This blog post, written by Dr. Terry Flynn and Tim Li, is based on a research paper by Joon Soo Lim, Ph.D., Associate Professor at Syracuse University. 

Key Findings

  • When a crisis strikes a governmental organization, refuting rumors and accusations with facts is more effective than expressing anger at the claims and describing them as unfair.
  • For stakeholders that are not affected by a crisis, emotionally rejecting the accusations may be as effective as factual arguments.

Implications for Public Relations

Government organizations frequently face rumors and accusations that threaten their reputation and work. The findings of this study support the use of facts to refute activists or opposition as a wiser approach compared to emotional attacking the claims. Refutations with supporting data are considered more reliable and transparent.

However, expressing anger and disapproval towards accusations and accusers remains a popular strategy in crisis communication. The goal is often to mobilize supporters through an emotional response or to circumvent having to communicate very complex or nuanced information. Public relations professionals should consider how emotionally and cognitively involved their stakeholders are in the crisis – individuals who aren’t affected by the crisis may find emotional refutations as effective, but those with higher involvement respond more strongly to facts.

Summary

Rumors and accusations are serious threats to a governmental organization’s reputation. One common strategy is refutation, where the opposing claims are invalidated by appeals to either logic or emotion. Appeals to logic rely on providing facts that disprove or dismiss false claims. On the other hand, appeals to emotion aim to evoke emotions to garner support and undermine the opposing claims. Refuting with indignation is a frequent example of an emotional appeal that focuses on negative emotions by characterizing the claims as unfair attacks and expressing their disapproval of such actions.

Lim conducted two studies to compare the impact of refuting with logic versus refuting with indignation. In the first study, participants were presented with an accusation from an activist group claiming that the governmental organization failed to enforce local environmental laws around water safety, and then issued a government news release that refuted the claim using either facts or indignation. The participants that received a refutation appealing to logic perceived the news release as more reliable and transparent, compared to if the refutation an emotional dismissal.

The second study examined how an individual’s level of personal involvement in a crisis would affect their perception of different refutation strategies. The author varied personal involvement by presenting the same accusation and refutations to participants in another country as well. The results showed that two strategies did not differ in impact for the participants from another country, or in other words, those not affected by the crisis. However, participants in the country that the crisis happened perceived the government as more trustworthy, credible, and competent at crisis management if they use logical refutations. The difference suggests that when a crisis is not important to someone, they are less motivated to evaluate facts and more inclined to trust emotional reactions.

Blog post compiled by Dr. Terry Flynn and Tim Li of McMaster University.

Citation

Lim, Joon S. (2018). The effectiveness of refutation with logic vs. indignation in restoring the credibility of and trust in a government organization: A heuristic‐systematic model of crisis communication processing. Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management, 27(2), 157-167. https://doi.org/10.1111/1468-5973.12247

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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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