Public relations personnel are charged with managing the way organizational crises are perceived by the public, but they are also responsible for encouraging a public response that benefits both the organization involved and the people and things impacted by the crisis. Recent research published in the journal Communications Research shows that the way the news of a disaster or tragedy is framed during initial media coverage has a strong impact on the way the public responds to the organization at the center of the crisis.
Researchers led by Glen Cameron of the University of Missouri showed participants two different news stories covering the same crisis. Some participants were given an article that took an “anger-frame” perspective, blaming the organization involved for the situation. A second group received an article that took a “sadness-frame” point-of-view, focusing on the victims and the negative impact on them of the crisis.
Participants who were shown the “anger-frame” story tended to skim over the information and to come away with more negative attitudes toward the organization than the ones who saw the “sadness-frame” article. Not only were their emotions influenced by the news slant used, but their information processing patterns were influenced as well, with “anger-frame” readers less likely to evaluate the information carefully and draw their own conclusions and quicker to join the article’s author in condemning the company involved.
The researchers also examined how the corporate response to a crisis affects public perception of the organization. They found that an official response that focuses on relief efforts and the welfare of victims led to an improved image of the corporation in the minds of the public. However, messages that focused on promises of justice sought to distance the company from culpability based upon legal principles had the opposite effect. These results held true regardless of whether people received their first account of the news in an anger- or sadness-framed presentation.
According to Cameron, the results show the importance of taking quick control of the message when a crisis occurs. Putting a human face on what may otherwise appear to observers to be a faceless, soulless corporate entity is crucial during such times, he said. “If a corporation can focus on the wellbeing of the victims and how the corporation will improve following the crisis, they have a better chance of influencing “sadness-frame” news coverage as opposed to “anger-frame” coverage,” said Cameron.
The focus of the research is not to find ways to help organizations avoid responsibility, according to Cameron, but instead to help them handle crises as effectively as possible. “Crises are going to happen,” he said. “Unfortunately, planes will crash and there will be oil spills. This study helps to show how the public will react to different types of news coverage of crises, and subsequently, what the best ways are for corporations to handle any crises they may encounter.”