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Victims or conspirators? Understanding a hot-issue public’s online reactions to a victim cluster crisis

Arunima Krishna (Department of Mass Communication, Advertising and Public Relations, Boston University, Boston, Massachusetts, USA)
Kelly S. Vibber (Department of Communication, University of Dayton, Dayton, Ohio, USA)

Journal of Communication Management

ISSN: 1363-254X

Article publication date: 7 August 2017




The purpose of this paper is to qualitatively understand the reactions of online publics to a victim cluster crisis as the crisis unfolds and offer a new way of tracking online hot-issue publics using comments on online news articles.


This research uses a mixed-methods approach, employing both descriptive quantitative techniques and qualitative thematic analysis.


Qualitative analyses of online news comments on BuzzFeed and the Huffington Post revealed that publics’ reaction to the cyber-attack on Sony, the following threats of attack, and Sony’s response to it largely ran counter to the situational crisis communication theory’s (SCCT) assumptions about victim cluster crises. Analyses also revealed a pattern in the volume of comments on the two online news outlets, supporting the conceptualization of hot-issue publics growing and decreasing as news coverage of an issue rises and falls.

Research limitations/implications

The analysis was limited to one incident and two online media.

Practical implications

This paper provides empirical support for the use of online news comments to track hot-issue publics and what is important to them. In addition, tracking the tone and content of the comments allows for an examination of the fit of SCCT assumptions and provides a way for practitioners to understand public opinion and adapt communication plans based on insights gleaned from such data.


This study is one of few to provide empirical support for the conceptualization of hot-issue publics, and to do so using online news comments. In addition, it is one of very few to study the SCCT in real-world settings, examining real publics’ reactions to real issues.



Krishna, A. and Vibber, K.S. (2017), "Victims or conspirators? Understanding a hot-issue public’s online reactions to a victim cluster crisis", Journal of Communication Management, Vol. 21 No. 3, pp. 303-318.



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2017, Emerald Publishing Limited

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