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«13TH INTERNATIONAL PUBLIC RELATIONS RESEARCH CONFERENCE “Ethical Issues for Public Relations Practice in a Multicultural World” Holiday Inn ...»

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This study examined 210 online reactions posted at a Kindle forum in response to an apology posted by Jeffrey Bezos, CEO of Amazon.com. Bezos apologized to Kindle owners for removing access to copies of George Orwell e-books they had purchased. The Kindle Crisis offered a unique opportunity to study stakeholder responses to crisis communication in an online environment.

Reactions were examined for insights into this case and helped to develop a method for systematically evaluating online responses to crisis response strategies. Posted messages were coded for acceptance of the apology (acceptance, conditional acceptance, and rejection), purchase intention, and word-of-mouth intention. Chi-square tests and mean scores revealed a strong preference for accepting the apology and positive purchase intention. A version of the Janis-Fadner Coefficient of Imbalance was used to more precisely evaluate the magnitude of behavioral intention and word-of-mouth. Finally, analysis of rejection reaction postings provided insights into additional actions crisis managers might take and how organizations might make their crisis communication more interactive in an online environment.



An important trend in crisis communication research is the move from a sender perspective (what the organization communicates) to a receiver/stakeholder perspective (how the organization’s messages are perceived by stakeholders). Originally, crisis communication research reflected a sender orientation by focusing only on what the organization said, with the assumption that the messages would have the desired effect on stakeholders. In contrast, the receiver/stakeholder perspective examines how stakeholders perceive the crisis and the organization’s response to the crisis (Lee, 2004). It is important to consider both perceptions of the crisis and the response because the nature of the crisis affects the appropriateness of the response (e.g., Coombs, 1995; Coombs & Holladay, 1996, 2002, 2006). Research on Contingency Theory and Situational Crisis Communication Theory (SCCT) has used experiments and surveys to map factors that shape stakeholder perceptions of the crisis situation and how they perceive and/or react to various crisis response strategies (e.g., Coombs, 2007b). Even definitions of crisis now acknowledge the importance of stakeholder perceptions (e.g., Coombs, 2007a).

Experimental research is critical to advancing the crisis communication research agendas presented by Contingency Theory and SCCT. Both theories take a social science approach to the in the hopes of building evidence-based crisis communication recommendations (Coombs, 2010; Jin & Pang, 2010). No research method is perfect and any experimental design has an artificial element necessary for controlling the threats to internal validity required to make claims of causation.

Although there are numerous advantages to experiments, typically they do not allow us to get a sense of naturally occurring stakeholder reactions to crisis responses. Even if you were to survey stakeholders after a crisis, the survey adds an artificial stimulus element to the study. Would stakeholders have even thought about the crisis without the prompt from the questionnaire?

The online environment provides a potentially useful forum for exploring stakeholder reactions to crisis communication. Many people are willing post comments about nearly anything online, and this includes their reactions to organizations’ crisis responses. The challenge is to identify an appropriate crisis, an appropriate online forum for studying responses, and a large enough sample to study. Again, these types of studies would be exploratory because people who post online are not representative of all stakeholders.

There are two unique characteristics of people who go online. First, they are the ones who are online and not all stakeholders have online access. Second, they often are active and willing to post messages about topics that interest them. We could use these characteristics to advance our understanding of people’s perceptions of and reactions to crises, as long as we acknowledge the limitations of such a sample. Examining online responses to crises that are relevant to those online would allow us to get a sense of how people in that stakeholder group of online, motivated stakeholders are perceiving the crisis and the organization’s crisis response. Practitioner interest in stakeholders who are active online has grown rapidly (e.g. How, 2009; Reputation, 2009). Such exploratory research could contribute new insights into our understanding of stakeholder perceptions that could then be examined more rigorously through research questions and hypotheses in later experiments.

Apology holds a central role in the discussion of crisis responses. The term apology is used frequently with various definitions ranging from a simple expression of concern to accepting responsibility for the crisis (Cohen, 2002; Kellerman, 2006). For this paper we are viewing apology as a clear acceptance of responsibility for the crisis. It is the acceptance of responsibility that creates legal liability and leads some crisis managers to shy away from an apology (Tyler, 1997). In July of 2009, Jeffrey Bezos, CEO of Amazon.com, apologized online at the Kindle Community discussion board to Kindle owners for removing access to copies of George Orwell e-books they had purchased.

Several days earlier the company had refunded their money for the e-books (only 99 cents).

Amazon.com deleted the books because the third-party seller on Amazon.com did not hold the copyright so the books legally never should have been sold.

209 The Kindle Crisis presents a unique opportunity to study stakeholder responses to a crisis apology. Bezos posted the message to a discussion board for Amazon.com customers in an area called the Kindle Community and one that potential customers would view as well. Within a six day period, there were over 600 responses to the apology. While we cannot claim these responses are representative of all Amazon.com stakeholders, they do provide insights into how people who participated in the Kindle Community discussion board at that time perceived the crisis, reacted to the apology, and the evaluated the effectiveness of the apology as a response. Although some may argue that the vocal online stakeholders are simply an aberration to be dismissed, the growing industry built on monitoring online conversations about organizations and their products suggests these stakeholders are harbingers to taken seriously. We subscribe to this later view when considering online responses to crisis communication to be a valuable source of information about crisis communication effectiveness.

Review of Relevant Crisis Communication Literature

Following Sturges (1994), crisis communication can be divided into three broad categories:

(1) instructing information which helps people cope physically with the crisis including an explanation of what happened; (2) adjusting information which helps people cope psychologically with a crisis; and (3) reputation repair. Corrective action involves repairing damage inflicted by the crisis and efforts to prevent a repeat of the crisis (Coombs, 2009). Efforts to prevent a repeat of the crisis address psychological concerns by reassuring stakeholders they will not be subjected to the negative event again.

Discussions of apologies are common in the crisis communication literature as part of strategic efforts to help repair damaged relationships and reputations. Three aspects of apologies have been the focus: content, source, and timing (Wooten, 2006). Literature focuing on the content of apologies often references legal advice to avoid self-incrimination (Cohen, 2002). Literature demonstrating a source focus often stresses how organizational leaders are ideal sources of apologies and that apologies are likely to be perceived as more effective when communicated by top leaders.

For instance, Kellerman (2006) claims that CEO apologies are useful because they acknowledge the leader is ultimately responsible for the problem and serve an institutional purpose by seeking to restore the organization’s reputation. Kellerman also notes that apologies can serve a moral purpose when the source demonstrates genuine remorse and asks for forgiveness. However, executives often underestimate the benefits and overestimate the costs of apologizing (Kellerman, 2006). Third, the timing of apologies has been examined as a factor affecting the value of apologizing. As with all crisis responses, a response should be issued quickly because a lack of response is likely to keep the story in the media limelight. In the case of apologies, a time lapse may lead receivers to question the sincerity of the apology. But a late apology is better than no apology (Wooten, 2006).

We favor Hearit’s (2005, 2006) view of apology as conciliation. Conciliation involves mortification, where the organization accepts its guilt, accepts the criticisms it has received, and seeks forgiveness for the transgression. The apology literature suggests that the strategy need not occur in isolation and may be more effective when combined with other crisis response strategies (e.g., Bradford & Garrett, 1995; Wooten, 2006). Bradford and Garrett (1995) found that conciliation often is used in conjunction with corrective action and compensation strategies (giving people money or goods) in order to restore faith in the relationship.

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improved versions of the original, were introduced in 2009. Through Amazon.com, customers can buy electronic books and read them on their Kindles. However, the e-books cannot be shared because of a Digital Rights Management (DRM) system. DRM is designed to protect copyrighted material in a digital age. Through encryption or a digital watermark, DRM prevents people from sharing a file. DRM systems have been used for music, film, and books to prevent piracy. So when an e-book is purchased for a Kindle, that book can only be used on the purchaser’s Kindle. It cannot be used on other Kindles or electronic readers nor can it be resold to another person. These characteristics make e-books different from traditional paper books.

The beauty of e-books is ease of storage and portability. Hundreds of books can be stored on a Kindle. It is much easier to carry one Kindle than a box of books. Readers can take notes and mark text on the Kindle as well. On July 16, 2009, some Kindle users found another difference from paper books. Amazon.com could delete books from its servers, thereby “erasing” books from a Kindle. Kindle is much like an iPod in that both “players” are synchronized with a larger system.

For an iPod, the user syncs it with his or her computer through i-Tunes. Kindles sync with Amazon.com through the WhisperNet software. When WhisperNet is turned on, the Kindle will sync itself with Amazon.com’s server. Actually that can benefit a customer. If you buy a lot of books and have to delete some from your Kindle for space reasons, your purchases are stored on the Amazon.com server and you can restore them at a future date.

In July 2009, Amazon.com realized that a third party had sold copies of George Orwell books, including 1984, without holding the copyright. The pirated books were “illegal.” Without advance notice or explanation, Amazon.com erased those e-books from its servers and reimbursed customers who had purchased them. The absence of an explanation for the deletions led to a firestorm on the Internet and spread to the traditional media. Some customers were outraged that Amazon.com “took” their books. The deletion also meant that people lost any notes they made on the e-books when the files were unexpectedly removed from Amazon.com’s servers. People were quick to point out the irony that 1984 was among the deleted books and the similarities to the world of Orwell’s Big Brother. Blogs and tweets complained about the heavy-handed tactics. The traditional media talked of “memory holes” and employed other terms from 1984. Clearly the situation was escalating into a crisis.

Technically, Amazon.com did not go into people’s Kindles and erase e-books. The e-books were erased from the Amazon.com server and were deleted when people synced through Whispernet.

If a customer had not synced, they would still have the copy. Or if the customers had saved their books to a storage device and only accessed the stored books when WhisperNet was off, they would still have the books. Amazon.com maintained the action was permissible under its Kindle user agreement. Whether the “illegal” e-books were deleted from a server or directly from a Kindle is a technical distinction that most people involved in the controversy did not care to make. The bottom line remained the same; the books disappeared from the Kindles with no warning or reasons given to the customers. The actions violated customer expectations. In July of 2009, Amazon.com faced the Kindle Crisis.

The Kindle Crisis had upset some customers, could turn off potential customers, and was reaching other stakeholders via online and traditional media. Consider how a lawsuit was filed by a teenager because the action resulted in him losing his homework -- the Kindle “ate his homework.” The Kindle Crisis was damaging Amazon.com’s reputation and posed a potential financial threat as well. Action was needed because the threat could spread and become a serious disruption for Amazon.com. The Kindle situation met the requirements to be designated a crisis and require the application of crisis management (Coombs, 2007a).

The Kindle Crisis is an example of an Internet-oriented crisis. The crisis originated and transpired predominately online. Moreover, the primary constituents (customers and potential customers) were online because Amazon.com is an online retailer and the product involves e-books.

While the Internet environment does not change the fundamentals of crisis management and 211 communication, it does change the tools and the timing. Because “Internet time” moves faster than traditional time, speed is even more essential. Crisis managers must utilize Internet-based communication as part of their response. Crisis managers need to be where the crisis action is. If the action is primarily online, crisis managers need to identify where online their messages need to appear in order to be consumed by the relevant stakeholders. This is not a new strategy because media selection always begins with how best to reach the intended targets with the message.

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