Timothy Coombs at Communication Science on the Spot

26 October 2016

During the first Communication Science on the Spot of this academic year, assistant professor Toni van der Meer interviewed Texas A&M University professor Timothy Coombs about managing organisational crises with communication.

In his role as crisis communication expert, Timothy Coombs posited the Situational Crisis Communication Theory (SCCT), which can be applied in an organisation’s crisis management. According to Coombs, approximately 80 percent of the organizational crises can be managed by the SCCT, though twenty percent of the crises are too chaotic to solve with specific guidelines. The majority of crises can be categorized as operational or reputational. Operational crises create some threat to public safety or stakeholder welfare, such as fires, CEO criminal actions, or product harm-driven recalls, which cannot be ignored by the organisation. Reputational crises (also known as social media crises) cause serious damage to an organisation’s reputation, such as corporate messages offending stakeholders. A reputational crisis requires a more pro-active response strategy.

But obviously an operational crisis can also have implications for an organization’s reputation. An example of this, according to Timothy, is how Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7 smartphones are overheating and catching fire. It has even been announced that all Samsung Galaxy Note 7 smartphones are banned from air transportation in the United States. Samsung was forced to issue a recall of its new smartphone, which resulted in a tremendous amount of damage to Samsung’s brand and reputation.

Informative cases can be solved publicly, whereas it is desirable to have discussions with stakeholders in private. Furthermore, a powerful and well considered crisis response is more important than its timing, but, as Timothy advises: do not take too long to undertake action. According to him, future research should focus on understanding and structuring strategies: “What is an apology strategy and what is the best way to implement this strategy?” Besides this, it is also interesting to explore how the media covers a crisis. Finally, the influence of multiple actors (e.g. government, NGOs etc.) has to be examined.

Timothy’s tip for future crisis communication professionals is preparation by retrieving and scanning available information. It is also crucial to regularly review template messages and update the crisis strategy. It is essential to prevent a crisis, but when a crisis does occur, do not step in too late!

Written by Susan Vermeer

About Prof. Timothy Coombs

Professor W. Timothy Coombs, PhD, is a full professor in the Department of Communication at Texas A&M University and an honorary professor at Aarhus University in Denmark. His research areas include crisis communication, activist use of the Internet to pressure organizational change and issues management. His award-winning book Ongoing Crisis Communication: Planning, Managing, and Responding is in its fourth edition and has been translated into Korean and Chinese. Dr. Coombs has worked with governments, corporations, and consulting firms in the US, Asia and Europe on ways to improve crisis communication efforts for themselves and their clients.

Coming up

On Tuesday 6 December Jessica Piotrowski will interview Maurice Wheeler, founder and strategy partner at the Little Big Partnership. Seats are limited, so sign up now. Hopefully we will see you then!

Published by  GSC