Some researchers have determined that the two by two or three by three matrix approach to crisis definition didn’t fit the results of the research. And that other sizes and shapes of matrices are worth consideration as well in the design of a typology framework for an organization. Tim Coombs is a researcher whose name appears very frequently in the crisis communication literature. In fact, we refer to Dr. Coombs’ work several times in the course. In a paper he wrote for the Journal of Business Communications titled Impact of Past Crises on Current Crisis Communication, he frames his discussion of crisis typologies in the context of attribution theory. Fritz Hayter an Austrian psychologist, was the first to introduce attribution theory back in 1958.
But it was Bertrand Wiener and his colleagues in the mid 1970s who developed this theoretical framework that has become a major research paradigm in social psychology. In fact, this theory was used to produce one of the two by two matrices we examined earlier. Attribution theory holds that people will make judgments about the causes of events, especially unexpected events with negative outcomes. Attributions, according to Wiener and colleagues, are perceptions of the causality or the perceived reasons for a particular event’s occurrence. People, and let’s consider groups of these people as stakeholders, for our purposes, will attribute the cause of an event to an individual involved in the event. Personal causality, or to some outside force, referred to as external causality.
Attributions essentially indicate if a person believes that the cause of the event was controllable by the people involved. And the research has shown that greater attributions of responsibility lead to stronger feelings of anger and more negative views of people and organizations. Therefore, according to Dr. Coombs, if attribution is such an important frame for leaders to consider in their responses to a crisis, it would benefit them to cluster their crisis types into three groups. Based on the level of responsibility stakeholders are likely to ascribe to the organization. The three clusters offered by Coombs are labeled, A, victim, B, accidental, and C, intentional. Within these three clusters, 10 crisis types are distributed. Yes, 10 crisis types.
The victim cluster includes natural disasters, which are acts of nature that damage an organization, rumors, where false and damaging information about an organization is being circulated internally and externally. Workplace violence, where a former employee injures or attempts to injure a current employee, and product tampering or malevolence, where some actor outside the organization has altered a product to make it dangerous. The accidental cluster includes challenges where stakeholders claim an organization is operating in an inappropriate manner. In these cases a public challenge is based on moral or ethical, not legal grounds. Technical error accidents, where a technology or equipment failure causes an industrial accident. And technical error recalls where a product is deemed harmful to stakeholders.
The intentional cluster includes, human error accidents where the cause of the accident is a person or people not performing a job properly. Human error recalls where the cause of a recall was a person or people not performing a job properly. And organizational misdeeds, where stakeholders are placed at risk by management knowingly violating laws or regulations, or by offering a product or service they knew could injure stakeholders. The framing offered by Coombs provides a few valuable takeaways for us. First, he provides another example of a list based typology, very similar to those we’ve already seen. But he further organizes them by a critical dimension, in this case, attribute ability.
As we have seen a couple examples of crisis type lists that have been further distributed across another key characteristic, it seems as though lists on their own don’t provide crisis leaders all the information needed to build effective response plans. Second, Dr. Coombs makes explicit the importance of including stakeholder perspectives into a crisis typology framework. Ultimately, as we’ve seen, the perception of stakeholders is perhaps the most important consideration for crisis leaders once the root cause, or causes, of a crisis have been identified and resolved.
And third, Coombs presents a framework that is clearly designed to help crisis leaders develop and deliver stakeholder communications, in the spirit of both fact sharing that is, here’s where the fault should be attributed, and trust restoration. Given the source of the crisis, here’s what we’re doing to fix things now and prevent re-occurrence in the future. These are all valuable takeaways in the context of high stakes leadership.