The impact of communication on human behaviour in times of crisis

“Communication is the most important tool of crisis management.” (Heath, 1998, p. 114)

As Heath identifies, communication is an integral part of managing crises. Therefore policy makers have constantly sought to find the most appropriate ways to use communication to influence behaviour during these times to assist in the recovery from crises. This paper will investigate why policy makers wish to utilise effective crisis communications and explore the importance of crisis communication on influencing human behaviour in a time of crisis and the influence the medium of communication can have. Gross noted that;

“in order to understand and predict the effectiveness of one person’s attempt to change the attitude of another, we need to know ‘who says what in which channel to whom and with what effect.’” (Gross, 1996, p. 440)

Whilst it will be demonstrated that the medium of the message is important to ensure the correct audience has been reached, it will be suggested that for policy makers to maximise the impact of crisis communications during a crisis, they must utilise rhetoric and cognitive response theory. This paper will go on to suggest that the most importance factor in influencing behaviour in a time of crisis is that communications are provided from a credible source and are empathic in nature. As was noted by Reynolds et al. the use of “rhetorically sensitive communications …to tailor messages and be empathetic in considering the communication needs of others, which can help to dispel rumours and engender trust.” (Reynolds & Earley, 2010, p. 266)

Why focus on crisis communications?
One is entitled to question why crisis communications has been the subject of significant academic study, indeed, policy makers may question why they should focus their efforts on understanding communications when they would be better served understanding how to respond to the crisis. Ulmer et al suggest that;

“If we do not study crisis communications, organisations and the many people associated with them are likely to be stunned, frightened, and depressed when enveloped by a crisis.” (Ulmer, et al., 2011, p. 4)

It is widely considered that Exxon’s handling of the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989, the second largest oil spill in the United States history, was badly managed through poor communication. Their mismanagement led to Exxon suffering significant damage to its reputation; “Exxon handled the crisis badly by delaying its response, downplaying the incident, and responding offensively to the media. The company severely damaged its image and reputation.” (Ray, 1999, p. 20) This crisis led to organisations revisiting and in some cases implementing significant crisis communications capabilities. Whilst the lessons of Exxon Valdez were certainly identified, one could question whether they were lessons learnt and applied in the wake of BP’s handling of the crisis communications after Deepwater Horizon.

A number of scholars have proposed arguments which emphasise the importance of crisis communications, including Ray who suggested that “communication, critical to the control of a crisis, serves to either manage the situation or create further confusion.” (Ray, 1999, pp. 9-10) This was further expanded by Reynolds and Earley who stated that;

“When faced with a new threat, people want a consistent and simple recommendation to follow…If officials cannot give people the information they need, or think they need, when they need it, others will.” (Reynolds & Earley, 2010, pp. 264-265)

When policy makers are required to activate crisis communications there are a number of options they face, in particular, how to communicate their message to interested parties. Regester identified that

“Although each group may require to be handled in a different way, what is important is that a consistency of message runs through each statement to each group.” (Regester, 1987, p. 119)

The full article, authored by Andrew MacLeod, is available in the Journal of Business Continuity & Emergency Planning Volume Eight Number Two.