Technology Social Media and Changes in Crisis Communication: Bill Cosby Crisis

The technology innovations and the emergence of social media have altered the way of knowing and has made information instantly accessible to worldwide audiences (Baran, 2015). In today’s world not only are traditional mass media outlets news sources but citizens (citizen journalism) are armed with mobile devices (Louge, 2011) that allow them share information and misinformation that can result in a crisis or shape the dialogue surrounding a crisis (Coombs, 2012). Crisis in inevitable and unpredictable, no organization (including public figures) can escape it and can occur from outside or within an organization (Coombs, 2012). In this digital age, it is imperative for an organization to be prepared and ready to respond (Coombs, 2012). In other words, have a crisis communication plan be prepared and ready to carry it out within seconds of notice (Turpin, 2006).Considering the characteristics of crisis and their communication, I will provide my perspective of how technology and social media have changed crisis communication and the type of crisis communicated and if this is a positive trend.

Characteristics of a crisis

Crisis. “The Handbook of Crisis Communication,” explains that there is not one unanimously agreed upon definition of what a crisis is, however offers a definition that highlights characteristics of a crisis. According to Coombs (2012) a crisis is:

The perception of an unpredictable event that threatens important expectancies of stakeholders and can seriously impact an organization’s performance and generate negative outcomes (Coombs 2007 in Coombs, 2012 p.19 para 2).

Characteristics of crisis. The above definition outlines the characteristics of a crisis as:

  1. Perceived- If stakeholders believe an organization is in crisis, the organization is in crisis unless it can persuade others wise.
  2. Unpredictable- Unusual occurrences that cannot be predicted but are expected
  3. Threatening the expectancies of stakeholders- An organization has done something stakeholders feel is inappropriate.
  4. Seriously impacting an organization’s performance- Crisis are financially costly, damage reputation, offend customers (p. 1), harm brands, end careers, lead to sanctions (p.2).
  5. Generating negative outcomes- Any type of harm to stakeholders including physical, financial and physiological.

Another element of a crisis is that it occurs in stages; pre-crisis, crisis and post crisis (Coombs, 2014).

Characteristics of crisis communication

Communication is the essence of crisis management (Coombs, 2012).  The need of communication is created with a crisis or a threat of a crisis and it is through communication, “information is collected, processed into knowledge and shared with others (Coombs, 2012, p.25 para 2). Simply put, crisis communication is the “collection, processing and dissemination of information required to address a crisis situation,” (Coombs, 2014 p. 20 para 3).

Characteristics of crisis communication. Crisis communication is characterized by the above mentioned stages of a crisis. In pre-crisis communication efforts are focused on collecting data about crisis risks, making decisions about how to manage potential crisis, and training a crisis management team-crisis knowledge management (Coombs, 2012). During the crisis, communication is focused on collecting and processing information to guide decision making and dissemination of crisis messaging to stakeholders (Coombs, 2012). Also in this stage efforts are made to influence how stakeholders perceive a crisis (stakeholder reaction management). And in the post-crisis stage communication is centered on evaluating the effectiveness of how the crisis was managed, communicating necessary changes and follow-up information as necessary (Combs, 2012). These characteristics of crisis communication seek to mitigate and address the characteristics of a crisis.

How technology and social media have changed the type of crisis communicated.

Types of crisis. Coombs (2014, p. 39 para), explains the three types of crisis as “victim (low crisis responsibility), accident (minimal crisis responsibility/threat), and intentional (strong crisis responsibility/threat).” In all three types of crises a base response of helping people prevent further harm and helping them cope physiologically (Coombs, 2014) can be facilitated using technology and social media.

Past crisis communication. Prior to the early 2000’s when social media emerged, crisis communication was handled differently. In 1982, seven people reportedly died from taking Tylenol that was laced with cyanide. Three days later Johnson & Johnson removed the medicine from store shelves. In 1982, Johnson & Johnson’s actions were considered praiseworthy- in today’s digital age there would be an uproar in the delay in response to safety concerns (Turpin, 2006).

Today’s crisis communication. In today’s digital 24/7 news age, timely, accurate and consistent messaging from crisis managers is not only mandatory but expected (Wendling, Radisch, & Jacobzone, 2013). Crisis managers are not only racing against the clock to prevent harm, they are competing against traditional media and social media to prevent others from framing how a crisis will be perceived by stakeholders and lessoning reputation damage (Coombs, 2012). Often information shared on social media goes viral before traditional news outlets have even caught wind of the story (Louge, 2011).

 The need for speed has also increased the pressure for accuracy. Accuracy builds the credibility of the organization while misinformation discredits the organization and can put stakeholders at risk (Coombs, 2012).

Having a consistent voice works towards trustworthiness, accuracy and effective communication (Coombs,2014). A crisis management team may include more than one person who speaks to the public and on various modes of communication such as social media platforms, blogs, interviews with the media etc.

Is this a positive trend? This trend of technology and social media utilized in crisis communication is vital to preventing, managing and evaluating a crisis, but it can also pose some challenges.

Positive outcome. During the 2010 Haiti earthquake, the Ushahidi platform aggregated data coming from different social media into an interactive mapping. Volunteers translated texted messages from Creole and information gathered was used by search and rescue teams to find survivors. This is an example of how technology and social media enhanced situational awareness and crisis response (Wendling, Radisch, & Jacobzone,2013).

Challenges. Bill Cosby’s recent scandal illustrates the challenge of strategically responding in a timely manner and how not doing so, allows others to frame how the crisis is perceived and result in severe reputation damage (Coombs, 2014). In October 2014, Bill Cosby’s wholesome image, was called into question when a video of comedian Hannibal Burress calling Cosby a “rapist” (eye sight, 2014) goes viral (Lusk, 2014).

During an NPR interview in November 2014 Cosby is asked about the allegations and responds by shaking his head and keeping silent (Scott 2014). Silence is one the worst responses one can make. It gives stakeholders the impression that the organization or person is not being forthcoming and hiding something (Coombs, 2012).

A user on Sound Cloud, where the interviewed is streamed writes, “Perhaps he is guilty that’s why he is silent…” (Nueman, 2014).

Soundcloud bill cosby interview

The next day Cosby’s lawyers issues a denial statement. Several rape allegations from women followed along with appearance and sitcom cancellations including the beloved “Cosby Show,” reruns from TV Land (Lusk, 2014). So far it looks as though the (mis) management of this crisis has ended Bill Cosby’s longstanding and successful career.

In summary, crises are inevitable. They can occur from within and organization or originate from outside an organization. Public figures, brands and celebrities are not exempt for a crisis. The characteristics of crisis can be summed up to causing some type of harm. And the type of crisis depends upon the degree of harm done. Before the emergence of social media, crises were not approached with the speed that is required in today’s 24/7 news digital era. Innovations in technology and social media result in higher expectations of organizations during a crisis from stakeholders. Effectively using technology and social media can aid in gathering and disseminating information that have positive results, such as rescuing survivors of an earthquake. Crisis managers must now only respond with speed, but with accuracy and consistency. Not doing so can cause further harm to stakeholders, an organization and even damage the reputation and career of a loved celebrity.

Baran, S. J. (2015). Introduction to mass communication: Media literacy and culture (8th ed.).

CBS/AP (2014, November 17) Bill Cosby statements on rape allegations. Retrieved from

Coombs.T. W., Hollady, S. J (2012) The handbook of crisis communication. Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Malden, MA

Eye sight [screen name] (2014, October 29) Hannibal Buress called Bill Cosby a rapist during a stand up. [Video File] Retrieved from

Louge, J. (2011, November 6) The pros and cons of citizen journalism. Emmerson College e Communication. Retrieved from

Lusk, D. (2014, December 23). Bill Cosby timeline: From past allegations to the unfolding frenzy. Retrieved from

Nueman, S (2014, November 17) NPR Interview, Bill Cosby declines to discuss assault allegations. Retrieved from

Scott, S (2014, November 15 ) Cosbys start a ‘conversation’ with African-American art.[Interview] Retrieved from

Turpin, D. (2006, Summer). Communication crisis? European Business Forum, , 50-55.Retrieved from

Wendling, C., Radisch, J., Jacobzone, S (2013) The use of social media in risk and crisis communication. OECD Working Papers on Public Governance. No. 24. OCD Publishing. DOI:10.1787/5k3v01fskp9s-en. Retrieved from






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