As the colloquialism goes, "haters gonna hate," and never more so than on social media. That's why organizations need to integrate social media into their crisis communication plan, not only to ensure accurate information is being disseminated but to also protect the organization's reputation. Attribution theory provides a strong case for this. Social media provides the perfect platform for amateur investigators to piece together information about the crisis and pass judgment, while attribution theory provides the structure for examining the public's need to identify responsibility, causation, and control (Zamani, Giaglis, and Kasimati, 2015).
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According to Dainton & Zelley (2019), attribution theory looks at how we, as humans, collect all of the information around us to explain behavior and the motivation behind it. In times of crisis, it is human nature to want to investigate, attribute responsibility and, ultimately, decide blame (Zamani et al., 2015). It's almost a self-defense mechanism in which we feel, if we can help explain why something bad happened to someone, we can avoid it happening to us by changing the variables. For example, when someone is killed in a car accident, we might assume that the driver was driving too fast. So, if we don't drive over the speed limit, we have a better chance of not dying in a car accident ourselves. Situations that make us fearful or uncomfortable can prompt a strong attributional response to alleviate some of the fear and reinforce our diagnosis of the situation and those involved (Schwarz, 2012).
On July 24, 2010, in Duisburg, Germany, 21 people were killed in a stampede at The Love Parade, one of the largest techno music festivals in Europe. The local police, the organizer and officials with the city of Duisburg were quickly identified by the public as holding some responsibility for the tragedy. In his article in the Public Relations Review, Schwarz (2012) examined how the public used online forums and social media to determine causation and responsibility based on the reactions of the entities involved. In addition, using situational crisis communication theory (SCCT) and attribution theory as his lenses, Schwarz (2012) hoped to show the value of social media and online forums as data-rich, real-world studies in the world of crisis communication research. This is important because he noted that, up until that point, most crisis communication research had been done using artificial scenarios or experimental situations, making most evidence anecdotal at best (Schwarz, 2012). Using the real-world tragedy of The Love Parade, he was able to study a timeline of the reaction online and how the public's perception of causation and blame evolved using two internet forums; a message board created by WDR-1Live Radio, who was broadcasting from the event, and a discussion forum at Spiegel Online, which was "among the most visited online news sites in Germany" (Schwarz, 2015, p. 434). After his study, Schwarz (2012) found that social media monitoring and response affect the public's perception of a crisis, the assignation of blame and the degree of negative publicity that follows. He found that people will automatically attribute cause and responsibility to help reduce their discomfort and that an organization's online interaction with their stakeholders can reduce some of the reputational damage that occurs (Schwarz, 2012).
Zamani, Giaglis, and Kasimati (2015) published similar research using the case study of an Apple authorized reseller and service provider named CompanyX (renamed to protect the company's identity). A customer brought CompanyX a computer that had a defect on its screen for repair. CompanyX made the repairs, but the customer returned with the computer and the same defect shortly after. CompanyX told the customer that he would need to deal with the original store he bought the computer from and there was nothing more they could do. The customer then posted his complaint about the situation on an Apple support forum and a technology forum in which he explained his circumstances and how CompanyX wouldn't help him. While CompanyX did respond to the customer in the online forum, there was no effort to rectify the situation and they, instead, warned that they would be taking legal action against the customer for reputational damage (Zamani et at., 2015).
Zamani, Giaglis & Anna (2015) felt this research was important to highlight the impact and power consumers have on social media, as well as how companies should plan for and use social media to manage reputation and public relations. Their study followed the interpretive method using data they collected from social media, blogs, and forums where users were talking about the incident. They also conducted web and Google searches of the names of the company and the customer to track mention of the incident in any form on the internet (Zamani et al., 2015). In the end, their research showed that even though CompanyX did respond to their customer online, they took a defensive and threatening approach, which damaged their reputation more than the customer's few blog comments (Zamani et al., 2015).
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Both of these research articles (Schwarz, 2012) (Zamani, Giaglis & Kasimati, 2015) point to attribution theory to explain the importance of managing reputation and crisis information on social media. The public needs to assign causation and blame when negative incidents occur, and social media provides the perfect forum for gathering information and pointing fingers. It is in an organization's best interest to have a social media plan in place that will help them address the crisis, provide updated and accurate information, and model appropriate customer service using social media and online forums. Allowing the public to come to their conclusions, spread misinformation and attribute responsibility is often to the detriment of an organization and its reputation. There are limitations in the research though. Schwarz (2015), in particular, noted that the organizer of the event received the least amount of negative publicity during the first week after the crisis. During that week, the organizer was also the least active on social media of all three of the entities involved. This seems to hint at evidence that, while responding on social media should be an important part of crisis strategy, less may be more. Additional research looking at this particular set of circumstances would need to be conducted.
- Dainton, M., & Zelley, E. D. (2019). Applying communication theory for professional life: A practical introduction (4th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA
- Schwartz, A. (2012). How publics use social media to respond to blame games in crisis communication: The Love Parade tragedy in Duisburg 2010. Public Relations Review, 38(3), 430-437. doi: 10.1016/j.pubrev.2012.01.009
- Zamani, E. D., Giaglis, G. M., Kasimati, A. E. (2015). Public relations crisis and social media: An investigation into extant and prospective consumers' perceptions through the lens of attribution theory. Journal of Theoretical and Applied Electronic Commerce Research, 10(2). Retrieved from https://scielo.conicyt.cl/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S0718-18762015000200004&lng=en&nrm=iso&tlng=en
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