Author(s), Title and Publication
Tao, W. (2017).  How consumers’ pre-crisis associations and attitude certainty impact their responses to different crises. Communication Research. Advanced online publication. doi: 10.1177/0093650217733361

A company may develop positive or negative associations in the minds of consumers in two different domains: the product/service-related domain (i.e., corporate ability associations) and the social responsibility domain (i.e., CSR associations). This study examines how consumers with various associations to a company respond to associated-based corporate crises differently. It also tests how consumers further adjust their responses based on the perceived certainty in their pre-crisis company attitudes. Theoretical insights from cognitive psychology (confirmation bias and attitude certainty literature), interpersonal communication (expectancy violations theory), corporate reputation, and crisis management are used to inform predictions. Results of Experiment 1 reveal attitude certainty determines when positive pre-crisis associations buffer a company against crises or backfire. Additionally, the buffering and backfiring effects vary in magnitude depending on the relevance of the crisis to these associations. Results of Experiment 2 show attitude certainty also matters when prior associations are negative.

Each experiment had 200 participants. Both experiments had similar procedures, except in the first experiment companies were featured that were successfully implementing CSR and in the second experiment companies were featured that were doing poorly in CSR. Participants first read an overview of a laptop company. They then proceeded to read a source credibility message that produced high or low attitude certainty. Following that, they read an article generating the corporate ability or CSR associations with the company. Next, participants provided their company attitude ratings. After that, they received a news report introducing the crisis type. They then reported their company attitudes again. At the end, they answered demographic questions, and were debriefed and thanked.

Key Findings

  • Experiment 1 featured companies with good records in corporate ability or CSR. It found that participants with high certainty in their positive pre-crisis associations engaged in biased defensive reasoning to counter crisis negativity, which led to a lesser extent of attitude degradation (i.e., the buffering effect of positive prior associations). Such a buffering effect was more pronounced when the domain of the positive associations (e.g., positive corporate ability associations) matched the domain of the crisis (e.g., a corporate ability crisis). However, when it comes to low-certainty participants, positive pre-crisis associations backfired. This is because these participants interpreted the crisis as a direct violation of their positive prior expectancies toward the firm in the product/service or social responsibility domain.
  • Experiment 2 targeted companies that were doing poorly in corporate ability or CSR. It showed that high-certainty participants lowered their already-negative attitudes more when the crisis (e.g., a CSR crisis) tapped into the domain of their negative prior associations (e.g., negative corporate ability associations). However, low-certainty participants did not change their attitudes much when the crisis was aligned with their negative associations. This is because the crisis did not constitute a significant violation of their initial, negative expectations toward the firm.

Implications for Practice
This study recommends companies to develop a deep understanding of the pre-crisis psychological landscape in the minds of consumers (e.g., the basis and the certainty attributes of their company attitudes) and the specific features of crisis events (e.g., the type of the crisis and its relevance to consumer prior associations). This understanding will assist in predicting and preparing for the changing reaction from consumers during crises. In addition, companies should nurture consumers’ strong beliefs in their positive organizational traits (e.g., product/service and/or social responsibility related traits). For companies that may have already been struggling with a malignant reputational environment, they should prioritize alleviating their existing reputation weaknesses in corporate ability or CSR instead of diverting resources to build new reputation strengths.

Location of Article
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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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