Conflict positioning in crisis communication: integrating contingency stance with image repair strategies
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[ACCESS RESTRICTED TO THE UNIVERSITY OF MISSOURI AT AUTHOR'S REQUEST.] Crisis communication, as a function of organizational strategic thinking, can be actualized in a process called conflict positioning. Cameron first coined this term, which he defined as positioning the organization "favorably in anticipation of conflicts" (Wilcox & Cameron, 2005, p. 244). This, Cameron argued, is the culmination of sound pre-crisis preparations, like environmental scanning, issues tracking, issues management, and formulation of crisis plans, and is recommended measures organizations should engage in before crises erupt. Even though a logical consequence of sound pre-crisis preparations may lead to effective communication during and after the crisis, this study argues that it may be necessary but not sufficient, given that many organizations have been found not to engage in such preparations (Burnett, 1998; Fink, 1986; Tiller, 1994; Wilcox & Cameron, 2005).This study expands and elaborates on Cameron's conflict positioning concept by arguing that the key in organizational strategic thinking to position itself favorably in anticipation of crisis is to understand what factors are critical in determining an organization's position, or what I call conflict stance. The organization's conflict stance, or series of stances, which encapsulates organizational thinking, will influence its crisis response strategies during the crisis, leading to outcomes that match what the organization had prepared for in the first place. Favorable conflict positioning in a crisis, thus, involves understanding, first, what factors within and without the organization play critical roles in the organization's ability to handle the crisis; second, based on the influence of these factors, what stance the organization is likely to adopt; and third, what strategies are likely to be used based on the stance. Knowing what matters enables the organization to understand what cause the effects of its actions. Few studies, if any, have attempted to analyze crisis communications by bridging the gap between stance and strategies. This research is arguably the first attempt integrating stance and strategies and expanding knowledge on how each affects the other. Two dominant conflict management and crisis theories, Cameron's contingency theory of strategic conflict management and Benoit's image repair theory bolstered by a tapestry of literature from cross-disciplinary fields, are integrated to understand how conflict positioning works. To generate theoretical robustness, generate ecological validity, and test its practical applicability, the conceptualization is applied on two case studies involving airline crashes, both involving the same organization. Findings showed that all the 10 propositions in the conflict positioning conceptualization held up. Though of the 10 propositions, six offered merit while two offered qualified support and another two offered minimal support, the reason why some propositions could not be tested conclusively than others was due primarily to the lack of evidence rather than the conceptual ineptness of the propositions. Evidence showed that the five crisis factors - involvement of dominant coalition, influence of public relations practitioners, influence of legal practitioners, importance of primary publics to the organization and organization's perception of threat - played significant roles in determining an organization's stance and strategies employed. Additionally, the integration of stance and strategies was closely aligned. Much of the studies analyzing stance movement in the Contingency theory have examined stance without clarifying strategies. Strategies, at best, were presumed and alluded to. Similarly, much of the studies analyzing strategies, particularly in the Image Repair theory, have analyzed strategies without examining the reasons behind the execution, that is, the organization's stance, and the factors influencing the stance. The conflict positioning conceptualization is argued to be a first, systematic and comprehensive attempt at integrating them and proving there could be a natural integration of Contingency stance and Image Repair strategies. Strategies are an enactment, and reflection, of the stance adopted. At the same time, stance appears to trigger the execution of strategies, strategies could also position stance.
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