How can effective crisis communication help business, industry and government
entities generate or maintain positive perception in the public at large?
I would like to make one note before you begin reading the following bibliography. Crisis
Communication is an issue that spans different disciplines – professionals and academics in management,
communications and public relations all have an interest in it. When reading the annotations below, it
might also help to pay attention to the title of the journal where the article came from. PR and
Management journals take a decidedly more practical approach to crisis communications than do
communications journals – thus, if your interest is in practical application, you may find those resources
more helpful – if your interest is more academic, the opposite may be true.
*Asterisks denote seminal works.
Argenti, Paul. “Reputation: Realizing Value From the Corporate Image.” Management Communication
Quarterly 11.2 (1997): 310-313.
This is actually a review of Charles Fombrun’s book Reputation: Realizing Value From the
Corporate Image. I’ve included it in the bibliography because it gives a nice perspective of the overall
issue of corporate crisis communication and does a good job of explaining the value of Fombrun’s
concept of reputational capital – as Argenti paraphrases: “…corporations that create goodwill, build
credibility with a variety of constituencies, and generally do the right thing are more likely to have
favorable reputations with those same constituencies.” Argenti approaches his review from the
managerial standpoint – reading Fombrun’s work as a corporate manager, which of course is a different
perspective than that of an academic researcher. This review helps a reader understand the practicality of
corporate communication and Fombrun’s theory. It helps a reader frame the theory and apply it.
*Benoit, William. Accounts, Excuses and Apologies: A Theory of Image Restoration Strategies.
Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995.
This book was written in 1995, but seems to be a seminal piece in the study of crisis
communication. A large number of the articles listed in this bibliography refer to this book as a primary
source. In it, Benoit asserts that human beings (and the companies run by them) take action to save face
when their reputations are attacked. Benoit presents the theory of “image restoration strategy” – the way
in which people and companies attempt to restore their reputation or image after an attack. This is a good
“benchmark” piece – Benoit does a nice job of both going over past research in the area and applying his
theories to modern examples. (The Exxon Valdez and the Pepsi/Coke cola wars, for example.) I would
advise starting research into crisis communication with this book.
Benoit, William. “Another Visit to the Theory of Image Restoration Strategies.”
Communication Quarterly 48.1 (2000): 40-42.
Benoit revisits his theory. This article is actually a companion piece to the article by Judith Burns
and Michael Bruner. (See below) Benoit is responding to their comments. Among other things, he writes
that he now prefers the term “image repair” to “image restoration” because restoration to the pre-crisis
reputation may not be possible. He also addresses questions Burns and Bruner raise about audience, the
supposedly static nature of his rhetorical viewpoint, and whether or not Benoit can effectively assess his
research. This article is interesting because it 1.) Allows the reader to see how Benoit’s theory changed
over time and 2.) Allows the reader to observe a “dialogue” between Benoit and his critics.
Benoit, William, and Anne Czerwinski. “A Critical Analysis of USAir’s Image Repair Discourse.”
Business Communication Quarterly 60.3 (1997): 38-57.
Explores USAir’s attempts to repair its image in the wake of a September 1994 crash near
Pittsburgh. At the time, The New York Times published an article challenging USAir’s safety record –
this article explores USAir’s response to the allegations. The article briefly explains the standard crisis
communication/image restoration strategies (denial, evading responsibility, reducing the offensiveness of
the act, corrective action, mortification) and how USAir applied them. This article is very focused, and
analyzes the specific USAir ads in a very detailed way. That makes this article different and noteworthy
from the others – whereas many articles focus on the broader concept of crisis communication and take a
general look at certain examples, this article analyzes the minutiae of USAir’s campaign. That is helpful
in terms of seeing how image restoration theory is applied in the “real world.”
Benoit, William. “Image Repair Discourse and Crisis Communications.” Public Relations
Review 23.2 (1997): 177-186.
This article was written two years after Benoit’s book – it’s interesting to note that by this time,
he has abandoned the term “restoration” in favor of “repair”(see above). The article describes his theory
and suggests application for corporate use. That firm correlation between theory and use in the corporate
world makes this article especially applicable to the study of how business and government utilize crisis
communication – Benoit takes his rhetoric one step beyond theory to application. This article doesn’t
necessarily break any new ground in terms of his theory, but it does discuss the application specifically in
a corporate setting, which sets it apart from Benoit’s other writings.
*Brinson, Susan L., and William Benoit. “Dow Corning’s Image Repair Strategies in the Breast Implant
Crisis.” Communication Quarterly 4.1 (1996) 29-41.
This article examines the success of Dow Corning’s image repair strategies in the wake of the
silicone breast implant debacle. The company was forced to launch an image repair campaign, all the
while maintaining the safety of the silicone breast implant. I have listed this article as seminal because it
is referred to repeatedly in the articles and research I have read. That may be due to its timing – coming
out one year after Benoit’s book (another seminal piece) and the fact that it examines a highly publicized
corporate crisis. This article is also interesting because of the role the FDA played in the silicone implant
incident – a reader can also see how a corporation deals with criticism/attack from a powerful government
Burns, Judith, and Michael Bruner. “Revisiting the Theory of Image Restoration Strategies.”
Communication Quarterly 48.1 (2000): 27-37.
This article addresses Benoit’s theory – Benoit responds in the same issue. (See above) While
Burns and Bruner take issue with certain aspects of Benoit’s theory, the article in noteworthy for another
reason – it specifically examines Benoit’s theory as it applies to corporations because of “the power and
influence of large corporations today and the interest in corporate discourse among scholars in impression
management, organizational communication, risk assessment and applied communication research.”
Cowden, Kimberly, and Timothy Sellnow. “Issues Advertising as Crisis Communication: Northwest
Airlines Use of Image Restoration Strategies During the 1998 Pilot’s Strike.” The Journal
Of Business Communication 39.2 (2002): 193-219.
This article explores the use of issues-based advertising as a form of crisis communication;
specifically how Northwest Airlines used advertising to protect its image during the 1998 pilot’s strike.
The article also touches upon the concept of corporate social responsibility and social legitimacy and the
role they play in influencing communication during a crisis, and addressing various publics during a
crisis. This article includes good overviews of numerous theories in crisis communication. The
perspective in this article is interesting because it examines how a company communicates when the
“cause” of the so- called crisis is a faction within the same company (the pilots) – in this case, how can
Northwest Airlines sway public opinion without undermining its own legitimacy?
Duke, Shearlean, and Lynne Masland. “Crisis Communication by the Book.” Public Relations
Quarterly 47.3 (2002): 47-55.
An interesting look at how one college handled a crisis on campus – the death of a student. The
authors examine how the crisis unfolded and how decisions related to academic research. This is a very
practical guide to crisis communication and management – a good primer for anyone having to
communicate during a crisis.
Elwood, William N., ed. Public Relations Inquiry as Rhetorical Criticism: Case Studies
of Corporate Discourse and Social Influence. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1995.
This work is from 1995 – but it is an excellent resource, and that is why it is included. It details
the evolution of public relations and “persuasive rhetoric” – a seedling of crisis communication, and
contains case studies on various issues. Not all of them relate to crises – although a good number do – but
they all contain excellent information about the importance of communicating your message effectively
and the consequences of failing to do so. A good primer, and a great foundation upon which to build.
Fishman, Donald A. “ValuJet Flight 592: Crisis Communication Theory Blended and Extended.”
Communication Quarterly 47.4 (1999): 345-375.
This article uses the crash of ValuJet 592 in 1996 as a backdrop to analyze several different
theories of crisis communication, among them defining “crisis”, image restoration and focusing events.
The discussion of Fink’s Natural History theory and Birkland’s focusing event theory make this article
especially useful – both offer a varying definition to a crisis and how it unfolds.
Fombrun, Charles. Reputation: Realizing Value from the Corporate Image. Boston:
Harvard Business School Press, 1996.
See the review above – Fombrun examines the idea of corporate reputation – and defines
“reputational capital” – the success a particular business has because of its good reputation. Others have
defined good will as an aspect of successful communication during a crisis – Fombrun defines it in a
different way – more or less adding to the theory. The book adds another layer to the concept of good will
and its role in crisis communication.
Hearit, Keith Michael. “The Use of Counter-Attack in Apologetic Public Relations Crises:
The Case of General Motors vs. Dateline NBC.” Public Relations Review 22.3
This article examines how GM successfully used counter attack measures to restore its image in
the wake of Dateline NBC report that alleged certain GM gas tanks explode on impact during accidents.
GM was able to attack Dateline’s facts and findings – eventually winning an apology from the network.
This instance is one of the few in which counter attack measures have been successful – it is interesting to
note Dateline’s mistakes and how they contributed to GM’s success.
Lukaszewski, James E. “Establishing Individual and Corporate Crisis Communication Standards:
The Principles and Protocols.” Public Relations Quarterly 42.3 (1997): 7-14.
A practical guide to establishing crisis communication standards and protocols. Examines the
importance of adhering to certain communication standards (willingness to respond, honesty, etc.) and
priorities. This article also addresses fundamental communication principles for companies and
individuals (respond quickly, take appropriate responsibility, etc.) User friendly and practical.
Seeger, Matthew, and Robert Ulmer. “A Post-Crisis Discourse of Renewal: The Cases of Malden Mills
and Cole Hardwoods.” Journal of Applied Communication Research 30.2 (2002): 126-137.
This article examines how crisis can lead to corporate renewal, and also how a company’s good
will (called reputational capital in Fombrun’s book) can stave off criticism during a crisis. The article
focuses on fires at two companies. In both cases, the owners pledged to re-build and kept employees on
the payroll. Seeger and Ulmer maintain that the owners were able to avoid blame and ill will by “doing
the right thing.” An interesting companion piece to Fombrun’s book.
Seeger, Matthew, and Robert Ulmer. “Virtuous Responses to Organizational Crisis: Aaron Feuerstein
and Milt Cole.” Journal of Business Ethics 31.4 (2001): 369-376.
This article highlights the fires mentioned above – but focuses instead on the owners virtuous
responses in the wake of the fires and their business ethics. The article contains much of the same
reference and ideas as the article above, with a different focus.
Sellnow, Timothy, Robert Ulmer, and Michelle Snider. “The Compatibility of Corrective Action in
Organizational Crisis Communication.” Communication Quarterly 46.1 (1998): 60-74.
Explores how corrective action relates to other image restoration strategies in a crisis. Corrective
action can create conflict in a company – between those who feel it is necessary and those who feel that
taking the corrective action is an admission of guilt and thus an invitation to legal action. The authors
argue that corrective action can actually enhance the benefits of other image restoration strategies, and
speed repair of the company’s image.
Sellnow, Timothy, and Jeffery Brand. “Establishing the Structure of Reality for an Industry:
Model and Anti-model Arguments as Advocacy in Nike’s Crisis Communication.”
Journal of Applied Communication Research 29.3 (2001): 278-295.
Chronicles the efforts of Nike to battle allegations that it used low wage workers in sweatshops to
manufacture goods abroad. The authors examine the concept that in some cases, a crisis within a
particular company can spark a debate that applies to the industry as a whole, (Nike/foreign labor, Jack in
the Box/higher meat inspection standards, Exxon Valdez/better oil transport rules) thus lessening the
damage to the company and raising its standing as a socially responsible corporation.
Sellnow, Timothy, and Matthew Seeger. “Exploring the Boundaries of Crisis Communication:
The Case of the Red River Valley Flood.” Communication Studies 52.1 (2001): 153-167.
This article details the crisis communication that arose from the Red River Valley Flood in 1997.
While this article touches upon the basics of crisis communication – applied research, apologia, etc. it
also examines chaos theory, and how it’s being applied in terms of analyzing crisis communication. The
inclusion of chaos theory makes this article an interesting read. This article also addresses the
communication of government entities during the flood – the corps of engineers, various governments –
many of the articles on crisis communication deal with corporate issues, so a researcher interested in
government response would find this article helpful.
Small, William J. “Exxon Valdez: How to Spend Billions and Still Get a Black Eye.”
Public Relations Review 17.1 (1991) 9-25.
This article is “old” – but it is very well written and highly detailed. It gives the reader a blow by
blow account of the Exxon Valdez incident and Exxon’s abysmal communication efforts. This is a
practical guide to the pitfalls and errors a company can make.
Stanton, Peter. “Ten Communications Mistakes You Can Avoid When Managing a
Crisis.” Public Relations Quarterly 47.2 (2002) 19-22.
This is a practical guide to designing a crisis communication plan. Published after 9-11, it details
the necessity of a CCP, guides readers through the steps of creating a CCP and warns of mistakes to avoid
during a crisis. This article is a good example of applying the research on crisis communication in a
Ulmer, Robert, and Timothy Sellnow. “Consistent Questions of Ambiguity in Organizational Crisis
Communication: Jack in the Box as a Case Study.” Journal of Business Ethics 25.2 (2000):
This article examines the Jack in the Box e-coli crisis within the framework of stakeholder theory
and strategic ambiguity. Stakeholder theory basically contends that an organization is affected by any
number of audiences or stakeholders – consumers, employees, suppliers, etc. and that a crisis in turn
affects not just the organization but the stakeholders as well. Strategic ambiguity is the use of ambiguity
in crafting messages – in many cases so that they appeal to a wider audience. In this case, the authors
contend that Jack in the Box issued confusing and ambiguous statements regarding their responsibility in
the e-coli outbreak to protect their image and the “internal” stakeholders (owners, stockholders – the
value of the company’s stock plunged during this incident.) The authors criticize the company’s action as
unethical. The focus on ethics in this article makes it noteworthy.
*Ulmer Robert, and Timothy Sellnow. “Strategic Ambiguity and the Ethic of Significant Choice in the
Tobacco Industry’s Crisis Communication.” Communication Studies 48.3 (1997): 215-233.
This article also focuses on the theory of strategic ambiguity – the main theme being that an
organization can emphasize an interpretation that reflects favorably upon it. The article combines the use
of strategic ambiguity with something called significant choice – which, in this case, essentially means
that an agency or company has a social responsibility to provide accurate information to the public so that
the public can make informed choices of its own. The authors contend that in some cases, the use of
strategic ambiguity is unethical because it violates the principle of significant choice – as in the case of
the tobacco industry’s failure to acknowledge the addictive nature of cigarettes and disclose its practice of
manipulating nicotine levels to maintain addiction. This article (and the one above) is noteworthy for their
emphasis on the ethics of communication. I have marked this piece as seminal because of its focus on
significant choice. In the current corporate culture – Enron, Martha Stewart, etc. – a guide to the social
implications of a company’s communication is important.