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Is the medium the message? Perceptions of and reactions to crisis communication via twitter, blogs and traditional media

1. Purpose of the research

Social media play an increasing role in the social construction of crises (e.g., by protest actors, NGOs), but also in the social deconstruction of crises by corporate actors. Corporations regard blogs and twitter often as efficient communication tools for ‘repairing’ the reputation and preventing boycott in crisis situations. They are in general seen as more dialogic, interactive and faster instruments for the building of relations (e.g., Kent et al., 2003, Schultz and Wehmeier, 2010 and White and Raman, 1999, p. 405) than classic media. However, the effects of different media and especially social media on recipients in crisis situations are still understudied. To fill this gap, the paper examines the effects of different crisis communication strategies via different media on reputation. It overcomes technology-deterministic as well as organization-centred perspectives by taking the dialogical potentials of social media serious. To do so, we analyze also the effects of crisis communication via different media on the recipients’ crisis communication and reactions.

2. Literature review and theoretical framework

Crisis communication research mainly deals with the interrelationships between crisis situations, communication strategies and crisis perceptions. An organizational crisis can be defined as a specific, unexpected and non-routine event or series of events that create high levels of uncertainty and threaten, or are perceived to threaten, an organization's high priority goals (Seeger, Sellnow, & Ulmer, 1998). A crisis disrupts the social order, affects the interaction of stakeholders with the organization (Dowling, 2002), and tends to damage the organization's reputation and legitimacy (e.g., Patriotta, Gond, & Schultz, in press). Reputation is often regarded as a valuable, intangible asset relevant for financial success of the organization (e.g., Fombrun and Gardberg, 2000 and Fombrun and van Riel, 2004). It can be defined as “a perceptual representation of a company's past actions and future prospects that describe the firm's appeal to all of its key constituents” (Fombrun, 1996, p. 165). Reputation develops through the information stakeholders receive about the organization from interactions with the organization and the news media, but also through second-hand information (e.g., word-of-mouth, weblogs, news; Coombs & Holladay, 2007). In crisis situations, the damage of an organizations’ reputation is often positively related to the perceptions of responsibility for the crisis (‘crisis responsibility’) and specific characteristics of the crisis situation (e.g., Coombs and Holladay, 1996, Coombs and Holladay, 2002 and Coombs and Schmidt, 2000). In intentional crises situations (e.g., Coombs, 1995, Coombs and Holladay, 2002 and Coombs and Holladay, 2004), for example, the attribution of responsibility and therefore the danger of reputational threat is the highest (Coombs, 2004). Organizations in turn react on crises and reputational threats communicatively. Analyses of such crisis responses argue that different crisis response strategies differentially affect a variety of important crisis communication outcomes including organizational reputation, but also anger, negative word-of-mouth and account acceptance (e.g., Coombs & Holladay, 2009).

Within this field of research, two central research gaps can be identified. Although crisis communication research has moved beyond case-study-based predictions about the effect of response strategies towards experimental research on the perception of crisis responses in the last few years (Arpan and Roskos-Ewoldsen, 2005, Coombs and Holladay, 2008, Dean, 2004 and Huang et al., 2005), the impact of different media types on the effects of different crisis response strategies is still understudied (e.g., Coombs & Holladay, 2009). While the integration of the internet and social web into crisis communication is discussed intensively (e.g., Liu, 2010, Taylor and Kent, 2007 and Taylor and Perry, 2005), the effects of crisis communication via blogs and twitter in comparison to traditional media have not yet been analyzed experimentally.

Furthermore, crisis communication research needs to overcome organization-centred and simplistic communication models, which focus on the recipients’ constructions of crisis responsibility or reputation and infer stakeholders’ reactions in a structuralist manner. As suggested by Schultz and Raupp (2010), a more complex perspective on crisis communication needs to take into account the interactive and inter-organizational negotiation of reality by affected organizations and stakeholders over time. Recently, research has started to analyze this interplay by focussing on behavioural intentions (purchase intentions) and negative word-of-mouth intentions (Coombs and Holladay, 2007, Coombs and Holladay, 2008 and Coombs and Holladay, 2009). Word-of-mouth refers to comments stakeholders make about organizations, for example on the internet. Negative word-of-mouth might hurt the organizations’ reputation (Tucker & Melewar, 2005) and, by spreading unfavourable information from person to person, might affect present and future purchase intentions (Coombs & Holladay, 2007). Building on this idea, the effects of different response strategies on various forms of stakeholders’ crisis communication and reactions need to be analyzed more detailed.

This study overcomes both research deficits by experimentally analyzing the effects of apology, sympathy and information as response strategies via different traditional and social media on crisis perceptions (reputation) and secondary crisis communication. As secondary crisis communication we assess the recipients’ intentions to tell friends about the crisis, to share the received information with others and to leave comments. We also assess behavioural intentions such as the willingness to boycott the organization and to persuade others to do so as secondary crisis reactions.

Crisis communication research often argues that, apart from the general demand for information created by the crisis, response strategies should be less defensive and more accommodative, the greater the crisis responsibility generated by the crisis (e.g., Coombs and Holladay, 1996, Coombs and Holladay, 2002 and Coombs and Schmidt, 2000). It assumes that the acceptance of responsibility in apologies leads to more positive reactions and higher organizational reputation (e.g., Bradford & Garrett, 1995). Recent experimental research challenges these assumptions to some extent. By focusing on victims’ needs, not only apology, but also sympathy turned out to positively shape recipients perceptions of the organization. In contrast, providing information did not overcome the reputation problems, probably because providing information in a crisis is regarded as a necessary action (Coombs & Holladay, 2008). An organization that takes the responsibility or expresses sympathy with the victims, for example, is regarded as more honourable and sympathetic (Coombs & Schmidt, 2000). It can therefore be assumed that both strategies, apology and sympathy, lead to higher reputation than the information strategy.