Narratives may facilitate crisis communication

June 3, 2016

Yan Huang

By Yan Huang, the Pennsylvania State University

An ongoing crisis often produces a high amount of uncertainty and anxiety among the public during a short period of time, often leading to undesirable outcomes to an organization and its stakeholders. It is critical for an organization involved in a crisis to respond promptly and appropriately to help reduce mounting negative consequences.

Researchers have long been interested in the effect of various response strategies. Traditional theories in crisis management including the image repair theory and situational crisis communication theory (SCCT) provide valuable insights into the design of a crisis response message in varying crisis situations. One important fact, however, has often been neglected. That is, audiences of a crisis response often view the message with resistance. Since negative interpretations of the crisis and unfavorable perceptions of the organization have already been triggered, a successful crisis response should be able to reduce audiences’ resistance in the first place. Only in this way will audiences be more engaged when processing the crisis information and receptive to its impact.

Narratives provide a potential solution to this. The powerful role of narratives in overcoming audiences’ resistance has been consistently demonstrated in the areas of entertainment education and health communication. However, the question of whether narratives can engage the public and assuage their adverse attitudes in the crisis context has rarely been tested. Narratives are quite suitable for describing and explaining a crisis situation because a crisis is essentially a story, characterized by a series of connected events. Telling stories when introducing and responding to a crisis will help the public make sense of the crisis and better understand the standing of the organization. In addition, the source of the crisis story (i.e., narrator) may make a difference as well because the appeal of narratives is often built on the extent to which message receivers are able to take the perspectives of the story characters or storytellers. While crisis responses are typically delivered officially by the spokesperson of an organization, it is interesting to examine whether a crisis story told by an employee in an informal manner would affect the impact of the crisis response.

With support from the Arthur W. Page Center, my project attempts to examine the influence of narratives and message source in the context of crisis management. It will contribute to the practice of crisis communication by examining narratives as a vehicle to deliver crisis responses, maximize audiences’ engagement with the crisis information, and facilitate organization-stakeholders’ communication during a crisis. Moreover, Page Principles suggest that “an enterprise's true character is expressed by its people.” While the majority of research in crisis communication focuses on how an organization communicates with its stakeholders, it is equally important to understand what the potential impact of employees’ communication activities is during a crisis. This project will also shed light on this question. Research is currently being conducted, and results should be ready in the fall 2016.