yan jinThis is the third in a series of blog posts sponsored by the Social Science for Social Media Research Center at the Institute for Public Relations.

When Joseph Campbell talked about the power of myth, he described the vast mystery of our human life that lies fathomless underneath the surface of ocean: It can be intimidating and even appalling if one happens to fall in the ocean in the mid of the night and does not know how to swim. In contrast, for someone who does have the awareness and knowledge of the ocean and who has the strength and skill to swim, falling into the ocean is no longer a terror but rather a practice of diving into the unknown and being in accord with the nature.

Thus, Joseph Campbell wrote “When you are falling… dive.”  It not only provides a fearless perspective of how we deal with the infinite unknown in our life but also can be reflected upon when organizations manage competitions and conflicts, which are a constant in any business environment.  The ubiquitous presence and significant influence of social media only add more turbulent waves to the challenge of effectively and ethically managing conflicts, issues and risks as they are being created, unfolded, and sometimes even escalated into real crises.

Related to the psychology in social-mediated crisis communication, my co-author, Dr. Brooke Fisher Liu at University of Maryland, and I reviewed the literature in rumor psychology and integrated it into the Blog-Mediated Crisis Communication (BMCC) model, which was later developed further into the Social-Mediated Crisis Communication (SMCC) model with the joint efforts from other scholars such as Dr. Lucinda Austin at Elon University.  To understand how rumor, risk and crisis information are created, spread, and amplified via social media, crisis managers must not only focus on assessing the situational and organizational factors but also have an authentic understanding of the coping mechanism of publics as individuals, groups, and entities.

Psychological theories and empirical findings have provided this important first lesson when it comes to deal with any stressful situation:  As human beings, when confronted by stress (rumor, risk and crisis included), our innate response is to cope with the stressful situation on our own.  There are many ways to cope, which can be grouped into emotional coping (e.g. emotional expression and emotional support), cognitive coping (e.g. seeking further information), and behavioral coping (e.g. taking actions). Individuals’ coping strategies also differ in whether we cope with stress actively or passively.  For instance, facing the same stress, some individuals will express their feelings, seek relevant information, and even respond with behaviors or collective movements, while others will choose to avoid conflicts or even deny the stress ever existed.  In an experimental study I conducted a few years ago, individuals responded to and coped with different crisis situations differently, depending on whether the crisis situation was perceived as controllable and predictable or not.  This variance in crisis situation assessment and individual coping preference also led to how likely individuals were going to accept different types of organizational crisis responses. Specifically,

  • When a crisis situation is perceived by the publics as uncontrollable and unpredictable, sadness tends to be the primary emotion felt by individuals affected by the crisis.  Publics’ primary need is cognitive coping, trying to understand what happened in order to make sense of how and why a crisis occurred.  Regardless of the actual crisis responsibility, organizations should provide timely and accurate information to help reduce uncertainty among publics and become a reliable source of crisis information for the publics;
  • When a crisis situation is perceived by the publics as controllable and predictable, anger tends to be the primary crisis emotion among publics that needs to be understood and addressed properly by the organization that was being blamed.  Depending on whether the organization is actually responsible for the crisis situation, crisis managers should recommend the most effective crisis response.  Meantime, because publics’ primary coping need is to find resolutions for the crisis situation and to provide relief for victims, organizations should demonstrate compassion, provide concrete instructions on how to deal with the aftermath of the damage, and play an active role in facilitating publics’ recovery from the situation.

In addition, social media have become the ideal channel for individuals’ emotional coping in times of organizational crisis, ranging from venting about a company on Twitter, expressing sympathy to victims on Facebook, to creating and sharing emotion-charged images and videos on Instagram or Pinterest to boycotting certain brands or companies, etc. These highly sensational messages created and shared by publics, especially in the visual forms of photos and videos, are especially challenging to crisis managers.  The traditional public relations approach to crisis information is information oriented, such as combating misinformation with the accurate information (e.g., primarily text-based in the form of factual information, statistics, etc). However, in volatile crisis situations where crisis information is spread online and offline across traditional and social media, the information provided by an organization might be overshadowed by the louder and more sensational misinformation amplified by other influential groups. Therefore, in addition to the accuracy and timeliness of information dissemination, crisis managers need to be more mindful of individuals’ emotional coping needs, be sensitive to what message forms that are most effective to not only reach the minds but also speak to the hearts, and be creative and innovative in disseminating accurate information. When possible and appropriate, crisis managers might even consider co-creating effective crisis messages with publics based on shared values and common understanding of the situation.

I noticed that on WeChat, the Chinese version of WhatsApp, which has become the predominant information-sharing vehicle among Chinese mobile users, the default disclaimer when individuals share any piece of factual information is, “Here is the truth that comes with the image” (“有图有真相”). Does this imply that publics are more likely to trust crisis information conveyed with an image or disseminated in the form of an image?  Nowadays, truth, like beauty, seems to be also in the eyes of the beholder, more and more so.  For crisis communication, when facing anger, sadness, or highly anxious beholders on the Internet and even congregated on social media, how can an organization get its factual information across timely, effectively, and ethically?  These questions might be tied back to how we understand human emotions, the classic black box, and the nature of social media, the deep ocean of collective memories, emotions, and values created and shared by publics.

Therefore, the leading practice of managing conflicts and crises on social media is likely to be based on the knowledge of not only situational and organizational factors but also the individual differences of stakeholders and their deepest needs and wants, spoken or unspoken.  How to speak to the hearts, with the right vehicles and right voices, becomes essential for crisis managers when diving into the wild ocean of conflicts and crises.

There are various ways to dive and swim. The wise one chooses the right approach. Whichever crisis situations organizations face, however crisis images and emotions go viral and volatile on social media, whatever resources might be available to crisis managers, we have no better choice but to be mindfully fearless and…dive.

Dr. Yan Jin is an Associate Professor of Public Relations at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication and is the associate director of the Grady College’s Center for Health and Risk Communication. 

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Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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