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Crisis communication: why denying responsibility doesn't work

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Denying responsibility has been the go-to crisis communication method for many PR professionals. But research shows that denial is often the wrong approach – especially if your organisation is, in fact, guilty.

Image: crisis communication

Researchers at Texas A&M University and KU Leuven gathered responses to different crisis communication strategies, as a way to test the effectiveness of denial as a crisis communication strategy. Their study shows that while crisis communication may be a delicate task, there are still some fairly hard-and-fast rules that everyone should follow.

It turns out that honesty counts for a lot, and in most situations, denying responsibility will only cause more damage to the firm (as well as exacerbating the image problem faced by corporate communication professionals!).

I caught up with Professor W. Timothy Coombs, one of the experts behind the research, to find out more.

In your research, you found that denial isn’t always the best way to deal with a crisis. Why not?

Denial is ineffective any time an organisation has some responsibility for a crisis. People reject the denial, and rightly so, if the organisation has a real connection to the crisis.

In fact, the reputational damage from the predicament is increased when denial is used and the organisation is found to have responsibility for the event. Basically, disowning the event makes a crisis worse for an organisation when the organisation is guilty of being involved.

So when is denial an effective strategy?

Denial is effective when the organisation is not involved in a crisis. When an event escalates sometimes companies can get implicated when they have no responsibility or input. An example of when denial is useful is when it can be used to correct misinformation. For instance, when the crisis is in your industry but does not involve your product even though people think it does, or when the name of your company is similar to a company in crisis and people confuse the two. Denial is only an option when the organisation can demonstrate it is not connected to a crisis and has done nothing wrong.

Image: crisis communication

"Denial is only an option when the organisation can demonstrate it is not connected to a crisis and has done nothing wrong."

Can your research tell us anything about the use of denial strategies in other spheres, such as politics?

Political crises are more complex than organisational crises because the accountability is different. Companies can see immediate loss of sales and drop in stock prices but politicians are often insulated from immediate negative impacts. Elections are the accountability measure for most politicians, along with public opinion polls to some degree. Denial might be more viable in politics because loyal supporters accept the denial even when there is evidence to the contrary. More research is needed on denial in the political crisis context.

Sometimes it’s not immediately clear who is responsible in crisis situations. What should companies do if they are uncertain about who the blame lies with?

Many crises are ambiguous at the start because responsibility is unclear. There are a few studies that look directly at ambiguous crises. The data suggests avoiding both denial and apology when the crisis is ambiguous. Decision makers within the company should recognise they might be responsible and are waiting for the outcome of further investigations. When necessary, they should express sympathy and say how they are working to prevent a repeat of the crisis, what is known as adjusting information in crisis communication. This is a safe route that shows concern for the affected without fully accepting responsibility at the start. The odds are good the organisation will have some degree of responsibility and that is why avoiding denial in ambiguous crises is a smart move. Courts understand degrees of responsibility – people often just see guilty or innocent.

Image: Pointing the blame. Crisis communication

When a company finds itself in crisis, what is the best way to soothe public outrage?

Outrage is a result of people feeling there has been a significant violation of their expectations and people have been treated unfairly. The response must show concerns for victims (adjusting information), take responsibility for the crisis, and recognise what the organisation did was wrong. People want decision makers to acknowledge the behaviour that lead to the crisis was wrong and that the managers understand why people are upset. This is a unique aspect of outrage, it has a strong moral component that must be addressed along with victim concerns and responsibility.

"People want managers to acknowledge the behaviour that lead to the crisis was wrong and that the managers understand why people are upset."

Does your research show that honesty is always the best policy?

The data from the research I and other crisis communication researchers have done generally supports the idea that honesty is the best policy. For instance, research into the stealing thunder strategy shows that when the organisation is the first to disclose a crisis, the crisis does less damage to the organisation. There are some limits to stealing thunder, such as companies with bad prior reputations get less of a benefit from it, but it is a consistently positive outcome in the research. Honesty is not the same as full disclosure. Managers must disclose any information related to the safety of stakeholders, which is called instructing information (it helps people to protect themselves physically from a crisis). However, some information may not be disclosed for various reasons, including legal concerns.

Read the research ▶

Image: Timothy Coombs.The research this interview is based on is "Debunking the myth of denial’s effectiveness in crisis communication: context matters" in the Journal of Communication Management.

Timothy Coombs is a Professor at Texas A&M University and a leading thinker in the field of crisis communication.

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