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Safeguarding reputation through
strategic, integrated and

situational crisis communication

Development of the integrative model
of crisis communication

Ansgar Thiessen and Diana Ingenhoff
Department of Mass Media and Communication Research,

University of Fribourg, Fribourg, Switzerland


Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to address the often missing theoretical foundation of crisis
communication from an integrated perspective on the micro, meso and macro level. Based on the theory
of structuration, a systematic, integrative framework is developed for safeguarding organizational
legitimization and multidimensional reputation through communication during crisis situations which
is applicable both for profit and non-profit organizations.

Design/methodology/approach – Gidden’s theory of structuration was chosen as a basis to develop
the integrative model of crisis communication that proposes a communicative impact on reputation on
a situative level of message strategies (micro level), an organizational level (meso level) and a societal
level (macro level). A well-organized crisis communication management on all of these levels is seen as
the key communicative driver to safeguard long-term organizational reputation.

Findings – The paper shows that successful crisis communication management must be
conceptualized and addressed on distinctive levels of complexity. While on a message level (situative
crisis communication) it creates meaning, crisis communication must be seen as management task on an
organizational level (integrative crisis communication). However, in order to fully safeguard reputation
in the long term and trustworthiness in the short term, crisis communication has also a societal
component when addressing moral standards and norms (strategic crisis communication).

Research limitations/implications – The paper is a conceptual contribution which build the basis
of a follow-up empirical, experimental study where the proposed model is successfully tested.

Practical implications – For PR managers, this paper gives reasons to conceptualize crisis
communication management, not only on a message strategy level, but also to take into consideration
the organizational and societal levels.

Originality/value – The paper stands in line with the theoretical discourse of organizational crisis
communication. So far, few approaches conceptualize organizational crisis communication thoroughly
on an integrated level of different perspectives so that the paper provides an important input, pushing
the discussion forward.

Keywords Corporate communications, Public relations, Organizational processes,
Organizational structures

Paper type Conceptual paper

Introduction and research question
Reputation is an important intangible asset for organizations of any kind. A good
reputation proves more resilient than a bad one and organizations with a good reputation

The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at



Received September 2009
Revised April 2010
Accepted October 2010

Corporate Communications: An
International Journal
Vol. 16 No. 1, 2011
pp. 8-26
q Emerald Group Publishing Limited
DOI 10.1108/13563281111100944

are more likable (Lyon and Cameron, 2004, p. 226). Research shows that reputation has an
impact on the perception of the management style as well as on purchasing decisions
(Yoon et al., 1993, p. 226). It attracts qualified staff (Eccles et al., 2007, p. 104) and
determines investor satisfaction and loyalty (Helm, 2007, p. 33 f.). As relational capital,
it deepens relationships (de Castro et al., 2006, p. 576), it guides investors through
investment decisions (Schütze and Rennhak, 2005, p. 11) or builds trust (Herger,
2006, p. 187; Ingenhoff and Sommer, 2010). Reputation ultimately becomes an essential
criterion to differentiate between organizations. Since services, products or performances
in general increasingly resemble each other, reputation is a significant competitive factor,
too. Although the value of reputation has been widely discussed and analyzed for
economic organizations, its positive impact may be transferred to non-economic
organizations as well (Parks, 2008, p. 217).

In today’s media society, mediated communication is the dominant mechanism
in constituting reputation (Eisenegger, 2005; Seemann, 2008). In fact, without public
opinion, reputation cannot be constituted (Herger, 2006) or fades significantly
(Eisenegger, 2005). Consequently, public scandals are a major threat to reputation
because they can bring organizations into “disrepute”, having an impact on profitability
or even organizational survival (Lerbinger, 1997). Barely, a day goes by without some
organizations facing assaults on their reputation. And research shows that reputational
crises are on the rise. Crisis situations as an attack on reputation may prove to be either a
threat or an opportunity, which depends largely on how an organization’s behavior is
perceived by its key stakeholders (Gaultier-Gaillard and Louisot, 2006).

In situations where reputation is threatened, one aspect of crisis management gains
great importance: communication. Internal communication in a crisis enables an
organization to stem rumors (Fearn-Banks, 2007), while external communication can
result in favorable public perception (Penrose, 2000). Since the perception of crises
depends upon the respective observer (Kohring et al., 1996), the role of communication
is more than simply to inform about the crisis but to influence it (Köhler, 2006; Zerfaß,
2004). Consequently, the analysis of risks to reputation and its management has become
an issue of growing attention and is increasingly being discussed in both scientific and
business literature (Chun, 2005).

A good reputation unquestionably serves as a reservoir of goodwill and supports
organizations in times of crisis (Wiedmann and Buxel, 2005). However, the concept is
also ubiquitous and therefore it is “seldom noticed until [. . .] threatened” (Fombrun and
van Riel, 1997). Most literature on crisis communication remains on a case study basis
and lacks a systematic understanding of its impact on reputation. Moreover, within
empirical research, reputation is often one-dimensionally conceptualized in a functional
way, which ignores the social and emotional aspects of reputation (Bromley, 2002;
Chun, 2005; Ruth and York, 2000). Bearing these problems in mind, the article will
address the following research question:

RQ1. How can crisis communication be systematically conceptualized in order to
safeguard reputation during crisis situations?

We propose an integrative model of crisis communication, which is theoretically
founded on the theory of structuration and consistently aims at safeguarding a
multidimensional reputation.




Literature review
Organizational reputation
The understanding of reputation varies according to the focus of research. In the field
of marketing, it is characterized as the result of a branding process, in principle agent
theory as a signal of future behavior, in accounting as a kind of goodwill, in organization
theory as the manifestation of corporate identity or as a potential market entry barrier
in the field of management (Schwaiger, 2004, p. 48). Even more confusingly, researchers
often do not take findings from other disciplines into account when discussing their
concept of reputation (Mahon, 2002, p. 416).

Generally, reputation is described as “the net perception of a company’s ability to
meet the expectations of all its stakeholders” (Fombrun, 1996, p. 37). It is a synthesis of
individual attitudes towards an organization’s past behavior and future prospects
(Davies and Chun, 2002; Post and Griffin, 1998). While in literature some researchers
equate image and reputation (Bromley, 1993), we make a distinction between the two
concepts. An organization’s image can be seen as an individual attitude. It can be defined
as the external view of an organization (Hatch and Schultz, 1997, p. 361). It is the
reflection of an organization, which forms on the basis of individually and subjectively
perceived attributes among stakeholders (Herger, 2006, p. 161). Reputation on the other
hand is rather a synthesis of many images and therefore of many attitudes together
(Fombrun, 1996, p. 72; Gray and Balmer, 1998; Helm, 2004). Following Gotsi and Wilson
(2001), reputation is a common attitude towards a third party. Most approaches
conceptualize reputation as an aggregated perception and the evaluation of a company
by many different stakeholders (Davies et al., 2003; Fombrun et al., 2000). Consequently,
different stakeholder groups perceive an organization’s reputation differently
(Caruana et al., 2006, p. 430; Gotsi and Wilson, 2001, p. 24).

The three research disciplines most relevant to our research are the studies of
sociologic, economic and corporate communication. From a sociological viewpoint,
reputation is seen as a social acceptance of an organization. It refers to (organizational or
individual) actions in the past and “[. . .] emerges if an actor’s future partners are
informed on his present behavior” (Raub and Weesie, 1990, p. 626). On a more abstract
level, from this perspective, reputation becomes a legitimizing exchange process among
agents (organization and stakeholder) and is gained either by the approval of a third
party (e.g. through an NPO) or by cognitive processes, such as acting within a social
framework. Reputation from this point of view thereby predominantly takes on an
integrative function within society (Eisenegger and Imhof, 2008).

From an economic point of view, reputation is seen as an intangible asset, helping
to shape the financial value of a company (Ressel, 2008). Studying the precise impact
reputation has on financial outcome still produces conflicting results (Eberl and
Schwaiger, 2005). However, Schnietz and Epstein (2005, p. 341) show that a reputation
for social responsibility yields a tangible financial benefit during a crisis situation.
In terms of reputation management, business leaders indicate that it is harder to recover
from reputation failure than it is to build or maintain it. Recovering from crises that hit
reputation takes time – often many years, which is a long time to rebuild the
trustworthiness one already had before (Milewicz and Herbig, 1994, p. 44). Recovering
from a crisis is consequently more a marathon than a quick sprint, which underlines the
necessity for sophisticated reputation management either long before (issues
management) or right at the moment of threat (crisis and communication management).



From the viewpoint of corporate communication scholars, reputation is seen as a
resource to be protected, especially during crisis situations. Communication either has
an impact on image restoration (Benoit, 1995) or the media agenda in which reputation is
built (Eisenegger, 2005), in order to safeguard reputation in the long run (Coombs, 2006).
Building good reputation among stakeholders can enhance benevolence and courtesy
( Jones et al., 2000, p. 27 f.) or serve as a resource in difficult situations, such as a crisis
(Davies et al., 2003; Dowling, 2002).

Most methods of measuring reputation follow a functional conceptualization
(Bromley, 2002; Fombrun, 2001; Wartick, 2002). It is Hall (1992) who first introduced
the interrelations between cognitive and affective aspects of reputation. Cognitive
reputation refers to a rational third party perception. Its components may be
distinguished between a more functional reputation deriving from an evaluation of
competence, and a social reputation deriving from satisfying moral norms in society
(de Castro et al., 2006). In contrast, affective reputation is based on emotions and
sympathy, and is formed through sympathy and attractiveness (Caruana et al., 2006;
Schwaiger, 2004). Eisenegger and Imhof (2008) conclude that reputation has a
functional, social and emotional dimension – regardless of whether it is being perceived
cognitive or affective. In this article, we propose a multidimensional concept of
reputation (Table I) that consists of cognitive (functional and social) as well as affective
(emotional) components (Ingenhoff and Sommer, 2007, 2010). We see functional
reputation as the evaluation of competence, which is expressed by the achievement of
an organization’s performance goals. Social reputation we propose as referring to social
responsibility such as moral and ethical standards in society. Finally, we introduce
emotional reputation as emerging from sympathy towards an organization and the
appraisal of how favorably or unfavorably it is evaluated.

Concluding, we propose the concept of reputation as a multidimensional construct,
consisting of “three distinct but closely interrelated dimensions” (Ingenhoff and
Sommer, 2010). It is being perceived differently among different groups of stakeholders
(Gotsi and Wilson, 2001), being the overall perception of an organization and its ability to
meet the expectations of all its stakeholders (Fombrun, 1996).

Corporate crisis communication
In order to address our research question, we identify two perspectives on crisis
communication literature: a functional perspective, focusing on instruments and
structures, and a symbolic perspective, analyzing the rhetorical impetus of message
strategies. From a functional perspective, research in crisis communication analyzes
structures and instruments and their impact on either trust or relational commitment.
First, on a structural level, the efficiency of crisis plans have been discussed
(Barton, 1991). Research indicates that pre-developed strategy plans help to create
effective communication structures in the event of a crisis (Barton, 2001; Fearn-Banks,
2007; Lee et al., 2007). But not all organizational plans prepare effectively

Reputational dimension Constitutive elements

Cognitive-functional Evaluation of competence, achievements, reaching of (business) goals
Cognitive-social Satisfying ethical and moral norms, corporate social responsibility
Affective-emotional Sympathy and attractiveness, emotional evaluation

Table I.
Three dimensional





for crisis situations, because they can imply a false security. Second, on the subject of
instruments, the leading question is what effect do communicative tools have on the
perception of a crisis situation. Crisis literature indicates that audience orientation is
often the key factor in influencing and building stakeholder relationships during a crisis
(Falkheimer and Heide, 2006; Lee, 2004; Penrose, 2000).

The symbolic perspective of crisis communication research analyzes rhetorical
response strategies and their value, while the relationship between an organization
and the media is of specific interest. Research shows that communication may repair a
company’s image once threatened (Benoit, 1995, 1997). While the strategy of concession
is most effective when organizations behave unethically (Bradford and Garrett, 1995),
apologia in general has long been the main focus of crisis communication research
(Benoit, 1995; Coombs, 1995; Hearit, 1995, 2006). Sturges (1994) shows that
communication strategies are most effective when focusing on communication with
the public. He proposes different communication strategies according to the severity of
a crisis, but without testing his ideas empirically.

A more recent approach is the situational crisis communication theory (SCCT)
introduced by Coombs (Coombs, 2004, 2007; Coombs and Holladay, 1996). It suggests
that rhetorical responses depend on attributed crisis responsibility. For victim crises
(weak attribution of responsibility), he identifies a deny response option as most
suitable, including response strategies such as attack or denial. For accident crises
(moderate attribution of responsibility), the diminish response option is most suitable,
including strategies such as excuse or justification. Finally, for preventable crises
(strong attribution of responsibility), the deal response option is most appropriate,
involving strategies such as ingratiation or concern. On the one hand, the analysis of
Coomb’s message strategies has recently been transferred to a variety of crisis
situations: for instance, Stephens et al. (2005) adapt them to explain technical translation
strategies, which are deployed in order to provide messages that are specifically difficult
to explain to a broader public. Critics, on the other hand, hold that while message
strategies are being analyzed only from the recipient’s point of view, for communication
managers it is not only the rhetorical response strategy but rather timely, consistent and
active responses that are most relevant in order to safeguard reputation (Huang, 2008).

Corporate crisis communication and reputation management
Regulators and industry groups, as well as companies and organizations, have meanwhile
developed many guidelines for communicating during crises (Löffelholz and Schwarz,
2008). Communication research takes on the many “recipes” and also slowly begins to
provide more theoretically derived models about crisis communication as such (Coombs,
2004, 2007). However, the definition and measurement of threats to reputation is still
largely being ignored in crisis literature (Eccles et al., 2007). And although “among the
most important functions of reputation management is crisis management” (Tucker and
Melewar, 2005), the precise impact of communication matters to maintaining or even
building reputation during crises remains unclear. In our study, we put the argument
forward that reputation is the perception of an organization of different stakeholders over
time. Consequently, managing reputation during crisis situations seems inappropriate
since first, crises often occur spontaneous and second, they last not long enough for
managing reputation in the long run. Therefore, it is necessary to compartmentalize the
process of reputation management. As McAllister (1995, p. 52) shows, the constitution



of reputation, on the one hand, is dependent on trustworthiness (Backhaus, 1999; Blois,
1999; Groenland, 2002; Herger, 2006; Plötner, 1995). Eisenegger and Imhof (2008, p. 130)
even state corporate reputation as the “reputation of trustworthiness”, so that in order to
build reputation, trustworthiness becomes a minimum precondition. Trust on the other
hand is built only, when organizations are able to establish an (often long built) reputation
(Eberl, 2006; Ingenhoff and Sommer, 2010; O’Neill, 1984). Stakeholders only trust an
organization when it has proven to be trustworthy over time, meaning having built a
positive reputation. Crisis communication, which is usually situational, is therefore only
able to have an impact on short-term trustworthiness in order to build or safeguard
long-term reputation (Figure 1).

Most striking, the dimensions of trustworthiness correspond to the ones we identified
for the reputation construct: the abilities of an organization reflect its skills,
competencies and expertise (functional dimension). In order to signal trustworthiness
through competencies and thereby to safeguard functional reputation, an organization
must clearly state its competencies, skills and abilities regarding both its core business
and its crisis management. Benevolence expresses an organization’s desire to do good
(social dimension), while integrity testifies an organization’s character, its fairness and
credibility (emotional dimension) (Caldwell and Clapham, 2003), so that eventually in an
empirical analysis all three dimensions may be explored distinctively.

Previous crisis communication models
Since most literature on crisis communication is case study based, the development
of sophisticated approaches has only just begun. It is Gonzáles-Herrero and Pratt (1996)
who propose a four-step symmetrical model for crisis communication management.
Referring to Grunig and Hunt (1984), they argue that crises follow a life cycle (birth,
growth, maturity and decline), demanding management procedures for each respective
phase. Hence, they identify issues management, planning prevention, crisis and
post-crisis management as crucial crisis management options. Our criticism is that their
model is only a descriptive assignment of management activities according to crisis
phases. It is neither a theoretically derived model nor does it hold empirically proven
results. However, the authors do proclaim a classification of communication
management activities according to different crisis stages, which is the most basic
assumption for formulating crisis communication models.

A somewhat similar but more detailed approach is introduced by Horsley and Barker
(2002), who proclaim a synthesis model of crisis communication. Working on a more
abstract level they also follow a time-based classification of crises and introduce six
steps that are necessary for influencing the public during a crisis event. However, their
study is limited to the public sector and does not take different types of crises
into consideration. They also widen the view and suggest seeing crisis communication

Figure 1.
Managing reputation

during crisis situations
Trustworthiness Reputation Trust





as a circle rather than an enclosed process. From their perspective, learning from a crisis
becomes a crucial step for crisis communication management.

Murphy (2007) argues that uncertainties in public relations (PR) may be analyzed
through complex adaptive system theory or chaos theory. This is mainly because
complexity-based thinking begins “from a view of the world as a shifting, often
unpredictable, environment” (p. 120). In the sense of PR being also a strategy of constant
negotiating between shifting powers and interest groups, chaos theory may be a suitable
framework for analyzing crisis situations. Hence, most fruitful of her approach is the
contextualizing of crises: similar to chaos theory, crisis situations manifest structures
and patterns; however, they are non-predictable (Murphy, 1996). Also, do both concepts
share the notion of attractors, bifurcation, unpredictability and non-linearity (Gilpin and
Murphy, 2008, p. 38). But despite its attractiveness for embedding crisis situations, the
impact of communication in chaotic situations was neither empirically nor theoretically
being discussed.

A sophisticated model, also implementing ideas from chaos theory, is introduced
by Seeger (2002). He too sees chaos theory as best for understanding the behavior of complex
systems but also for corporate communication during crises. Seeger implies first that precise
predictions regarding system performance are impossible, so that crisis communication
strategies may not be as effective as suggested by scholars so far. As a consequence, to best
adjust a communication strategy to the current crisis situation, a classification becomes
necessary, showing a corridor from which the set of strategies are to be chosen from.
He claims that the impact of communication must be seen in a wider context than just in a
timeline. However, we believe that chaos theory is a too widespread approach, modeling
communication during crisis situations. It therefore does not help conceptualize modes of
action regarding communication strategies and reputational outcome.

The review shows that none of the introduced models aims at profoundly explaining the
safeguarding of reputation during crisis situations. Some remain rather basic approaches,
only proclaiming classifications of crisis communication and therefore even lacking a
theoretical grounding. But since “the [assessment of a] crisis situation should be a major
influence in strategy selection” (Coombs, 1995), it is equally important to embed crisis
communication into a wider context in order to help in most effectively matching a crisis
situation with its appropriate strategies (Sturges et al., 2001). In crisis communication
models, the link between crisis communication strategy and multidimensional reputation
has yet to be made. As indicated, research on crisis communication remains predominantly
on a normative basis or analyses refer only to single crisis cases. Moreover, almost any
concept produces its own idea of reputation, risk or crisis. It is therefore hard to find
common ground from which to derive sophisticated models of reputation management
during crisis situations. To demonstrate how to distinctively prevent long-term losses of
(multidimensional) reputation, we develop a theoretically derived crisis communication
model. Embedded in the theory of structuration by Giddens (1984), the aim is to find general
structures and conditions of crisis communication and its impact on reputation, thereby
helping to profoundly understand the forming and deforming of reputation during crises.

Development of the integrative model of crisis communication
Theory of structuration as theoretical foundation
In communication research, scholars predominantly either relate to system theory
approaches (macro perspective) or action theory approaches (micro perspective) in order



to embed their empirical research (Röttger, 2005, p. 12). Consequently, most often studies
either struggle with empirical evidence on the one hand or disregard structural conditions
on the other. But in trying to describe and analyze communication conditions profoundly,
especially in the field of PR, such dualism merely restricts the shaping of theoretical
frameworks. Therefore, it is important to overcome such micro-macro dualism.

An approach addressing the dichotomy between system and action is the theory of
structuration by Giddens (1984), which integrates both perspectives. The aim of the
theory is to find a framework that allows an intermediation of social structure and social
action at the same time. With the theory of structuration, Giddens outlines social
structures as both enabling and constraining social actions. In the view of the theory of
structuration, social actors produce actions recursively, which means they act within
a structure that is produced by social action itself. As indicated above, structures
thereby both enable social action and restrain it at the same time. On the other hand,
acting also enforces and maintains social structures.

For Giddens, agents can be both individual persons and conglomerates such as
organizations. To some extent, their actions are motivated, purposeful and designated
to a relevant context. On the other hand, agents do not always know what they are doing
and therefore do not necessarily carry out their actions in order to enable social
structuring. Therefore, Giddens argues that social action may emerge either from
a practical or a discursive knowledge. Practical knowledge is somewhat habituated and
its social actions come from a certain routine. Only discursive knowledge, by contrast, is
reflected knowledge, with its social actions being well considered and reasoned. Most
everyday actions, however, derive from a practical knowledge and only a few actions
come from discursive knowledge. Consequently, social structure to a large extent is
formed through habituated social acting.

Structures by contrast are resources or rules organized as social systems. According
to Giddens, there are three types of structure: signification, domination and legitimation,
which are linked with one another through so-called modalities. While resources
(domination) can be allocative (control over material objects) or authoritative (control
over persons), rules either give meaning to social acting (signification) or legitimize
social acting (legitimation).

Modalities are the links between structures and social actions, so the rules of
sense-making (signification) are translated through interpretative schemes into
communication. Authoritative/allocative resources (domination) translate structure
through facilities into power and legitimation, and finally through norms into morality
or sanctions. The fundamental improvement of the theory of structuration is to bring
both the concept of structure and the concept of agent together, balancing agency and
structure in the “concept of duality”. These fundamental assumptions show that social
systems exist over time. Because structuration is a constant process in time and space,
structure only exists through social acting (which in turn produces structure again).

As Johansson (2007) shows, definitions on corporate communication employ dividing
lines between internal and external communication with its very own research
traditions. We follow the definition by Theis-Berglmair (2008), stating the term as
communication of and inside organizations. Communication about organizations
moreover describes an orientation of organizations towards public societal horizons of
expectation. This definition overcomes the distinction between internal and
external communication (Kuhn, 2008). We argue that corporate communication serves




as a link between the internal and external environments of an organization (Yates and
Orlikowski, 1992). It improves a coordination function of all corporate communication
and serves on a macro level (social delineation), a meso level (user-oriented
communication) and a micro level (tools of communication). In order to …

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