Communication Ambiguity in Crises

Due to the complexity of organizational crises, there could be multiple interpretations of evidence, intentions, and responsibility surrounding the crises.

Communication ambiguity is defined as multiple interpretations of an event.

It is not possible to have a clear-cut, precise answer to every important question following a crisis. For example, even if organizations could provide information on when and what happened in an industrial accident, they may not know why it happened or who is responsible immediately after the incident.

Also, during a crisis, various groups may have communication goals and viewpoints that potentially conflict with each other. This could also become a source of ambiguity.

“Those organizations associated with a crisis or disaster may seek to limit damage to their reputation, avoid responsibility, and even shift blame. Governmental agencies may prioritize reestablishing public order while the public may prioritize being informed, protected, and even reimbursed. During a crisis, the media seeks immediate information for wide distribution while public health is likely to be concerned with clarifying the facts and protecting patient privacy.”

Coordinating messages enhances the probability of consistent messages and may reduce the confusion the public might experience. The consistency of message is one important benchmark of effective crisis communication. Also, coordination and communication with other agencies are usually necessary to mount an effective crisis response.

Intentionally heightening the level of ambiguity in a crisis is unethical and irresponsible. In a crisis, events may easily have a traumatizing effect and cause panic. People may have a harder time listening and processing information. It may take repeated exposure to the same message before people understand and act on the information. Organizations should constantly update their stakeholders if new information becomes available.

Next Page: Acknowledge Uncertainty and Ambiguity