There is a disconnect between practice and academia in how we describe and define what PIOs do. Practitioners tend towards the positional descriptor, incident information, which is not frequently found in the academic literature. Crisis communications seems to be the preferred term for scholars. However, that can refer to a whole host of public affairs, corporate communications, and incident information issues. Most often, you will see it applied to reputation management studies where topics like damaging rumors or corporate malfeasance are covered. Some writers use crisis communications to mean just about everything to include incidents, but still focus a bit more on the business world. A few scholars started using disaster communications to separate out the communications issues associated with incidents like fire, earthquakes, terrorist attacks, and hurricanes. That sounds a little sensational and doesn't quite apply to some all-risk assignments, so right now, I'm stuck between crisis and incident.
With no clear terms, it is difficult for a PIO looking for scholarly research beyond the NWCG and FEMA classes to find the needle of relevant information in the haystack of publications. Google Scholar returns about 2,390,000 hits for the search term crisis communications, 1,240,000 for disaster communications, and 3,050,000 for incident information--the vast majority being related to computer systems and a smaller subset on highway traffic management problems. Perhaps there are folks who can winnow down the searches to reach good info about public sector communications on incidents that involve threats to life and property, but I lack that skill.
Still, there is a strategy that begins with finding a few sources and following the bibliographic trails. A good start is Theorizing Crisis Communications by Timothy Sellnow and Matthew Seeger. They do a great job in bringing in the thoughts of other scholars and breaking the subject up into digestible bits. For PIOs in the public sector, I highly recommend chapters 1, 2, 4, and 5. Chapter 9 covers Ethics and is worthwhile as well. The best part is they have included a solid list of sources so you can start to see who might be good to explore based on your needs and thinking.
In the book, they spend six pages discussing the definition of crisis. The most succinct is a "threatening and high uncertainty event." These events share general attributes:
Crises are almost always unanticipated by key stakeholders, although there are usually warning signs and cues. Most often, they involve a radical departure from the status quo and a violation of general assumptions and expectations, disrupting the "normal" and limiting the ability to anticipate and predict. The severe violation of expectations is usually a source of uncertainty, psychological discomfort and stress.
Sound familiar? Feel familiar? Even so, the public sector would define crisis differently, I believe, to include more practical matters like duration, complexity, and the need for additional resources when the local responders are overwhelmed by either the response itself or the effects of the incident on their community.
(Another place you can start the bibliographic bushwhacking is with The Handbook of Crisis Communications, edited by W. Timothy Coombs and Sherry J. Holladay. It also has the benefit of being free as a .pdf document.)
Perhaps it is OK that government agencies use incident and everyone else uses crisis, but it sure seems like there are waiting opportunities for new and enlightening scholarship regarding large public incidents built on the close cooperation and study of responders. The one thing we know is that the world we work in is on a trajectory of increased complexity and if we cannot make sense of it in a way that is ours and not borrowed, the response to future demands will be even more taxing. And it will be difficult for the PIO and larger IMT community to build and improve a culture--a doctrine--without strong assistance from academia.
In later posts I hope to discuss the problems I see with the way academia writes about the Incident Command System and cover Sellnow and Seeger's definition of communications.
Copyright © Jim Whittington, 2018, All rights reserved. Academic use approved with notification and attribution.
Occasional thoughts on incident response, crisis communications, wildland fire, and other topics.
Docendo disco, scribendo cogito.
Copyright © Jim Whittington, 2019.