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In times of crisis

Communicating during a crisis presents a particularly difficult challenge in maintaining public confidence. Strong emotions, such as fear, anxiety, distrust, anger, outrage, helplessness and frustration may emerge and present serious barriers to effective communication.

Food crisis can be generally defined as a perceived health threatening event(s) that goes beyond what is “normal” or expected, demanding non routine organisational and individual responses.  First consumer responses are often emotional and spontaneous in the form of negative affective (e.g. fear; anger), followed by other emotional and behavioural expressions (e.g. avoiding buying a product).

At the organizational level, a crisis means that a lot of attention should be invested in communication in the form of warnings, risk messages or information regarding symptoms and medical treatments. First responses often need to be fast and provide information that is mostly characterized by uncertainty.

Crisis communication should be:

  1. Timely
  2. Adapted to the current situation
  3. Adapted to individual's way of coping
  4. Specific
  5. Pro-active
  6. Take responsibility and express sympathy


1. Timely

Timely communication is considered as necessary to establish credibility in an information source. Prompt communication helps to shape public attitudes towards the risk and these public attitudes, once formed, are difficult to change because people tend to acquire information that supports their beliefs and views. If consumers perceive that communicators are making every effort to get information across, this may build credibility and trust in the message and the communicator.

Social media can speed up communication and awareness. For example in the swine flu outbreak in April-May 2009, Twitter served as an early warning system. A review of tweets was helpful to understand public concerns, keywords used and the profile of users who discussed this topic on the web.

2. Adapted to the current situation

Different factors relating to risk perception that can often be found during crisis situations. These are related with the context surrounding the substance/product/technology/evidence that emerges as the crisis source, which can be characterized as:

  • New/novel
  • Subject of diverging scientific and political opinions
  • Subject of strong/diverging stakeholder opinion
  • Of public concern

Although the characteristics can also be found during non-crisis/routine situations, during a crisis they frequently contribute to increase the communication sensitivity and should therefore be given special attention while developing the communication strategy.

The communication strategy should also be adapted to evolving circumstances and events that occur during a crisis and specifically to changes in risk uncertainty. The latter can change based on official risk communications over time, that aim at informing about the risk source, health consequences and the actions to deal with it and other aspects associated with the risk.

3. Adapted to individual’s ways of coping

FoodRisC results showed that people’s expressions of coping during the food crisis are dynamic, flexible and social. A study on the 0104:H4 outbreak in Germany and France revealed that the most frequent expressions were of information seeking, opposition strategies (e.g. anger) and accommodation (trying to positively adapt to the threat(s)). These implied using not only their own resources (e.g. humour) but also resources from their context (looking for infomation in various sources). Based on this, crisis communication should promote positive ways of coping.

4. Specific

FoodRisC results show that when a risk is communicated for a certain product (e.g. carrots), people might make associations with other products that are perceived as similar and increase their risk perception (even if they are not communicated as being a risk). This can occur for example when products are of the same category (e.g. legumes). Thus, communication should refer the specific product and aim to provide the highest certainty possible that only that product is affected. When there are other products suspected to be affected, then the category of possible products affected should be provided, preferably a specific category (e.g. raw green vegetables) rather than a more abstract one (e.g. vegetables).

5. Pro-active

Crisis fit in the category of “High-level public health impact/high public interest” (e.g. the 2011 E.coli 0104:H4 outbreak in Germany and France) and demands a wide range of pro-active communications initiatives. This implies the use of multiple communication channels and multiple trusted communication sources, to reach the widest variety of audiences, from consumers to organizations and stakeholders.

6. Take responsibility and express sympathy

The distribution of information is not the only task of communicators in times of crisis. An organisation that takes responsibility or expresses sympathy with the affected people is also regarded as more honourable and understanding. Crisis communication research often argues that response strategies should be less defensive and more accommodative. It assumes that the acceptance of responsibility in apologies leads to more positive reactions and higher organizational reputation. Showing sympathy has a positive effect. By focusing on the effected people's needs, not only apology, but also sympathy turned out to positively shape recipients perceptions of the organization.



  • Communicate timely (Twitter)
  • Adapt to situation and changes
  • Try to deal with consumer needs
  • Be specific and avoid associations
  • Use multiple channels and sources
  • Take responsibility
  • Express sympathy

Additional reading

Related Case Studies

The Irish vs the Belgian dioxin crisis

Two incidents involving dioxin contamination of food led to crises in Belgium and the Republic of Ireland in 1999 and 2008, respectively. Analysis of the management of the two crises by their respective federal governments led to the development of an effective crisis management model.

Irish dioxin crisis (and social media)

On 28 November, 2008, contaminated animal feed fed to pig farms led to the detection of high levels of dioxins in routine testing of Irish pork. It was then confirmed that the presence of dioxins was as high as 200 times the European Union (EU) recommended limit for food safety concerns.