Crisis Communication: Theory and Practice

Joyce M. Wolburg (Marquette University, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA)

Journal of Consumer Marketing

ISSN: 0736-3761

Article publication date: 13 September 2011




Wolburg, J.M. (2011), "Crisis Communication: Theory and Practice", Journal of Consumer Marketing, Vol. 28 No. 6, pp. 459-460.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Crisis Communication: Theory and Practice is an unexpected find and an intriguing one at that. I say “unexpected” because I was eager to learn more about crisis communication, yet genuinely surprised to be so engaged in the subject matter.

What makes this book stand out is Alan Zaremba's ability to draw the reader in using a large number of cases that not only illustrate various strategies and theoretical concepts but make for fascinating stories. Take, for example, Case 4.1: “There Must Be Some Mistake,” in which a college professor who is highly revered at his institution, active within the local community, and nationally recognized for his accomplishments is arrested in Europe for possession of illegal drugs along with three male graduate students in a compromising situation (p. 77). Zaremba challenges readers to consider how best to address the situation if they work for the university and discover that the story is false. He asks readers: “Who would be your primary stakeholders? What messages would you relay? What methods would you employ to communicate the messages?” Then he turns the tables and asks the readers to consider their responses to the same questions upon discovery that the story is true. Additional questions address what other groups need to communicate regarding the incident, what the professor should do or say if he is innocent, and how the case could be analyzed by application of various theories (p. 78).

The book is very well organized. The initial chapter lays the foundation with five “immutable truths” about crisis communication, the first of which is “Crises are inevitable. Crisis communicators can and must acknowledge the inevitability of crises and plan for them before they occur” (p. 9). To drive the point home, Zaremba offers this bit of advice: “You fix your roof on a sunny day” (p. 15). Other “truths” include: “[…] transparent and honest communication has been proven to be a key to effective crisis communication; when in doubt follow a golden‐rule approach; an organization's culture can determine crisis communication success; and crisis communication requires training and skill sets that even bright executives may not possess” (pp. 11‐12).

Chapter 2 engages readers by first asking how to define a crisis. “Is a flood in the basement of your business a crisis? If the CEO of your company leaves to join a competing firm, is that a crisis? If a longtime employee has been exposed as a Nazi sympathizer, does your organization face a crisis?” The answer to all three is “yes” if the flood results in the loss of inventory and an inability to satisfy customers waiting for product; if the departure of a CEO causes a drop in stock prices; and if the community believes that a local company has harbored a Nazi (p. 20).

Zaremba then identifies five myths that he effectively dispels. One is Myth 3 – “Crisis communication is about spin control. The job of the crisis communicators is to spin a negative situation so it appears to be a positive one” (p. 27). Identifying this myth allows the author to share his initial title choice for the book, Spinning Just Makes You Dizzy: Crisis Communication Theory and Practices. Although “spinning” did not make it into the title, Zaremba identifies it as a counterproductive way of thinking that just makes the work of the crisis communicator more difficult in the long run. He convinces the reader why spin does not work, along with dispelling four other myths.

The book then moves to a discussion of theories that illuminate crisis communication (Chapter 3), offering planning strategies with step‐by‐step principles (Chapter 4), and it offers techniques for responding to a crisis (Chapter 5). Although crises may seem to the novice to be too variable to plan for, Zaremba maintains it is possible to develop effective strategies by categorizing crisis situations. A hurricane may be different than a tornado, but they are both part of a category of natural disasters. Similarly, industrial accidents, unexpected financial downturns, etc. can each broadly cover different types of crises. Once in a crisis situation, Zaremba recommends the honest and transparent strategy used by the Schwan Food Company in 1994 when faced with an outbreak of salmonella poisoning that affected 224,000 people. Schwan halted the sale of any products in question and took corrective action “even before they were compelled to take action, even before they were certain about the source of the problem, and even after they realized that a good case could have been made that they were not responsible” (p. 106).

Chapter 6 addresses the important ethical considerations and choices that crisis communicators make, and Chapters 7 and 8 offer practical insights for creating crisis communication teams and training the spokesperson. We learn that many crisis communication activities are done in teams instead of by a single representative of an organization; yet, the group dynamics in teams can work against a good outcome. Zaremba does an excellent job in Chapter 7 of addressing the dark side of teamwork and providing management strategies for bringing out the best in team members. Chapter 8 emphasizes the point that knowing what to do in a crisis does not guarantee doing it, for a successful outcome depends upon an effective spokesperson. Since company executives may not be skilled speakers or presenters, this chapter offers ways to increase effectiveness by identifying ways to deal with anxiety, comparing different delivery styles, noting key components of the message, providing tips on dealing with questions in Q&A sessions, and discussing ways that verbal and nonverbal communication affect delivery.

Chapter 9 (“Where Do You Go from Here?”) closes the book by examining the Bhopal disaster in light of the five foundational principles identified in Chapter 1. Bhopal is a fitting case to examine, particularly in light of the fact that 26 years later it still draws headlines and is regarded as the world's worst industrial disaster.

Crisis Communication: Theory and Practice brings the subject of crisis communication to life. It not only offers a knowledge set but each chapter provides practitioner perspectives and exercises to develop skills. The book offers professionals clear insights into one of the most demanding but fulfilling areas of public relations and gives academics a solid understanding of a scholarly area that will only gain importance over time. All in all, it's an exceptional read.

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