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Corporate Communications: An International Journal

The study of internal crisis communication: towards an integrative framework


Finn Frandsen Winni Johansen

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The study of internal crisis


communication: towards an
integrative framework
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Finn Frandsen and Winni Johansen


Department of Business Communication, Aarhus University, Aarhus, Denmark
Abstract

Internal crisis
communication

347
Received May 2011
Accepted July 2011

Purpose Previous crisis communication research has primarily examined the external dimension
of crisis communication, i.e. the crisis response strategies applied by organizations to protect and/or
restore their image or reputation among external stakeholders in a crisis situation. The purpose of this
paper is to set up an integrative framework for the study of internal crisis communication in private
and public organizations.
Design/methodology/approach The paper takes a theoretical approach reviewing the literature
on crisis management and crisis communication and discussing the concept of internal stakeholder
and the implications of a staged approach.
Findings An integrative framework for the study of internal crisis communication is developed
based on two assumptions: first, that internal crisis communication research must start with a detailed
study of the relationship between an organization and its internal stakeholders (in this case: the
employees) to clarify to what extent internal crisis communication differs from external crisis
communication; and second, that internal crisis communication research can best be systematized
applying a staged approach (precrisis stage, crisis event, postcrisis stage) as an heuristic method.
Originality/value Apart from a few exceptions, the internal dimension of crises, crisis
management, and crisis communication has, by and large, been unexplored.
Keywords Corporate communications, Employees communications, Employees relations,
Crisis communication, Integrative framework, Internal communication, Internal stakeholder
Paper type Research paper

Introduction
Can and shall an organization that finds itself in a crisis situation communicate with its
internal stakeholders in the same way it communicates with its external stakeholders?
And if the answer is no, what then distinguishes internal crisis communication from
external crisis communication? These are the two questions that we would like to
address in this conceptual paper.
Over the last ten to 15 years, crisis communication has established itself as a new
academic discipline cherishing ambitions to become an autonomous research area of its
own. Initiatives have been taken to organize topic-specific international conferences on
crisis communication (such as the new series of conferences about Crisis
Communication at the Beginning of the 21st Century, which started in October 2009
at Ilmenau University of Technology in Germany). Initiatives have also been taken to
create new topic-specific international research networks (such as the new ECREA
Temporary Working Group on Crisis Communication established in 2011). Or as the
two editors of the newly published and voluminous Handbook of Crisis
Communication, Coombs and Holladay (2010, p. xxvi), rightly state:
The authors have equally contributed to this paper.

Corporate Communications: An
International Journal
Vol. 16 No. 4, 2011
pp. 347-361
q Emerald Group Publishing Limited
1356-3289
DOI 10.1108/13563281111186977

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348

Currently, crisis communication is more of a subdiscipline in public relations and corporate


communication. However, as the research in crisis communication continues to grow, it may
be able to establish itself as an independent field that is both provocative and exciting.

So far, crisis communication researchers have primarily focused on the external


dimension of crisis communication, and in particular on the crisis response strategies
applied by organizations in crisis, in their communication with external stakeholders
(such as customers, media, politicians, and NGOs), to protect or restore an image or
reputation that has been threatened or damaged by the crisis. It is now time to start
focusing on the internal dimension of crisis communication, an area clearly suffering
from being under-researched. The already mentioned Handbook of Crisis
Communication has a complete section devoted to future research directions,
outlining new areas and approaches that will bring crisis communication a step further
(such as emotions, learning, global crisis, the cultural aspects of crises). However, only
one of the seven chapters contained in this section draws our attention to internal crisis
communication (with a strong focus on the precrisis stage) as a new and relevant
research area within the field. Taylor (2010, p. 703) writes:
The future of crisis communication research is in studying and understanding the internal
dynamics of organizations. The future for crisis communication researchers and practitioners
is in answering the how and why. [. . .] Communication and relationships are at the center
of this internal communication approach to crisis communication.

So how then do we start studying internal crisis communication? The aim of this article
is to set up a new integrative framework for research in internal crisis communication;
a framework which, on one hand, identifies and highlights how internal crisis
communication differs from external crisis communication, and which on the other
hand, imposes structure on and delivers an overview of the individual sub-areas within
internal crisis communication. The article takes its starting point in the following two
basic assumptions:
(1) That research in internal crisis communication must start with a detailed study
of the relationship between an organization and its internal stakeholders (in our
case: the employees) in order to discover what characterizes internal crisis
communication.
(2) That research in internal crisis communication can best be systematized
applying a staged approach to crisis management where there is a distinction
between at least three stages: a precrisis stage, the crisis event, and a postcrisis
stage. Although the staged approach recently has been subject to criticism from
various scholars, it may serve as a kind of heuristic method allowing us to
create a preliminary overview.
Literature review
We have divided the literature review into two parts:
(1) The practical-oriented literature, which is mainly based on personal experience.
(2) The theoretical-oriented literature, which is based on the scientific and
systematic study of crises, crisis management and crisis communication
(including neighboring academic disciplines such as organizational behavior
and organizational communication).

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The practical-oriented literature


If you google internal crisis communication, you get more than 12,000 hits. Many of
the web sites or documents referred to in these hits have been authored by public
relations or communication consultants or consultancies. A typical representative of
the practical-oriented approach is C4CS or center for communication strategies (www.
c4cs.com), based in Pittsburgh in the USA, which has specialized in strategic
communication and crisis management, including communication with both external
and internal stakeholders. Oliver Schmidt, managing partner of C4CS, is the author of
several articles about effective employee communication in times of crisis. Two
elements seem to be recurrent in these articles:
(1) A communication plan for internal crisis communication comprising a series of
rather traditional questions that you will find in almost every communication
plan:
1. What is the desired outcome of the communication? [Objective]. 2. What will be
communicated? [Message]. 3. Who will initiate the communication? [Sender]. 4. Which
group of employees (and management) will be communicated with? [Recipient]. 5.
How and/or where is the communication going to happen? [Channel/venue]. 6. When
will the communication take place? [Timeline] (Schmidt, 2005, 2010).

(2) A series of more topic-specific normative advices concerning internal crisis


communication, from which you can make up an idea, but mostly indirectly,
about what characterizes internal crisis communication. A few examples:
It is necessary to increase the internal communication frequency since employees
usually have a high demand for updated information as well as the desire to provide
continuous feedback. [. . .] When ever possible internal communication should precede
external communication. Engaging in an honest dialogue with as many employees as
possible also fosters better understanding and employee support [. . .]. The internal
crisis communication should be conducted using established communication channels
and venues in addition to those that may have been developed to manage specific
crisis scenarios. [. . .] face-to-face communication between supervisors and their direct
subordinates remains a decisive tool in facilitating effective employee communication
during a crisis [. . .] (Schmidt, 2005, 2010).

It is characteristic of the practical-oriented literature on internal crisis communication


that it is very sender-oriented (a focus on how managers must communicate with
employees in a crisis situation), and that it consists of normative advices based on
personal experience from working with crisis management and crisis communication
(consulting) in organizations. Usually, there are no efforts made to describe or explain
the differentia specifica of internal crisis communication.
The theoretical-oriented literature
Although factors of relevance for the study of internal crisis communication are
touched upon now and then in the academic literature on crisis management and crisis
communication, this sort of research is seldom thematized as research on internal crisis
communication. Key examples of such factors are: decision-making in a crisis situation,
crisis perception, psychological defense mechanisms, organizational learning, and the
impact of organizational culture or the personalities of organizations on the
organizations ability to handle a crisis. When internal crisis management and crisis

Internal crisis
communication

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communication are finally thematized, only very short chapters or sections of a book or
a journal article are devoted to the topic. A good example of this is Fearn-Banks (1996)
excellence theory of crisis public relations, where there is a short section on
Communicating with Internal Publics containing a set of normative advices about
how to communicate with what the author terms a functional public before and
during an organizational crisis.
Ian I. Mitroff, the founding father of modern crisis management, has in several of his
articles and books examined aspects, especially psychological ones, that are relevant to
the study of internal crisis communication. In Pauchant and Mitroff (1992), the
existential nature of organizational crises (including individual defense mechanism) is
studied applying the onion model of crisis management. In his more recent publications,
Mitroff has studied the emotional crisis-preparedness of organizations focusing on a
detailed analysis of defense mechanisms such as denial, disavowal, idealization,
grandiosity, projection, intellectualization, and compartmentalization. According to
Mitroff (2005, pp. 39-42), another characteristic of organizational crises is that they are
experienced as major acts of betrayal because people need to have someone to blame for
the crisis. The leaders or managers who were supposed to take care of the members of
the organization are thus often viewed as betrayers and are demonized.
So far, Karl E. Weicks theory of retrospective sensemaking (Weick, 1979, 1995, 2001,
2009), focusing especially on situations where organizational sensemaking breaks
down, typically in a change or crisis situation where demands on sensemaking can be
severe, has been the most important and comprehensive contribution to the study of
organization internal dimension of crises, crisis management and crisis communication.
Weicks (1988) study of the Bhopal disaster, later updated in Weick (2010), and Weicks
(1993) study of the Mann Gulch fire are often regarded as paradigmatic exemplars of
how to conduct a sensemaking study, and the starting gun for a stream of research
labelled crisis sensemaking. In the first article, Weick (1988, p. 305) investigates how
action that is instrumental to understanding the crisis often intensifies the crisis
(the theory of enactment and enacted environments), and how commitment, capacity,
and expectations have an impact on sensemaking in crisis situations. In the second
article, Weick (1993, p. 105) defines crises as cosmology episodes:
A cosmology episode occurs when people suddenly and deeply feel that the universe is no
longer a rational, orderly system. What makes such an episode so shattering is that both the
sense of what is occurring and the means to rebuild that sense collapse together.

The studies conducted within the field of crisis sensemaking are first and foremost
characterized by qualitative casestudies with the purpose of examining:
.
how organizational members create meaning at an organizational micro-level
as a crisis unfolds in various contexts (Weick, 1990, 1993, 2010; Wicks, 2002;
Weick and Sutcliffe, 2003; Kayes, 2004); or
.
how sensemaking takes place at a societal macro-level at the end of a crisis
through the study of reports and other documents from public inquiries (Gephart,
1993, 2007; Brown, 2000) (for an overview of crisis sensemaking research,
see Maitlis and Sonenshein, 2010).
Recently, Weick and Sutcliffe (2001, 2007) have contributed to the ongoing debate about
anticipation versus resilience the formal crisis-preparedness (crisis management plan,

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crisis management team) etablished before a crisis breaks out (precrisis stage) versus
the ability of organizational members to bounce back after the crisis has broken out
(crisis stage or postcrisis stage) with their study of collective mindfulness in
high-reliability organizations.
To these examples from the Anglo-Saxon literature on crisis management and crisis
communication, one may add articles and books published in other languages than
English, such as Ogrizek and Guillery (1997), Bertram (2007) and Mazzei (2009).
It is characteristic of the theoretical-oriented literature on internal crisis
communication that it is very sparse and that it focuses more on psychological than on
communicative aspects, although it can be difficult to keep these two perspectives apart.
An integrative framework for the study of internal crisis communication
In this section, we attempt to set up a new integrative framework for the study of
internal crisis communication. The framework is based on and is a result of two basic
assumptions:
(1) That internal crisis communication research must start with a detailed study of
the relationship between an organization and its internal stakeholders (in our
case: the employees) to clarify to what extent internal crisis communication
differs from external crisis communication.
(2) That internal crisis communication research can best be systematized applying
a staged approach (precrisis stage, crisis event, postcrisis stage) as a heuristic
method.
First basic assumption: the relationship between an organization and its internal
stakeholders
Stakeholder management is a research field that has witnessed important changes since
the publication of Edward Freemans seminal book Strategic Management: A Stakeholder
Approach (1984) (Friedman and Miles, 2006; Laplume et al., 2008; Parmar et al., 2010). The
field has moved from a one-sided stakeholder management approach to a two-sided or
multi-sided stakeholder relations management approach (Andriof et al., 2002, 2003).
Where stakeholders were considered to be rather static actors having fixed stakes,
stakeholders are now viewed as dynamic actors having variable stakes that change
over time, and trying to adapt their stakes through different forms of cooperation
(Freeman et al.s (2010) distinction between a fixed stakes model and a joint stakes
model). In this way, the relations between an organization and its stakeholders become
far more complex and dynamic.
An organizational crisis may put these complex and dynamic relations under
pressure. Especially, three kinds of elements make stakeholders become more dynamic
and volatile. First, stakeholders may change stakeholder type influencing their degree
of salience because of a crisis situation. Second, stakeholders often have different roles
and are part of different social networks at one and the same time. Third, a specific
stakeholder group rarely forms a homogenous group of people. In the following, these
elements will be developed further.
Mitchell et al. (1997) distinguish between different types of stakeholders (dormant,
discretionary, demanding, dominant, dangerous, dependent, definitive stakeholder, and
non-stakeholder), and point out three dimensions in their stakeholder salience model that
are important for the salience of the individual stakeholder in relation to the perception
that an organization or its management holds of this specific stakeholder, namely power,

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legitimacy, and urgency. Based on this model, Alpaslan et al. (2009) describe how a series
of stakeholder dimensions can change status in connection with a crisis, and how
stakeholders can develop from being dormant, discretionary, and demanding
stakeholders to becoming dangerous, dependent, and definitive stakeholders.
What characterizes employees as a stakeholder group?[1] It can be difficult or even
artificial to think of the employees of an organization as a purely internal stakeholder,
in so far that an employee may have other roles and belong to other stakeholder groups
internally or externally (for instance as a shareholder, a customer, a citizen, a consumer
of news, or a member of an NGO). It is also important to emphasize that a stakeholder
group is not a homogenous group of people. Customers as a stakeholder may be
divided into a long series of various subcategories or stakeholder groups with different
stakes in the organization itself or in its products. This also applies to employees. They
form a heterogeneous stakeholder group that typically consists of different groups of
employees having different tasks, functions, and interests within the organization,
such as workers, administrators, top managers, middle managers, project team
members, and board members. Employees also participate in various kinds of social
networks inside and outside their workplace.
However, there is a series of elements common to these different groups of employees
that at least to a certain extent make them differ from other kinds of stakeholders:
(1) the type of relationship;
(2) the stakes;
(3) the identity and the degree of identification with the organization; and
(4) the role of the employees as both senders and receivers of internal (crisis)
communication.
These four elements have consequences for how you can or should communicate in the
organizational everyday life as well as in crisis situations:
(1) What characterizes the relationship between an organization and its employees?
Employees have a different kind of relation to an organization, which, to a certain
extent, differs from the relationship between the organization and its external
stakeholders. According to various stakeholder typologies, this relationship turns
the employees into a contractual stakeholder having a legal relationship with the
organization, often materialized in the form of an employment contract (Charkham,
1992). Employees have an employment relationship in the form of an economic
relation where a wage and salary earner is compensated for his work and use of
time, as well as a formal relation due to a specific distribution of roles, tasks, and
functions that may reflect the power structure of the organization. Some external
stakeholders such as customers may also be described as contractual stakeholders,
but their contract with the organization is of quite different kind (delivery of a
product living up to certain promises and expectations).
The relations between the organization and the employees have an influence on
the way employees act, what they are allowed to do and to say in the everyday
organizational life as well as before, during, and after an organizational crisis.
(2) What are the stakes of the employees? As mentioned above, employees can be
said to have stakes that to a certain extent differ from the ones of the external
stakeholders. Attempts have been made to describe some of these stakes by

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means of expressions such as salary, job security, working hours and working
conditions, degree of freedom and autonomy versus control, and motivation and
engagement. These stakes may vary from group to group depending on age, sex,
seniority, educational background, human type, private life, organizational
functions, and positions.
These stakes affect the perceptions the employees have of their own
organization, as well as they play a role for their ways of interpreting and
understanding the behavior and the communication of the organization.
Furthermore, their stakes also have an influence on the attributions, i.e. the
spontaneous causal explanations that employees are making in relation to a
crisis situation, which are important for instance for the ascribing of crisis
responsibility to their own organization or to management (Coombs, 2007a).
(3) Employees have another kind of organizational identification and
organizational identity that make them differ from external stakeholders, at
least to a certain extent. They typically feel another sense of belonging and
commitment to their job and to their workplace unlike an external stakeholder
who may have other kinds of interests in an organization. Research within the
field of organizational identity (Ashforth and Mael, 1989; Pratt, 1998) have
shown that the organizational membership of employees seem to constitute an
integrated part of the personal identity and that this can explain the immediate
sense of obligation to defend the organization from outside attacks, including
attacks on the image and reputation of an organization.
This kind of identification and identity influences for instance the attitudes
and emotions, the self-esteem, and the degree of belonging and having
ownership. To give an example: if the feeling of pride is negatively influenced
by a crisis (and the negative media coverage derived from it), it may result in the
rejection of the role as positive ambassadors and in employees trying to
distance themselves from their organizational identity (Aggerholm, 2009).
(4) Employees can be mobilized in crisis communication, not only as receivers but
also as senders, just as they in the roles of internal or external stakeholders can
act proactively in a crisis situation, within a rhetorical arena where their
voices meet and compete, collaborate or negotiate with other corporate and
non-corporate voices (Johansen and Frandsen, 2007; Frandsen and Johansen,
2010b). Not only do they in a crisis situation talk about their feelings and
attitudes towards their workplace with their colleagues, families, and friends,
some of them also give interviews or statements to the press as well as they
choose to express their own opinion for instance through the new social media.
Whether they act as negative or positive ambassadors can be very important to
an organization in a crisis situation (www.glassdoor.com).
To sum up, we can conclude that employees as internal stakeholders have a stronger
and more complex psychological dimension than most of the other stakeholders
(except perhaps investors who also form a kind of internal stakeholder group).
Employees are closer to the organization. This psychological dimension is often
characterized by specific emotional and cognitive reactions and feelings in a crisis
situation such as the feeling of insecurity and uncertainty (what is going to happen?),
chaos (the breakdown of the whole well-known and orderly universe), stress

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(as a consequence of an enormous pressure of work and time, or lack of knowledge,


information or competences or, worst of all, lack of meaning), the feeling of betrayal
(by management or by colleagues), fear (of loosing job, status, position, esteem, and
good social networks), grief (physical and psychological losses like the loss of
close colleagues (during layoffs) or external lives (because of accidents), and anger
(towards the responsible persons or the ones believed to be responsible)).
If you compare employees with customers as stakeholders, the former must deal
with a workplace and the work that they are performing and upon which they build
their life, while the latter must deal with a product that they have acquired (through
purchase) and that they are supposed to consume.
Second basic assumption: the staged approach as a heuristic method
One of the things that characterizes the development within the field of crisis
management and crisis communication, especially after the publication of Steven Finks
book Crisis Management (1986), is the move away from a tactical, reactive, and
event-oriented perspective towards a more strategic, proactive, or interactive and
process-oriented perspective (Frandsen and Johansen, 2010a, pp. 307-8; Roux-Dufort,
2000a, pp. 17-18, 2000b, pp. 17-29). The latter is characterized by a staged approach
that is based on a distinction between a certain number of macro and micro stages
(Coombs, 2007b, pp. 14-20; Johansen and Frandsen, 2007, pp. 133-42).
This staged approach has recently been criticized for having:
.
a linear and sequential idea of the life cycle of a crisis, where something starts
and ends at specific points in time;
.
an idea according to which it is always possible to discern three stages: a before
the crisis stage, a during the crisis stage, and an after the crisis stage,
without overlaps or grey areas; and
.
an idea according to which organizations only confront one organizational crisis
at the time.
In short: the staged approach is accused of having a too simplified, or even misleading,
representation of the social reality called crisis (Jaques, 2007).
We agree to a large extent with these objections claiming that it is about time that
we replace the simple process-oriented perspective (Jaques, 2007) with a complex
process-oriented perspective within crisis management and crisis communication
(Frandsen and Johansen, 2010c). However, this does not mean that the staged approach
is of no theoretical or practical value. Thus, we maintain that it is possible to apply a
three-stage model as a heuristic method, that is: as an ad hoc procedure allowing us to
study a specific field (in our case: internal crisis communication).
As it appears from Figure 1, we distinguish between three stages on the horizontal axis:
a precrisis stage, the crisis event, and a postcrisis stage. Each stage is defined by a focal
point within internal crisis management. In the precrisis stage, there is a focus on
preventing and preparing. During the crisis event, there is a focus on handling the crisis
and sense making. And in the postcrisis stage, there is a focus on learning and changing
the organization. We do not think that there are evident lines of demarcations or watertight
shutters between the three stages (without overlaps and recurrence), or that the sub-areas
listed up in Figure 1 can be distributed as easily as it appears. But the three stages allow us
to integrate and to make a preliminary overview, which can be revised and refined later on.

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PRECRISIS
STAGE

CRISIS EVENT

POSTCRISIS
STAGE

Focal point

To prevent
To prepare

To handle the crisis


To make sense

To learn
To change

(1) Employees as
receivers

Communication of
risks, issues and stakes

Management or
crisis management
team as senders

Communication that
strengthens the
psychological crisispreparedness

Communication of
relevant instructions
and information

Communication of
new knowledge
(organizational
learning and
memory)

Other types of
senders outside the
organization

Communication of the
crisis management
plan (policies and
guidelines)

Handling of reactions
to the crisis and sense
making
Protection/restoration
of the trust and
confidence among
employees
Crisis autocommunication

Internal crisis
communication

355

Communication of
post-crisis changes
Discourse of
renewal
Memorials

(3) Horizontal communication among managers and among employees


(2) Employees as
senders
Management or
crisis management
team as receivers

Negative upward
communication
through the line
(whistle blowers,
dissenters)

Communication of
reactions to the crisis

Organizational
storytelling

Positive and/or
negative organizational
ambassadors

Other types of
receivers outside the
organization
Organizational
factors having a
positive or negative
influence

Crisis type (content, intensity, dynamics and interpretation)


Cognitive, affective, and behavioral reactions to a crisis (such as anger,
stress, grief, and betrayal)
Crisis culture
Safety and error culture
Psychological defense mechanisms
Crisis perception
Crisis memory
Collective mindfulness
Communication culture or climate
Communication strategy

Figure 1.
Sub-areas within
the field of internal
crisis communication

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As it also appears from Figure 1, we distinguish between a series of communicative


situations on the vertical axis: (1) the employees as receivers (and the management or the
crisis management team of the organization as senders) and (2) the employees as senders
(and the management or the crisis management team of the organization as receivers).
This distinction is necessary in order to demonstrate how employees as internal
stakeholders may be mobilized before, during, and after a crisis situation. To highlight
the complexity or porosity of organizations, that is: the fact that it is impossible to make a
clear-cut distinction between what is internal and what is external (Cheney and
Christensen, 2001), we also distinguish between (3) other types of senders outside the
organization and (4) other types of receivers outside the organization. The media are an
instance of the former by virtue of their ability to create verbal and visual pictures of the
organization in crisis, pictures that may have an impact on how employees behave and
communicate about their workplace. Employees do also watch television, listen to the
radio, read newspaper articles or blogs on the internet. Informal networks (such as
family, friends, and colleagues) and their use of social media are an instance of the latter.
Employees often communicate within these networks, not only when a crisis breaks out,
but also before and after. Thus, by internal crisis communication, we do not only
understand communication that remains inside the organizational container (the formal
or material boundaries of the organization). All types of organizations, at all hierarchical
levels, from the bottom to the top, are porous letting internal communication leak out,
and external communication leak in due to different stakeholder roles, communicative
practices, and social networks crossing organizational boundaries.
On both the horizontal and vertical axis, we operate with a category that we call
organizational factors having a positive or negative influence on internal crisis
communication before, during and/or after a crisis. These factors develop more or less
dynamically according to the type of organization, crisis type, and crisis history.
Among the most important factors, we find the organizational crisis culture which
form part of the formal or informal organizational culture in general (Johansen and
Frandsen, 2007, p. 344). The organizational crisis culture tells us something about how,
when, where, and why an organization sees and remembers crises; how the
organization makes sense of the crises it has experienced; how the organization looks
on and accept mistakes and errors; and how the psychological crisis-preparedness
looks like (including the psychological defense mechanisms thriving in the
organization, Mitroff and Anagnos, 2001, pp. 45-8).
It is now possible to structure or systematize the various sub-areas within the field of
internal crisis communication applying the new integrative framework based on our
definition of the relationship between an organization and its internal stakeholders
(the employees and our application of the three-stage approach as a heuristic method. As
already suggested, we view internal crisis communication as something broader, more
complex and dynamic, than it is traditionally the case. Internal crisis communication is not
only when the managers of an organization (the sender) communicates to or with the
employees of the organization (the receiver), as it is usually represented in the
practical-oriented literature. Internal crisis communication also comprises situations
where the employees communicate inside the organization, among each other or to the
management, or across organizational boundaries (playing the role of both senders and
receivers). Internal crisis communication even comprises situations where the employees
interpret and make sense of the organizations external crisis communication

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(crisis auto-communication), that is: how the employees understand the crisis response
strategies used by the organizations (crisis) managers or public relations officers on
the corporate web site, in press releases, during press conferences, in statements to
the media, or in interviews with journalists.
A new research agenda
The question now is: where do we begin? How can we best expand the existing body of
knowledge about internal crisis communication? As we see it, the following empirical
and conceptual research projects will be the most urgent:
(1) Quantitative surveys in private and public organizations (within specific
organizational fields), the purpose of which is to describe how these
organizations work with their internal crisis communication (if at all) before,
during, and after a crisis. In their large-scale survey in Denmark covering more
than 750 organizations, Frandsen and Johansen (2004) asked the question:
Which communication channels have been used or will be used for internal
crisis communication in your company or authority? In a more recent survey
conducted among 367 private and public organizations in Denmark in 2011
(Johansen et al., 2011), a series of more specific questions were brought up, such
as: how is internal crisis communication integrated in the crisis management
plan of the organization? How is the internal crisis communication organized
before, during, and after a crisis? Do organizations have internal spokespersons
and policies and guidelines for what to communicate internally and externally
on behalf of the employees? Are employees actively involved as ambassadors?
Do they take communicative initiatives themselves?
(2) Case studies of how, when, where, and why employees see, or do not see,
various types of organizational crises, and how their crisis perception is affected by
individual and/or organizational factors such as the organizational function (work
culture), educational background (professional culture), age, gender, and seniority.
(3) Case studies of how, when, where, and why employees remember, or do not
remember, various types of organizational crises, and how their crisis
memory is affected by individual and/or organizational factors such as the
organizational function (work culture), educational background (professional
culture), age, gender, and seniority.
(4) Experimental studies of how employees make sense of and react to the
external crisis response strategies applied by their own organization. Do they
interpret these response strategies in the same way as the external stakeholders,
or do their stakes and relationship with the organization make them interpret
the crisis response strategies in other ways? To what extent can we apply
already existing theories and models, such as image restoration theory (Benoit,
1995), crisis communication as terminological control (Hearit, 2006), situational
crisis communication theory (Coombs, 2007b), contingency approach to crisis
communication (Pang et al., 2010), and crisis sensemaking theory (cf. the
literature review), to internal crisis communication?
(5) Experimental studies of how employees interpret, make sense of, and react to
the negative media coverage of crises. How, when, where, and why does this
affect their organizational identity and identification?

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Concluding remarks: implications for future research


The study of internal crisis communication will hopefully generate new insights that
will improve our understanding of how private and public organizations and their
internal stakeholders communicate before, during, and after a crisis. These insights
will challenge previous crisis communication research in at least three ways.
First, there is a clear need for stakeholder differentiation. Different stakeholders
have different stakes and expectations. Previous crisis communication research has
primarily treated stakeholders as a monolithic entity without taking into consideration
how a difference in stakes may have an impact on how external and especially internal
stakeholders interpret, communicate and react to organizational crises.
Second, and in close relation to the foregoing, we need to apply an integrated approach
combining the different perspectives of what we traditionally term external and
internal communication. Organizations are porous or permeable constructions, letting
formal and informal messages go in and out. Citizens show interest and intervene in the
internal affairs of companies from which they buy their products and services. Politicians
use an organizational crisis for the opportunity to promote their own political agendas.
Employees follow closely how journalists and social network users react to the external
crisis communication of their own organization. All these stakeholders contribute to the
rhetorical arena that opens up in most crisis situations, and in which many corporate and
non-corporate voices meet, compete, collaborate or negotiate (Johansen and Frandsen,
2007; Frandsen and Johansen, 2010b). By integration, we do not necessarily mean that the
organization in crisis must speak with one voice. There are different types and degrees of
integration, at different organizational levels. Sometimes, a strong integration is the best
solution; at other times, a more flexible integration is the best solution.
Finally, there is a need for an interactive communication model taking into
consideration the complexity and dynamics of organizational crises, and defining both
managers and employees as active sensemakers and sensegivers.
Note
1. The concept of internal stakeholder has been added to stakeholder management theory at a later
date than most of the other stakeholder groups. Freeman (1984) gives an account of how he to
begin with rejected the concept and found it troublesome. The reason for this rejection is to be
found in the context of the emergence of stakeholder management. In Strategic Management:
A Stakeholder Approach, Freeman (1984, p. 216) states: The point of a stakeholder approach to
organizations is to force organizational managers to be more responsive to the external
environment. [. . .] By applying the stakeholder approach internally within the corporation,
there is a danger that the force of the argument is lost. This is the reason why Freeman reduces
the internal stakeholders to the conduit through which managers can reach other external
stakeholders (Freeman, 1984, p. 218; Welch and Jackson, 2007).
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About the authors
Finn Frandsen (mag.art., Aarhus University) is Professor of Corporate Communication and
Director of Centre for Corporate Communication at Aarhus University, Business and Social
Sciences, Department of Business Communication, in Denmark. His primary research interests
are crisis communication and crisis management, environmental communication, public
relations, marketing communication, organization and management theories, rhetoric and
discourse analysis. His work has appeared in a range of journals and handbooks such as
Corporate Communication: An International Journal, International Journal of Strategic
Communication, Management Communication Quarterly, Handbook of Crisis Communication,
Handbook of Pragmatics, and The SAGE Handbook of Public Relations.
Winni Johansen (PhD, Aarhus School of Business) is Associate Professor at Centre
for Corporate Communication at Aarhus University, Business and Social Sciences, Department of
Business Communication, in Denmark, and Director of the Executive Masters Program
in Corporate Communication. Dr Johansens research interests include crisis communication
and crisis management, change communication, environmental communication, public relations,
marketing communication, and visual communication. Her work has appeared in a range of
journals and handbooks such as Corporate Communication: An International Journal,
International Journal of Strategic Communication, Management Communication Quarterly,
Handbook of Crisis Communication, Handbook of Pragmatics, and The SAGE Handbook of Public
Relations. Winni Johansen is the corresponding author and can be contacted at: wj@asb.dk

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