Public Relations Research Paper Sample on The Role of Public Relations in Managing Crisis using Social Media: Case Study

The Role of Public Relations in Managing Crisis using Social Media: Case Study


The emergence of the concepts of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and stakeholder management, among others, place emphasis on organizational accountability to its customers and the contexts (immediate and otherwise) in which they operate. This involves transparency, which is mainly about organizations informing the public about their operations and being honest about their impacts on the environment, the customers, etc. The underlying premise is that such accountability helps to build the organization’s reputation and, as a result, business sustainability. It is primarily the role of public relations to ensure this informational link and, consequently, a healthy relationship between the organization and the public. Essentially, the role of public relations surrounds the question of crisis. In this regard, public relation aims to either prevent a crisis from arising (i.e. proactive effort) or undertake damage control after a crisis arises (i.e. reactive effort). Today, public relations departments utilize social media to great effect on crisis management. This paper looks at the theories of public relations and crisis management as well as the use of social media in both. Based on a case study of Taco Bell, the paper looks at how these elements apply in practice.

The Role of Public Relations in Managing Crisis using Social Media: Case Study

Public relations plays a significant role in the management and running of an organization. Indeed, it is the role of the public relations officer to ensure there is a cordial relationship between the organization, the public, and its stakeholders. As a marketing division of an organization, public relations allow the achievement of organization goals at the lowest possible cost (Avidar, 2011). At the least, public relations assist in the creation of awareness about an organization’s products and services, relaying information to target audience, source talent and manage crises among other roles. Crisis management is particularly an important role of public relations, given the effect that crises can have on an organization’s reputation and financial performance. While it is normal for organizations to deploy crisis management teams in the face of a crisis, coordination of information among the team members and between the team and the rest of the organization is important (Adrot & Moriceau, 2013). The crisis management teams (CMTs), in their mandate to help the organization cope with the crisis through quickened coordination and communication, must not only put the interest of the organization first, but also consider the effect of the crisis on the stakeholders (Waller, Lei & Pratten, 2014). In examining public relations and crisis management, what, therefore, do the two terms entail?

Public Relations

Public relations in both directions, whether academic or vocational, existed from long time. Specifically the practice of public relations existed for at least 100 years. The beginning of public relations practice relied heavily on journalism approach, because of its importance and its effectiveness in the societies. Creating and delivering the publicity was the main practice of public relations. In recent years, public relations became more extensive and included many new practices, such as issue management, lobbying, and trust. Regarding the academic aspect, public relations started just 30 years ago, beginning with the mass communication theories, market management, organizational theory and interpersonal communication theories (Avidar, 2011).

Scholars have defined public relations in different ways, because of its various roles and practices. The Institute of Public Relations (IPR) defines public relations as “the way organizations, companies, and individuals communicate with the public and media. A public relations specialist communicates with the target audience directly or indirectly through media with an aim to create and maintain a positive image and create a strong relationship with the audience” (IPR, n.d.). Scott, Allen, and Glen (2000) defined public relations as a “management function that establishes and maintains mutually beneficial relationships between an organization and the publics on whom its success or failure depends on”(p.6). Furthermore, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) defines public relations as “A strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.” (PRSA, n.d). According to the definitions, public relations gain its objectives through two fundamental functions, which are managing and communicating. Public relations strive to create and maintain astrong relationship with society and create or maintain a positive image for an organization. As a management function, public relations attempts to anticipate, analyze and interpret thepublic opinion, attitudes, and issues that might affect the operations and plans of the organization. Moreover, public relations offers permanent advices to the management at all levels in the organization with regard to policy decisions, courses of action and communication, taking into account their public ramifications and the organization’s social or citizenship responsibilities (PRSA, n.d).

Crisis Management

The Institute for Public Relations defines crisis as ‘‘A significant threat to operations that can have negative consequences if not handled properly.’’ Researchers use the term ‘‘crisis management’’ to describe the study of organizations and crises, and how organizations handle crises (Runyan, 2006).Crisis management as a long-term process and fundamentalfunction in anorganizationseek to get particular goals (Park &Reber, 2011). Crisis management is considered as critical organizational function, and organizations concern of the potential damage that may take place when a crisis happens. Despite these concerns, only 46% of organizations, in general, have crisis management plans in place (Burns & Marx, 2014). Usually, crises affect an organization and its stakeholders, which increase the consequences for the organization.Additionally, the probability of crisis before it occurs is low, and when the crisis occurs, it is likely to be a surprise and difficult to deal with it (Runyan, 2006).Crises could be natural disasters, environmental accidents, technology mishaps, or man-made crises (Burns & Marx, 2014). A crisis can cause financial loss and reputation loss,and failure to face a crisis can have disruptive impacts on an organization and its stakeholders and threaten their continued viability (IPR, 2007).

Therefore, organizations attempt to avoid a crisis as much as they can. When a crisis occurs, organizations strive to deal with it carefully and knowledgeably to continue the same way that they had planned before. Public relations departments play aprimary role in crisis management teams (IPR, 2007). The role of public relations in crises has three distinct phases through which organizations pass: prevention, crisis response, and recovery (Runyan, 2006). Before a crisis, public relations seek to predict the potential crises and assess their risks and potential impacts on the organization. Through sufficient knowledge about the organization, its weaknesses, and its internal and external public impression toward the organization, public relations can predict and prevent any future crisis. In the prevention phase,public relations also make proactive plan including the concepts of mitigation and planning to able the organization to respond correctly to the crisis when it occurs (Runyan, 2006).

When the crisis occurs obviously, the organization starts responding and facing the risk of the crisis and attempts to get out of the crisis safely. Indeed, the success of the crisis response phase depends on the prevention phase. Runyan (2006) confirmed that to achieve positive outcome during crises, an organization has to prepare for the crisis in advance.The success of the crisis response, therefore, relies on the extent of pre-planning and the readiness to the crisis. Furthermore, the sudden events considered crisisare usually characterized by low probability, high consequence, ambiguity, and decision-making time pressure.

The response phase takes place when the organization fails to avoid the crisis. At this stage all the departments in the organization work together to face the crisis. The response phase is acriticalstep, as it is the stage where decisions may save lives or negative consequences (Runyan, 2006). After the response phase, the organization begins the recovery phase, which includes efforts to minimize the impact of the crisis, get back to pre-crisis levels and learn from the crisis (Runyan, 2006). Public relations, which is a significant part of the management team, works to communicate with the internal and external public to keep an effective relationship with them. It clarifies what needs to be explained to resolve the issue and also works as a counselor to the top management (Park &Reber, 2011; Hale, Dulek, & Hale, 2005). The role of communication is important in effective crisis management and the failures in crisis communication leads to more challenges and exacerbates the crisis (Hale, Dulek, & Hale, 2005).

Social Media

Recent years have seen the growth and proliferation of social media to virtually every aspect of human life. Moreover, with communication gadgets such as smartphones and tablets flooding the market at affordable prices, and with social media apps coming in these gadgets “out of the box,” social media has indeed become part of the daily life. Social media’s proliferation in the daily human life is perhaps evidenced by its adoption, for communication and dissemination of information, by organizations such as universities, companies, and government among others (Lindsay, 2011). Over the years, social media has found its way into crisis management, with many, including politicians, using social media to respond to such situations (Berg, 2007). Many acknowledge social media use in crisis communication, specifically for issuing emergency warnings, reception of assistance requests, aiding recovery efforts and provision of situational awareness (Lindsay, 2011; Ruggiero &Vos, 2014). Far from its use in crisis management, social media plays a significant role in current public relations efforts, considering the widespread use and availability of different social media platforms.

The Emergence of Social Media

“What is” website defined social media as “the collective of online communications channels dedicated to community-based input, interaction, content-sharing, and collaboration” (Whatis, n.d.). Social media had been effectively started by the end of the first decade of the 21st century. In the United States, many of social media services began in the mid-2000s, such as Facebook in 2004 and YouTube in 2005. By 2008, more than half of the worldwide online users were using social media, and in 2010, the use of Facebook outstripped the use of Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft websites. By 2012, two-thirds of the adults in the United States had Facebook accounts. As a result, most of the largest and growing organizations entered the world of social media because of the benefits that social media offers (Foot, 2014).

The Importance of Social Media in Public Relations

Perhaps one of the most significant gifts of social media to organizations (and by extension to their public relations effort) is the ability of the organizations to communicate with online communities. Social media has made it possible for organizations to communicate in a more humanly voice. The new form of communication is a far cry from the strict corporate voice that was the norm before the emergence and widespread use of social media (Sweetser, 2010). Today, organizations have the opportunity to create relationships with users, through participatory social media tools such as blogs and social networks.Such avenues, therefore, allow companies to plead their case to consumers. Additionally companies take suggestions and complaints from consumers and in a way help in the creation of products and services that resonate with user needs and according to users’ specifications.The internet, through social media, therefore, provides opportunities for a two-way communication system between organizations and the consumers (Avidar, 2011).

The emergence of the Internet provided an opportunity for consumers to be readers of online content only. However, with the emergence of Web 2.0 and social media, consumers have become content co-creators. This new development in the cyberspace has also changed communication in public relations. Social media has therefore become a way in which public relations professionals communicate with the public in such a manner that they include the public as much as they communicate to niche groups (Avidar, 2011).Moreover, the word of mouth as seen in social media has become a powerful marketing tool.  Public relations practitioners must consequently accept and embrace social media if they have to make any headway in public relation in the age of social media.

Over the years, there has emerged the concept of a company blog, which an individual affiliated or working with an organization runs. Far from humanizing communication, blogs bridge the gap between organizations and the consumers. Moreover, such avenues “incorporate dialogic communication principles to a greater degree than do traditional websites, and therefore they are more suitable for online relationship building” (Avidar, 2011, p. 404). Social media, therefore,is asignificant source of information for the public, as a public relations tool, for the public and other stakeholders. Journalists particularly use company blogs and social media pages to source information and uncover breaking news (Avidar, 2011). Information posted on company blogs are usually about the enterprise, painting the company, as it wants. Blogs, therefore, form a new and innovative way of communicating to the public activities such as the launch of new products and services, improvements or any other news that may be significant to the public.

Perhaps the most effective and essential use of social media in public relations is its ability to communicate fast to the public especially in times of crises. The connected nature of today’s public means that any crisis and miscommunication will find its way into the public domain faster than it was the case a few years ago. The public has a propensity to share, retweet and even make video “mashups” of such crisis, posting them on social media, to a point that some eventually go viral (Berg, 2011; Kerkhof & Beugels, 2011). The instantaneous nature of social media, therefore, accords public relations’ officials the opportunity to respond to such crises, in essence helping the organization to save face and avert negative publicity. Social media additionally give organizations the platform to argue their case in such instances, giving their side of the story and await public response. Organizations can earn back the trust of consumers and the public by apologizing for any wrongdoing using a personal voice through social media(Berg, 2011; Kerkhof&Beugels, 2011).

The importance of social media in public relations is not lopsided towards organizations alone. Social media opens a leeway for organizational scrutiny by consumers, making it “easier for consumers and watchdogs to track companies now and reveal any unethical communication behavior that may occur” (Sweetser, 2010, p. 289). A case in question was Wal-Mart’s dummy blog “Wal-MartingAcross America,” which was supposedly created to provide accounts of two travelers relaying their experiences of Wal-Mart’s social good across the nation. It turned out that the blog was in fact run by the company and was therefore not an independent account by the travelers.

Public Relations Theories and the Taco Bell Case Study

Public relations theories attempt to explain and give solutions to PR practitioners in times of crises. One of the theories of public relations is the contingency theory, which puts emphasis on threat and means of eliminating the crisis (Jin & Cameron, 2007). There is a need for an insufficiency in resources for tackling the situational demandsto satisfy the condition of a threat, according to the contingency theory. According to the theory,the composition of the threat includes a primary appraisal that consists of danger, uncertainty and required effort. The second requirement is a secondary appraisal, which included knowledge, skill, time, finance and support from thedominant coalition. All these play into making of a crisis, which the PR practitioners must address in their response to such matters (Alpaslan, Green & Mitroff, 2009). Relatedly, the crisis management theory presupposes the development of a common understanding of any unstable situation and sharing of information effectively (Adrot & Moriceau, 2013). The theory, therefore, proposes the use of good practices and use of technology in relaying information to the concerned parties.

Using the crisis management theory, Taco Bell seemed to have responded to its crisis by relaying information to its audience using the most available and widely used technology—the internet. For Taco Bell, the crisis at handinvolved a class action lawsuit in which a woman accused the company of false advertising in its “seasoned beef” product.According to the woman, Taco’s products did not reach the threshold for seasoned beef. Tests by the woman’s lawyers revealed that the product contained only 35% beef, while in the real sense should have more than 70% beef (Bradford et al., 2011; Ruggles & Frumkin, 2011). In response to the woman’s allegations, the company’s president and chief concept officer responded to the suit by making a statement on the company’s website. The message aimed at not only assuring customers of the quality of the product in question, but also pointed to the company’s next move; a legal recourse for what it calls false statement about the company’s products (Bradford et al., 2011). The reaction is a typical use of the crisis management theory by providing information using the available channels (company website), and providing this information fast.

The protection of reputation theory looks at the ability to retain an organization’s reputation during a crisis. According to Riddell (2013), organizations rely on their employees as the first ambassadors to their organization. The idea here is to make the employees the first line of defense for the organization’s reputation. Further, the theory puts the management at the forefront in times of crisis, arguing that the management should act quickly, sticking to the facts. Additionally, the management should be visible at the momentof crisis, taking care to establish communication with not only the employees, but the public as well.

In Taco Bell’s case, the first to respond to the accusations were the president and the chief concept officer (Ruggles &Frumkin, 2011). The president responded immediately to the allegations, ascertaining to stakeholders that the lawsuit was unfounded. In giving facts, the president indicated that the product had 88% beef, 3%-5% water, 3%-5% spices, 3%-5% oats, starch, sugar, yeast, citric and other ingredients. He further indicated that the beef had no extenders, as was the case in other seasoned beef products by other companies. Indeed, Taco Bell’s president went out of his way to communicate this information as a means of protecting the companies’ reputation. Moreover, the threat of a counter lawsuit is a reactive approach to the company’s current situation. This the company did as a way of wading off the attacks on its reputation, as well as reassuring the consumers that their products are as advertised, and, therefore, the suit and the publicity the suit created are only a means of getting at the company’s solid reputation.

Managing Crisis by Using Social Media

The widespread use of social media means that if unchecked, organizational reputation and performance can go to waste. These new technologies, therefore, require distinctive attention from PR practitioners especially during crises management (Olsson 2014). In the age of social media, therefore, PR practitioners can only do so much to stop a crisis; their only option is to control the development of the crisis, ensuring that the organization becomes the sole source of information to the outside world.In the face of the ‘push’ and ‘pull’ culture where authorities push, giving information slowly and at their pace, the pull section of the culture, however, represents the impulsive, fast and private means of information dissemination that is the public. In managing a crisis,therefore, the organization must try to keep up with the pull culture as a management measure of the crisis (Olsson 2014).

In reacting to a crisis and in the need to retain reputation and the public’s goodwill, organizations can show mortification, acceptance, denial, take corrective action or confess and ask for public forgiveness (Kerkhof & Beugels, 2011). According to a study, apologies are among the most successful means of crisis communication. Kerkhof and Beugels (2011) elucidate this stating, “Personal apologizing response is more effective because it feels sincere and authentic in comparison with a typical corporate response, which may come across as a standard and impersonal response” (p. 9). The study also made it clear that although denial of any responsibility is the most common reaction by most organizations, it is the least effect. Moreover, by denying any responsibility, the organization only works to infuriate the public, a reaction that may be detrimental to the reputation.Worst, however, is total silence with the hope that the crisis will go away. According to Kerkhof and Beugels (2011), silence is tantamount to anadmission of guilt, which is suicidal to an organization’s reputation.


Social media has become an important part of the daily life. By far, the proliferation of technological gadgets such as smartphones and tablets continue to increase the use of social media. The widespread use of social media, therefore, presents an opportunity for organizations, through their PR professionals, to talk to consumers, engaging them in meaningful conversation on product and service improvement. Moreover, organizations have a chance to respond to customer concerns in a more personal way, helping the organization build a lasting and meaningful relationship with the public. However, given the ability of consumers to create content on social media, it creates a threat to organizations especially in times of crises. PR personnel must therefore learn to use social media effectively in communicating with consumers during such times. By actively engaging consumers during such times of crises, organizations do not only ensure protection of their reputation, but also secure their future financial performance. As well, organisations earn the trust and loyalty of its consumers and potential customers.


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