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This study takes a first step toward illuminating the role of both positive and negative emotional responses to a crisis. To this end, we investigate the relationship between the experience of discrete emotions and the interpretation of crisis responsibility, relational trust, and intentions to seek flu-related information from a college health center. We examine these relationships in the context of an H1N1 influenza outbreak on a large college campus where over 1,600 students were infected with influenza-like illness in the fall of 2009. We focused on the college health center as the organization with primary responsibility for the health and well being of the campus community, and undergraduate students as their primary stakeholders.
Literature Review Organizational Crisis Outcomes Crisis communication research has evolved from cataloguing crisis-response strategies to examining how crisis situations can influence the selection and effectiveness of crisis-response strategies (Coombs & Holladay, 1996). A model of situational crisis communication theory (SCCT) conceptualizes how stakeholders interpret a crisis to manage organizational reputation (Coombs & Holladay, 2002). The central focus of SCCT is how to assess the crisis situation and select a crisis-response that fits the crisis situation (e.g., Barton, 2001; Fombrun, 1996).
The three primary outcome variables identified by the SCCT (Coombs & Holladay,
2002) include crisis responsibility, organizational reputation, and behavioral intention. For the purpose of this study, we focused on three related variables: crisis responsibility, relational trust, and intentions to seek crisis-related information. While organizational reputation is conceptualized as “the degree to which the source is concerned with the interests of others” (Coombs & Holladay, 2002, p. 174), relational trust was chosen instead of a broader measure of organizational reputation because (a) trustworthiness represents a major component of organizational reputation (Yang, 2007), (b) relational trust is directly associated with early stages 425 of crisis containment (Sturges, 1994), and (c) we assumed that a college health center with an explicit mission to support a healthy campus community would be perceived by stakeholders (students) as being concerned with the interests of others. Intention to seek crisis-related information from the college health center was chosen as the measure of behavioral intention because (a) information seeking is an important health-related behavior amid circumstances of uncertainty inherent in a disease outbreak (e.g., Niederdeppe et al., 2007) and (b) the college health center’s website and electronic resources were chosen by the university administration as the central clearinghouse for H1N1 influenza-related information on campus. Thus, students were expected to consistently monitor and seek new information about the status and response to the H1N1 influenza campus outbreak.
In a crisis, emotions are generally felt and expressed by stakeholders as fleeting experiences that change over time as the crisis develops (Jin, Pang, & Cameron, 2007). Our decision to focus on the three outcome variables identified by the SCCT was designed to permit the study to identify practical implications about communication strategies appropriate at an acute stage of a crisis, in this case the immediate aftermath of an H1N1 influenza outbreak.
Crisis responsibility. Coombs (1998) defined crisis responsibility as “the degree to which stakeholders blame the organization for a crisis event (p.180)”. Based on the premise that people need to assign responsibility for an event, Attribution Theory posits that people look for the causes of events, especially unexpected and negative events (Weiner, 1986). Attribution of responsibility often takes place when there is (a) an identifiable source of an action, (b) a belief that a source should have been able to control or foresee the outcome, (c) the perception that the behaviors of the source are not justified by the situation, or (d) the perception that the source operated under conditions of free choice (Fiske & Taylor, 1991; Weiner, 1996). While few would argue that a campus health center could be responsible for the existence of H1N1 influenza on campus, it is likely that the center would be considered an identifiable source of action with both free choice and ability to foresee and manage the consequences of an H1N1 influenza outbreak.
Using Attribution Theory, the threat of a crisis is largely a function of crisis responsibility, because attributions of responsibility have affective and behavioral consequences for an organization (Coombs, 2007; Coombs & Holladay, 2002; McDonald & Hartel, 2000).
Weiner (1996) also suggested that judgment of responsibility should precede other cognitive and affective reactions. Furthermore, according to the SCCT, crisis responsibility is the centerpiece of a crisis dynamic (Coombs, 2004). Attributions of crisis responsibility are directly related to threats to organizational reputation and relational trust posed by a crisis (Coombs & Holladay, 2002).
Relational trust. Social psychologists define trust as an evaluation of whether another person or entity is competent in accomplishing what it is expected to do (Huang, 2001) or a state of subjective certainty that some other person or entity will not act in ways that might cause painful consequences (Lee, 2005). Trust in an organization can be conceptualized as stakeholders’ interpretation of the degree to which they believe the organization will fulfill its mission of supporting a healthy campus community or avoid acting in ways that lead to negative outcomes.
Trust in the organization is a valuable resource that should be protected from a crisis. The importance of public trust in an organizational crisis can be summarized in twofold: (a) increases the effectiveness of organizational communication during a crisis (e.g., Kim & Yang, 2009;
Lyon & Cameron, 2004), and (b) minimizes the reputational and financial damage after a crisis 426 (e.g., Coombs & Holladay, 2001, 2002; Lee, 2005). It is particularly important for a college health center to maintain relational trust among its stakeholders (students) who are likely to require and use its services in the future.
Numerous researchers have treated trust as a multidimensional construct (e.g., Butler, 1991; Mayer, Davis, & Schoorman, 1995; Yang, 2007). This study uses three dimensions of relational trust adopted from Yang (2007) and Yang and Lim (2009): competence, dependability, and integrity. Competence refers to the capability of a party to perform own obligations (Huang,
2001) and includes the consideration of expertise and timeliness in work performance (Yang & Lim, 2009). Dependability refers to the reliability of a party based on past performances whether the party showed consistent acts and words (Hon & Grunig, 1999, Yang & Lim, 2009). Integrity refers to the willingness to keep ethical standards rather than achieving organizational objectives (Hon & Grunig, 1999, White, 2005, Yang & Lim, 2009).
Intention to seek crisis-related information. Intention to seek information is conceptualized as stakeholders’ intentions to proactively search for more information about a crisis through visiting an organization’s website and joining social media. This concept views the public as an active entity because their role is not merely limited to passively receiving information distributed by an organization, but rather to actively search for relevant information and engage in a dialogue via social media channels.
Public relations scholars have suggested that communication and information seeking behavior is critical for the formation and quality of relationships between organizations and their stakeholders (e.g., Broom, Casey, & Ritchey, 2000; Bruning & Ledingham, 1999; Ferguson, 1984; Grunig & Huang, 2000; Yang, 2007). In the context of an organizational crisis, public engagement in information seeking can result in increased (a) dissemination of relevant information at an early stage of a crisis and (b) support for an organizational initiative to contain the crisis. Despite its implications for improving the efficiency of communication during a crisis, intention to seek crisis-related information has not been adequately examined in previous crisis communication research.
Theoretical Framework Applying Emotions to Crisis Research
Emotion is defined as “organized cognitive-motivational-relational configurations whose status changes with changes in the person–environment relationship as this is perceived and evaluated” (Lazarus, 1991, p. 38). Emotions are viewed as internal, mental states that that vary in intensity and represent evaluative and valenced reactions to events, agents, or objects (Ortony, Clore, & Collins, 1988). Emotions are thought to be specific, focused, and grounded in consciousness, in contrast to mood which is often viewed as a diffuse background affect of uncertain cause (Dillard & Peck, 2000). Emotional responses are thought to develop immediately following the interpretation of a crisis’s causes and attributions of responsibility (Choi & Lin, 2009; Weiner, 1986).
The persuasive effects of emotions have been the focus of burgeoning interest in communication research. Numerous scholars have expressed the need for understanding how emotions influence attitudes (e.g., Breckler, 1993; Dillard, 1993; Englis, 1990). Eagly and Chaiken (1993) and Jorgensen (1998) each suggested that emotions can play an important role in 427 shaping how individuals respond to a message and the position it advocates. Some theories and studies suggest that emotions are used as heuristics in making decisions because they provide accessible information about how to behave in response to a message (e.g., Dillard & Peck, 2000; Schwarz & Clore, 1983). Functional Emotion Theory provides an explanatory framework for understanding how different emotions might affect stakeholders’ judgment of a crisis and relevant organizations.
Functional Emotion Theory. Functional Emotion Theory explains how different emotions influence the way people mobilize and allocate mental and physical resources in response to information or events (Izard, 1993). Generally, emotions operate as basic information processing systems designed to make sense of and respond to circumstances that people encounter (Lazarus, 1991). Emotions signal the brain to mobilize psychological and physiological resources (Dillard & Peck, 2000). Different emotions are associated with different “action tendencies” which predispose people to particular types of cognitions and behaviors (e.g., Arnold, 1960; Frijda, 1986; Frijda, Kuipers, & Schure, 1989; Izard, 1977; Lazarus, 1991;
In other words, when an emotion is evoked, its associated action tendency guides how people attend to information, process it, and use it later (Nabi, 2003). Negative emotions, in particular, have been found to influence message processing and response. For instance, research has found that crime stories which place extensive blame on perpetrators and generate a feeling of anger lead to support for stronger penalties for criminal offenses (Nabi, 2003). Anger aroused by receiving harsh feedback (Weiss & Fine, 1956) or by viewing anger-arousing film clips (Lerner, Goldberg, & Tetlock, 1998) has been found to increase punitive judgments of others.
Gault and Sabini (2000) also found that anger aroused by a story about toxic waste dumping was associated with greater support for goals related to punishment compared to goals relating to systemic change or helping victims.
Combined, these studies suggest that the experience of emotions in response to a message can lead to selective processing of emotion-relevant information, and, in turn, subsequent decision-making. Since different emotions are proposed to trigger different action tendencies (Frijda et al., 1989), it is important to identify whether discrete emotions that might be associated with a crisis have dissimilar influence on crisis dynamics.
Discrete Emotions in Crises
A “crisis type” is a frame used to guide interpretations of a situation that varies by how much responsibility stakeholders ascribe to an organization (Coombs, 2004). Since attributions are thought to produce a variety of emotional responses (Weiner, 1986), it is likely that different dominant emotions would be generated depending on the type of a crisis.
Jin et al. (2007, 2008) suggested that four primary negative emotions are associated with response to a crisis: anger, sadness, fright and anxiety. For instance, in response to a corporate transgression case, Mattel’s recall of a dangerous toy, anger (49%), alertness (11.3%), surprise (9.7%), worry (9.4%), fear (7.1%), and confusion (6.5%) were identified as the dominant emotions (Choi & Lin, 2009). In response to the September 11 attacks in the United States, a different set of frequent emotions were found: sympathy, grateful, interested, love and anger 428 (Saad, 2001, Fredrickson et al., 2003). While anger is clearly negative, sympathy, grateful, interested, and love might be considered to be more positive in nature. Combined, these studies suggest that a variety of emotions may occur in response to different types of crises.
Negative emotions. Based on Functional Emotion Theory, one would predict that negative emotions experienced in a crisis would promote selective processing of available information about the crisis and guide decision making, which in turn would influence attitudes toward the issue and the organization in crisis (Dillard & Peck, 2000; Kim & Yang, 2009). Jin (2009) noted that each negative emotion would be expected to differently influence on stakeholder’s interpretation of a crisis as well as their coping process.
Investigating the influence of discrete emotions on the dynamics of SCCT, Choi and Lin (2009) found anger, surprise, fear, worry, contempt and relief to be associated with the attribution of responsibility. Other emotions including alert, confusion, disgust, shame and sympathy were not drawn from attribution process (Choi & Lin, 2009). Particularly, anger was found to be most strongly related to crisis responsibility and was a significant predictor of organizational reputation (Choi & Lin, 2009). Kim and Yang (2009) have also suggested that negative emotions mediate the relationship between crisis responsibility and organizational reputation.