This post is provided by the IPR Organizational Communication Research Center.
In today’s digital and social world, organizations are under constant scrutiny. The way an organization handled an internal crisis can easily go viral and be known to all, such as the Ctrip child abuse scandal, one of the biggest crises in China in 2017. Leading travel booking agency Ctrip suddenly found itself in a scathing crisis when its outraged employees circulated on social media footage of internal surveillance videos showing teachers punching these employees’ young children and force-feeding wasabi as punishment at its exclusive on-site employee daycare service center. The crisis sparked nationwide outcry. Some interesting questions that one may ask are: How should an organization appropriately manage a crisis like this? Is dialogue possible? What dialogic communication strategies could an organization employ to ensure long-term quality relationships with various publics, both internal and external? In this post, we introduce dialogic crisis communication strategies to internal communicators and the ramifications of internal crisis management on external audiences.
Crisis communication scholars noted four types of dialogic crisis communication strategies employed by organizations (Romenti, Murtarelli, & Valentini, 2014), i.e., concertative strategy, transformative strategy, framing strategy and generative strategy. Concertative strategy is used when organizations situate themselves in the center of a crisis, seeking approval and agreement from publics, potentially through apologia, denial, and information sharing. For example, Domino’s top management shifted blame to two branch employees and apologized amid their infamous 2009 YouTube prank crisis wherein the employees stuffed cheese in their noses and used it on a pizza. Transformative strategy follows an inside-out approach to create participatory environments for publics so they can freely speak up and transform organizational policies and practices to resolve a crisis. This strategy is usually manifested as corrective actions. Framing strategy takes an outside-in approach, positioning the involved organization as an outsider and shifting public discourse away from the organization in a crisis, whereas generative strategy promotes mutual exchange and trust between organizations and their publics.
In a recent mixed-method study based on qualitative content analysis and survey data (N = 575), we found that Ctrip resorted to concertative dialogic strategy at first, attacking and attempting to fire and silence whistle-blowing employees who circulated the surveillance video segments. As the crisis progressed, Ctrip was pressured into transformative dialogic strategy, turning to corrective actions such as compensating all victim employees and their families and shutting down the daycare center, as opposed to the more accommodative generative dialogic strategy. The consequence? External publics reported low trust and moderate distrust toward Ctrip. Distrusting external publics intended to boycott Ctrip and mobilize on media platforms to expose the organization. Compared with trust, distrust was more likely to motivate external publics’ communicative action intentions, especially threatening and mobilizing.
Two key insights are of value for internal communicators. First, the transformative and generative strategy are often neglected but should be the first choices in a crisis. Doing the right thing always seems to be the most difficult route but the actual short-cut to earning public trust. Second, internal crisis communication directly affects an organization’s relationships with external publics. An organization opting for genuine dialogue with employees could cultivate a trusting fan base among their external audiences, who are more supportive and forgiving of the organization in difficult times. This is particularly relevant in today’s post-truth environment wherein fake news spreads faster than factual information.
Hongmei Shen, Ph.D., APR, is a professor in public relations at the School of Journalism & Media Studies, San Diego State University. Follow Dr. Shen on Twitter: @profshen.
Yang Cheng (Ph.D. University of Missouri-Columbia) is an Assistant Professor at North Carolina State University.
Cheng, Y., Shen, H., & Jiang, Q. (in press). Corporate dialogue in crises of China: Examining dialogic strategies and communicative outcomes in a child abuse scandal. Public Relations Review. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pubrev.2019.101816
Romenti, S., Murtarelli, G., & Valentini, C. (2014). Organizations’ conversations in social media: Applying dialogue strategies in times of crises. Corporate Communications: An International Journal, 19(1), 10–33.