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When Crisis Knocks, Will You Know How to Answer?

A research-based approached to crisis response planning

Crisis Communication Planning Tools

We’ve all heard it: ‘It’s not what you say, but how you say it.’ But this may not hold true during an organizational crisis. In times of crisis, protecting your company’s valuable reputation may be all about what you say AND how you say it. 

Crisis communication management is multi-faceted, and it can be daunting. This post is the first of a two-part series on the Situational Crisis Communication Theory (SCCT). Using the SCCT can help protect your organization’s reputation by planning appropriate responses for a number of potential crisis circumstances. This post will outline the SCCT research and crisis identification guidelines.  The follow-up post will discuss how to use potential crisis categorization to plan appropriate response strategies. 

Response strategy selection is aided by W. Timothy Coombs, one of the leading researchers on SCCT. He offers up a helpful study entitled The Protective Powers of Crisis Response Strategies: Managing Reputational Assets During a Crisis‘. Coombs tested how people actually perceive crisis response strategies. Using the test results, Coombs then developed recommendations on choosing an appropriate crisis response strategy. When dealing with something as important as your business’ reputation, why gamble with choosing the wrong response if you can use responses proven to be effective in a given situation? 

 Theoretical Overview

Let’s protect that good reputation of yours-we’ll start with a brief overview of SCCT and its foundations. SCCT has been developed as one vein of the larger body of crisis communications research, and this theory was developed to help professionals select responses appropriate for the crisis characteristics. This theory asserts that potential reputational damage caused by a crisis comes from the organization’s response to a crisis and intensifying factors like severity of damage and crisis history. Using SCCT can help you identify the crisis type by outlining the severity of damage, crisis history and relationship history. These intensifying factors are indications of how much reputational damage may be caused. We’ll use past NFLâ„¢ scandals to illustrate this point. Both the O.J. Simpson trial and the New Orleans Saints’â„¢ bounty program intensify the league’s current domestic abuse issues. 

Start with Crisis Categorization

Coombs asserts that if the crisis type is defined, the selected crisis will fall into one of three crisis clusters: victim, accidental and preventable. As we progress through the cluster hierarchy, the responsibility of the organization increases. Coombs notes that when a crisis is severe it should be elevated to the next cluster level. Here are definitions of crises that fall into each cluster:

Victim cluster-in these crises the organization also suffers. Potential crises in this cluster may include: 

  • Natural disasters
  • Rumors including false and damaging information about the company
  • Workplace violence 
  • Product tampering

The algal toxins found in Toledo, OH’s water supply this summer are an example of a crisis in the victim cluster category. While the potentially dangerous water impacted 400 thousand people, the City of Toledo’s reputation was also damaged.

Accidental cluster-actions taken by the organization that led to the crisis situation were unintentional. Potential crises may include: 

  • Challenges where the stakeholders claim the company or organization is operating inappropriately
  • Technical breakdown accidents
  • Recalls where technology failure causes accidents or product recalls 
  • Mega-damage or accidents that cause major environmental or human harm. 

An example of an accidental cluster is the BP® oil spill off the gulf coast caused major environmental harm and financial trouble for businesses throughout the region.

Preventable cluster-these types of crises involve inappropriate, intentional actions by an organization that place people at risk or broke the law. Crises in this category may include: 

  • Industrial accidents
  • Product recalls caused by human error
  • Deception of stakeholders with or without injury 
  • Management violations 

Examples of crises from the preventable cluster include the Enron® scandal and the faulty ignitions in General Motors® vehicles. 

Protect your organization’s reputation. Put SCCT to work. 

You can start using SCCT by making a list of potential crises your organization could face. When making your list, try to be as exhaustive as possible. Consider: 

  • Your industry-what past or current crises are impacting your own and related industries?
  • Your competitors-what issues have they been facing? 
  • Past crises-how have relationships with stakeholders have evolved since any past crises. 
  • Environmental factors-are you at risk for natural disasters or accidentally causing environmental harm?
  • Human error-is your team at risk of making errors with negative consequences?
  • Rumors-is your team facing any negative speculation? 
  • Stakeholder grievances-are any of your stakeholders holding a grudge against your company?

The more complete your list, the better. Using your list of potential crises, start to categorize them into one of the three clusters. Keep in mind any intensifying factors that may increase the crisis severity. 

In part two of this post, we’ll discuss response options. Then we will use your list of potential crises to plan appropriate responses using recommendations from Coombs research. 


Coombs, W. T. “Choosing the Right Words: The Development of Guidelines for the Selection of the “Appropriate” Crisis-Response Strategies.” Management Communication Quarterly 8.4 (1995): 447-76. Web. 4 Sept. 2014.

Coombs, W. Timothy. “The Protective Powers of Crisis Response Strategies: Managing Reputational Assets During a Crisis.” Journal of Promotion Management 12.3/4 (2006): 241-60. Web. 20 Aug. 2014.

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