This blog post is a summary of “Getting emotional: An emotion-cognition dual-factor model of crisis communication,” by Yuanhang Lu, Hong Kong Baptist University and Yi-Hui Christine Huang, the Chinese University of Hong Kong. For the full study, please visit the Public Relations Review.

Emotion plays a critical role during organizational crises, one that has been generating a good amount of interest from crisis communication scholars in recent years. The effect that emotional experience has on cognitive processes is even more relevant in a fast-changing digital environment. Emotions are the driving forces behind the interplay of relationships on social networking sites. They have the ability to trigger online viral sharing that can spread both positive and negative sentiments like wildfire.

However, this phenomenon still lacks sufficient scholarly attention that addresses its complexity.  Previous studies have been designed to investigate the “rational” aspects of cognition and their effects on crisis emotions or behavioral intentions. The Situational Crisis Communication Theory (SCCT) is based on crisis responsibility, an organization’s post-crisis communication strategy. The theory consists of a cognition-to-emotion approach, focusing on how publics’ perceptions of crisis responsibility shape their emotions, which, in turn, influence their attitudes and behaviors toward the organization in crisis. The Integrated Crisis Mapping model (ICM) concerns how publics’ emotional responses are shaped by their understanding of organization’s responsibility in dealing with crises and publics’ coping strategies. It identifies four emotions experiences by stakeholders in crisis situations: anger, fright, anxiety and sadness.

Both the SCCT and ICM model focus solely on how cognitive processes, like assessing a crisis situation, influence emotions. Cognition-to-emotion is just one explanation to how emotions are formed. These theories neglect to fully explore the interaction between cognition and emotion.

This study argues that publics’ emotions can influence their cognitive processes during crisis situations in an emotion-to-cognition approach. Based on a conceptual dual-factor model of crisis-information processing, this study claims that publics can follow both cognition-oriented and emotion-oriented patterns when coping with crises. It also explains how crisis-induced negative emotions can affect people’s information processing.

Emotion-Cognition Dual-Factor Model of Crisis-Information Processing
This model begins with the generation of emotions during organizational crises. The study proposes that the type and intensity of negative emotions publics experience are influenced by how initial crisis information is framed. When organizational crises occur, the publics may not immediately perceive objective facts and instead may base their reactions on message framing presented by the organization. Rational framing provides factual concrete information on the crisis. With emotional framing, crisis information is dramatized.

The study suggests that during organizations crises, the publics’ initial emotions will be triggered or intensified by a process of online emotional contagion, which is when people’s emotional states are transferred to others. Digital environmentals spread emotional contagion quickly and can lead to online collective outrage because negative emotions are more likely to be transferred than positive emotions.

Further down the crisis-information processing model, the publics’ emotional intensity is gauged. This study discusses that when people experience low-intensity crisis emotions they follow a cognitive-oriented pattern, but when they experience high-intensity emotions, they’re emotion-oriented and let their crisis emotions trigger behaviors and influence their cognitive assessment of later crisis information.

At this point in the model, the focus shifts to subsequent crisis emotions resulting from publics experiencing a second round of cognitive processing. When publics experience low-intensity initial emotions in a crisis, subsequent information processing is geared towards a cognitive approach. In this case, publics form relatively accurate perceptions of organizations.

On the other hand, publics that experience high emotional intensity find the effects in their behavioral intentions and cognitive processes. The emotion-to-behavior approach implies that emotions involve a compelling urge to action, something easily triggered in online social networks. The level of emotional intensity has been shown to activate behaviors like a desire to share online content. The emotion-to-cognition approach suggests that because high-intensity initial emotions have a long-term duration, they will continue to influence how publics process subsequent crisis details and their attitudes. This study explains how an emotion-to-cognition assessment of publics’ attitudes is possible through aspects of cognitive processing:

  • A information processing routine demonstrates that the level of certainty in a public’s emotions dictates their cognitive processes.
  • Selective processing suggests that publics with high-intensity crisis emotions search for information that supports their emotional experience, leading to extremity or polarization in attitudes toward an organization.
  • Informational recall occurs when the initial crisis emotions that publics experience influence how the publics process subsequent crisis information.
  • Responsibility attribution consists of the influence of publics’ emotions on attributions of crisis responsibility. The angrier the publics are with a crisis, the more responsibility they will attribute to the organization.

This model explores how publics’ interpretations, assessments and judgements can be driven by the nuanced interaction between emotional and cognitive processes. It is a means for understanding why organizations should take emotions into consideration when communicating with their publics, as well as how to use this breadth of insight on emotions to strengthen their communication strategies.

Martha Paz-Soldan is a member of the IPR Street Team and a public relations and English student at the University of Florida. She is a copywriter for The Agency, a strategic communication firm housed in the College of Journalism and Communications.

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