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A crisis can occur in a myriad of contexts, including organizational, family, national, or interpersonal. The communication before, during and after a crisis is a transactional activity that helps individuals or organizations to prepare for or cope with the crisis event (Reynolds & Seeger, 2005). Crisis communication is studied primarily in the context of organizations (e.g., Benoit 1995, Fearn-Banks, 2009), although it is critical in coping with crises in all contexts.
Organizational Crisis Communication
By definition, crisis communication in an organization is an interaction, dialogue, or conversation between an organization and its public and stakeholders before, during, and after the crisis occurrence (Benoit, 1995). In addition, crisis communication is a part of the crisis management process, which details a strategic plan and procedure for recovery for an organization that has suffered a negative impact as a result of a crisis and helps the organization to control the damaging situation (Coombs, 1999).
Prior to 1980, crisis communication was believed to be part of the process of organizational reputation recovery after the crisis (Gottschalk, 1993); however, according to Fearn-Banks, (2006) contemporary crisis communication is viewed as an ongoing process rather than a one-time strategic response. Public relations practitioners have echoed this more expansive view of crisis communication by including stages of a crisis including crisis planning, development of contingencies, risk identification, and crisis avoidance (Gudykunst, 2002).
Moreover, communication serves several important functions before, during, and after a crisis. First, resources for crisis response are systematically organized through communication (Heath, 2004). Professional crisis management agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) rely on communication for this function as a core element of crisis management procedures (Heath, 2004). In addition, communication can mitigate the damage of a crisis by coordinating the provision of tangible goods like insurance or organizational communication flow charts. According to enactment-based perspectives, communication frames the meaning of crisis events (Van Ruler & Vercic, 2005). Crisis participants determine the meaning of events through communication by asking questions of cause, blame, and the ultimate consequences of the crisis (Williams & Olaniran, 1998).
Family/Interpersonal Crisis Communication
Communication is also a central process in interpersonal and family crisis management. In fact, interpersonal influence was the earliest form of crisis communication, because information was passed through interpersonal channels before technology was possible (Garnett & Kouzmin, 2007). The primary mode of interpersonal crisis communication is face-to-face, and although this type of communication may lack the perspective of organizational communication, it often has more direct relevance (Garnett & Kouzmin, 2007). Moreover, communication functions to help individuals in families to resolve problems, promote resilience, and affirm beliefs (Walsh, 1996). Although this body of research is less developed than literature on organizational crisis communication, it does acknowledge the critical role of communication during a crisis.
Crisis Communication Research: The Role of Theory
Most research on crisis communication has focused on guidelines and procedures gathered from practitioners, rather than taking a more theoretical perspective (Ziaukas, 1999). However, Grunig (2002) argued that public relations and crisis communication need to conceptualize theoretical frameworks for their bodies of knowledge.
Modern research on crisis communication has developed in two directions (Hearit, 1995). One encompasses theoretical models on corporate apologia and impression management (e.g. Benoit, 1995, 1997; Coombs, 1995). The aim...