability.  Those two factors were not used to establish the difference between the strategies.  Those measures were organizational reputation (very strong reliabilities that are documented in the recent book of communication measures) and crisis responsibility (again demonstrating strong reliabilities).    A number of studies have documented the effect of crisis responsibility on post-crisis reputations and that situational factors do shape crisis responsibility (crisis type, crisis history, and prior reputation).  Once more, the central aspects of SCCT and their documentation are ignored.  There are also a number of studies that support using the ethical base response and that is can be the most effective crisis response strategy.  There are limits to when crisis response strategies have an effect.  It is best to document when the crisis response strategies matter and when they do not instead of using a study that examines moderating factors to claim the recommendations are completely invalid.

The final point is truth.  That is very subjective and is part of the revised discussion of challenges.  SCCT is built for organizational crises that evolved from operational concerns.  There is or is not a product harm, a chemical accident, a transportation mishap, etc.  There are grey areas of crisis, SCCT argues that rumor/misinformation and challenge fall into that category.  Again, this is boundary condition (limit).  SCCT was not designed for political crises or celebrity crises, it is for organizational crises.  The majority of organizational crises are not about issues of truth.  Keep in mind others have documented the danger and failures of trying to argue “the truth” during a crisis.  See Hearit’s analysis of the Intel Pentium chip flaw for an example.  I would see the debate over truth fitting better with the idea of paracrises.  In fact the expansion of SCCT into paracrises addresses this very point.  So again I see agreement between the two theories rather than a point of critique.

Fields should have multiple theories, it is good for idea development and advancement of the field.  It is pointless to critique theories for differences under the guise of evaluation simply as a way to claim a particular theory is superior to another.  They all have their particular value.  There are times when Corporate Apologia is insightful or that the Discourse of Renewal is most appropriate.  That is what I teach my students.  I felt the need to bring up theses points because inaccurate critiques, such as the ones presented on pages 37-40 can be damaging to the field when they mislead students about the theories.  SCCT has its limits and I have written about them.  Unfortunately, some of the points raised by Benoit are clearly inaccurate and reflect a very selective reading of the research generated by SCCT.


2012 in review

January 15, 2013

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 9,100 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 15 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.

Costa Concordia: A Year Later

January 13, 2013

CC Marker

Crises can linger for organizations. You could argue, the worse the crisis event the longer the effects can haunt an organization and its stakeholders. When crises involve a loss of life, memorial and anniversaries serve to maintain awareness of the crisis and the continuing need for crisis communication. The Costa Concordia is an example of the memorial and anniversary dimension of crisis communication and crisis management.
January 13, 2013 is the one year anniversary of the Costa Concordia crisis. The Cruise ship ran aground off the coast of the Italian island of Giglio and sank killing 32 people of the 4,252 passengers and crew on board the ship. The Ship is still in the water and removal may not be complete unitl September of 2013. It is only natural to commemorate and to remember such a terrible tragedy such as this crisis. Carnival Cruise is the parent company involved in the crisis. Carnival owns Costa Crociere SpA, the operators of the Costa Concordia. Most of the crisis communication has come from Costa Crociere SpA.

A number of events were planned to mark the first anniversary of the event including an unveiling of memorials to the victims, a minute’s silence held at the time of the crash, and a mass in honor of the victims at the church on the island of Giglio. Here is the statement from Costa Crociere SpA about the event:

A year has passed since the dramatic events of the Costa Concordia, events which have left their mark on each one of us.

It has affected those closest to us – our guests and our staff – and we have the sincerest compassion for the suffering they have all experienced, and for the grief of the families of those who are no longer with us.

On 13 January 2013, there will be a commemoration day on the island of Giglio in memory of those who lost their lives. We will renew our thanks to the citizens of the Island, as well as to all the rescue teams, who were so generous in assisting and supporting the survivors on that night.

One year on, on 13 January flags will be flown at half-mast at all Costa’s offices worldwide, and on all of our ships. A mass will be held in the ships’ theatres with a minute’s silence at the end of the service.

In Genoa, the home of our head office, the local staff will attend another commemorative mass at the Basilica of St Mary of the Assumption, Carignano. As a mark of respect for our different religions, there will be an inter religious mass in Paris, Hindu ceremonies in Mumbay and Bali, a Muslim one in Jakarta, a Buddhist one in Shanghai and a Catholic mass in Goa, Jakarta, Manila and Lima.

Be assured that I am personally committed, along with all of Costa Crociere and the rest of the cruise industry, to make every possible effort to prevent something like this from happening again. The safety of our guests and crew has always been and will continue to be our paramount priority.

We would like to thank all those have given us continued trust and loyalty. We hope that all our prayers on this sad anniversary, expressed in different languages and beliefs but with a single voice, will help lead us to a brighter future.

With sincere gratitude,

Michael Thamm

The memorial was a visually dramatic element for the ceremony. Here is a description of the memorial: “The day of commemorations began when a section of the rock that tore a 70-metre (230-foot) gash in the ship’s hull was returned to the seabed. A crane mounted on a tug boat lowered the rock beneath the waves. A memorial plaque affixed to its side was all that distinguished it from the rocky coastline of the island of Giglio.”
The event actually generated a great deal of controversy and media coverage (legacy and digital) before is transpired. Survivors were sent letters by Costa Crociere SpA asking them not to attend the event due to space limitations. The focus was to be on the families and friends of the vicitms, not the survivors. Costa Crociere SpA and the municipality of Giglio were running ceremony. Here is a sample of the conflict:
“’We are sure that you will understand both the logistical impossibility of accommodating all of you on the island, as well as the desire for privacy expressed by the families at this sorrowful time,’ Costa chief executive Michael Thamm wrote in the letter obtained by The Associated Press.
He expressed sympathies to the survivors and said he trusted that their thoughts and prayers “will help lead us to a brighter future.”
While some survivors said they understood that the families who lost loved ones deserved particular attention, many of those who are still struggling to get through each day said the letter added insult to their injuries — both physical and psychological. Some speculated that the letter was more about keeping disgruntled passengers, many of whom have taken legal action against Costa, away from the TV cameras that have flooded the island for the anniversary.”

There was a compromise as survivors who did arrive in Giglio were accommodated. However, the memorial and commemoration was much more contentious than was planned making a healing event divisive in some respects.

Questions to Consider
1. Why was the idea of Costa Crociere SpA planning an anniversary and memorial a good idea?
2. How could Costa Crociere SpA have executed the anniversary and memorial more effectively?
3. What other factors can account for the tension between the survivors and Costa Crociere SpA?
4. What are the purposes of a memorial for a crisis? Does it seem like the Costa Concordia memorial will achieve these purposes? Why or why not?
5. What are the dangers when an organization becomes involved in memorial efforts?
6. There is a closed Facebook page for Costa Concordia survivors. How might this page have been of use when Costa Crociere SpA was planning the memorial and anniversary?

AIG: Promotion Its Payback

January 9, 2013

AIGIn 2008, there was a global meltdown of the financial markets.  Most experts feel the financial institutions and lax government policies contributed to this financial disaster.  Many companies did not survive.  In the U.S., a number of financial companies survived due to a bailout from the Federal government.  Among those receiving a bailout was AIG, a financial/insurance company.  AIG received a little over $182 billion dollars in the bailout.  In return, the U.S. government received stock in the company.  Taxpayers had mix reactions about their money being used to bailout financial companies that had helped to create the problem.  The term “too big to fail” was used as a justification.  In other words, these large companies were important and their failure would make the economic situation worse.  Even some experts thought the U.S. government would not recoup the money it loaned AIG.

By the end of 2012, the U.S. government had sold all of its shares of AIG and turned a profit of over $22 million on the deal.  Still the reputations of financial institutions that took bailouts remained grim.  Most people still disliked the bailouts and had negative views of financial institutions.

AIG decided to promote its repayment and thank the people of the U.S.  On January 1, 2013, AIG launched its “Thank You America” campaign.  Here is a description of the effort and comments from AIG:

“We at AIG are proud of not only our work to rebuild the company, but also the work we do every day to help guarantee that customers and communities are prepared for the opportunities and challenges ahead – work we never stopped doing, even during the depths of the financial crisis,” said AIG President and Chief Executive Officer Robert H. Benmosche. “We thank America for allowing us to insure a brighter future and to bring on tomorrow.”

The new campaign will run for two weeks, and will include broadcast, online, and print placements. Television ads will run on high impact programming: sporting events, including NCAA Football Bowl Championship Series games and NFL playoff games; national morning shows including The Today Show and Good Morning America; and primetime television, including The Golden Globes, 60 Minutes, and Dateline. Print ads will appear in upcoming issues of major publications, including The Economist, The Financial Times, The Houston Chronicle, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, USAToday, The Wall Street Journal, and major trade journals. Online ads buys include a masthead and mobile roadblock on YouTube, and homepage takeovers of,, and Yahoo!. The campaign will also be promoted on social media and can be seen on AIG’s YouTube channel.

AIG promoted the campaign on social media.  Its Facebook page had links to the campaign, its videos were on YouTube, and here is a Tweet about it:

AIG’s Thank You, America #ad just ran on the #BiggestLoser Are you watching? RT if you saw it, or catch it again here …

The campaign highlights the pay back but also shows the different ways AIG has been helping Americans recover from disasters such as Hurricane Sandy.  The message is a positive one of repayment and recovery for AIG and the U.S. We will have to see how people react to these messages.

Questions to Consider?

1.  What are the benefits to AIG of this campaign?

2.  What are the dangers to AIG of this campaign?

3.  Why would AIG be using such a heavy push in social media and legacy media?

4.  If you were at AIG, how would you defend taking the original bailout money?

5.  Why do financial institutions have a lingering reputation problem?

6.  What other actions need to be taken to help financial institutions repair their reputations and why will these actions help?

Nike “Gold Digging”

August 16, 2012

The US women just completed an amazing Olympics.  Blog writer loves track and field so I will mention the world recording 4 by 100 relay and a blistering 4 by 400 relay by the women runners.  Allyson Felix stood out by winning 3 gold medals and making the finals of the 100 meters.  If you like other sports there are story lines for those as well.

One thing the Olympics cannot escape is sponsorship issues.  The negatives for the US women revolved around sponsorship issues.  The issue as Rule 40.  Basically athletes cannot use the Olympics to market/promote no-Olympic sponsors.  That means Adidas is okay but not Nike.  So athletes like Sanya Richards-Ross complained about it.  This was commercial not free speech and detracted from Olympic performances.  The Olympics sets rules and participation is an honor not a right.  Detraction number 1.  Detraction number 2 was the controversy over the women’s soccer team donning shirts reading “Greatness has been found.”  It was considered gloating and in poor taste.  Again, it becomes about the sponsors and what they want harms the athletes.

Now Nike has a new shirt that is raising eyebrows and protests.  As full disclosure, I do not hate Nike.  In fact I own many Nike shoes and running apparel.  However, there are times when even companies you like do things that are questionable.  The new shirt is for women and says “Gold digging.”  The shirt is meant to be funny.  Gold digging is traditionally a women looking to romance/marry for money.  In this case it means winning gold at the Olympics.  We can question (1) is the joke funny at all and (2) is it more offensive than funny.  Here is one take on it:

We don’t like to be super sensitive about these things, but something about this seems… off. The t-shirt features metallic gold lettering and Nike’s signature check logo and is only available for women (because women presumably love to be called gold diggers). But we can’t help but wonder if some ladies will be less than pleased with this kind of depiction.”

Questions to Consider?

1.  Is the shirt situation a crisis or an incident for Nike?  Explain your decision.

2.  Is it unethical for non-Olympic sponsor to pressure athletes into marking for them during the Olympics?  Why or why not?

3.  What arguments can be made for and against the US Women’s Soccer Team wearing the victory shirts?

4.  Overall, how have Nike’s actions impacted potential customers, especially women?

5.  If you were Nike, how would you defend the gold digging shirt?Image

The Unhappy Meal: Santa Clara looks to ban unhealthy children’s meals with toys

April 28, 2010

An issues that been appearing off and on in the news for years has been childhood obesity in the U.S.  Kids in the U.S. eat unhealthy foods and generally weigh too much resulting in health problems.  The argument is that fast food restaurants target children with the marketing thereby encouraging them to eat unhealthy food.  Fast food restaurants spent over $1.6 billion in 2006 to target children.  One ploy is to put toys in the meals designed for children.  Children want the toys, children nag their parents, parents buy the meals, children eat unhealthy meal, and children become unhealthy.  We can argue with the links in this chain of logic but it is the fundamental argument in this case.  The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors considered a proposal that “the proposal would forbid the inclusion of a toy in any restaurant meal that has more than 485 calories, more than 600 mg of salt or high amounts of sugar or fat. In the case of McDonald’s, the limits would include all of the chain’s Happy Meals — even those that include apple sticks instead of French fries” (,0,6290206.story).

The idea is that the proposal would pressure fast food restaurants into creating more nutritious meal options for children.  A key concern is all the sodium, sugar, and fat that can be found in existing children’s meals.  Here is summary of the proposal from its creator:

“Ken Yeager, the Santa Clara County supervisor who is behind the effort, says the toys in kids’ meals are contributing to America’s obesity epidemic by encouraging children to eat unhealthful, fattening foods.  ‘People ask why I want to take toys out of the hands of children,’ said Yeager, who is president of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors. “But we now know that 70% of the kids that are overweight or obese will be overweight or obese as adults. Why would we want to burden anybody with a lifetime of chronic illness?’” (,0,6290206.story).

Every issue has at least two sides.  So who is arguing for unhealthy food that will children obese?  The answer is the California Restaurant Association (CRA) who see the issue differently.  Here is how their interpretation of the issue:

“’Ultimately, parents decide what their children eat and whether a meal includes a toy or not – that is the role of a parent,’ the CRA’s President + CEO Jot Condie said. ‘Based on our survey of the county’s residents, parents prefer to continue making those decisions, as opposed to following Supervisor Yeager’s proposal that would take that choice away. Saving us from our kids is overreaching. Most parents can resist their children’s pressure to get a toy. The county government does not need to serve as the parent of the parents.’

Most restaurants offer healthy options, such as fruit, sandwiches, milk, juice and water with kids’ meals. The variety of offerings continues to grow, but ultimately consumers want a choice in what items they can select for a kids’ meal when dining at a restaurant. Seventy-three percent of Santa Clara County residents agree that they should have the option of purchasing a meal at a restaurant that includes a toy or a gift.

“The restaurant industry works with policymakers every day to craft serious, comprehensive solutions to public health issues, including childhood obesity,” Condie said (

The CRA took their message to the people of Santa Clara through newspaper advertisements.  The CRA also conducted a poll and found that 80% of residents felt lawmakers should not be involved with this issue.  The poll had a sampling error no more than 4.1 percentage points with a 95 percent level of confidence.  However, we do not know the exact wording of the question in the survey used for the poll ( 

While in isolation the toy ban does not seem like much of an issue.  It is a limited proposal covering a very small geographic area.  However, the larger issue of childhood obesity in the U.S. is a serious concern.  Moreover, the childhood obesity issue is repeatedly being linked to fast food restaurants so there is reason for the restaurant industry to be concerned.

Questions to Consider

  1.  How viable is the CSR response that food choice is the responsibility of parents?
  2. How do the marketing actions of restaurants undercut parental decision making about what their children eat?
  3. What are the ethical considerations of marketing to children?  Should restaurants adopt a code governing marketing to children that covers the healthiness of the food being promoted?
  4. Which side of the issue would you support and why?
  5. How was each side using public relations in this issue management effort?
  6. What is the benefit of the CRA managing the issue rather than individual fast food restaurants?
  7. How might the issue of childhood obesity be a serious threat to the reputations and sales of fast food restaurants?

The Withheld Distracted Driver Information

July 21, 2009

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had data from research as early as 2003 showing the dangers of distracted drivers. This included information on cell phone use while driving. A key finding was that even headsets did not help. The conversations are the distraction, not using your hands to operate the cell phone. The information was not distributed to protect funding. Distribution could have been viewed as lobbying. You need to read the stories to make sense of that one. “The research findings were obtained by the Center for Auto Safety and Public Citizen through Freedom of Information requests, the Times said. The newspaper posted the documents on its Web site Monday night.”
This raises a number of issues for public relations.

Questions to Consider
1. Why was this risk information not communicated to constituents? Tax money funded the collection of the data so should not tax payers know the results?
2. What types of public relations problems does this create for the government?

3. How would you try to handle the situation now from a PR perspective?

4. What ethical issues and concerns do see in this case for communication?

5. Who benefited from this information being withheld?

6. Who was harmed from this information being withheld?

To see the document go to

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