When Lightning Strikes: A Multiple Case Study of Corporate Crisis Communication During a Shitstorm

Nathalie Ingemann Emsø & Maja Hangaard Kjeldsen

Student thesis: Master thesis


This study wants to take a closer look at the presently much debated phenomenon called a shitstorm and will investigate the communicative action that goes on between company and stakeholders during such an event. This investigation leads to an evaluation of whether traditional models of crisis communication, taking off from W. Timothy Coombs’ Situational Crisis Communication Theory, are adequate for countering a shitstorm or whether the new social media scene requires further development of these models. The investigative design of this study is built around an explorative multiple case study of former shitstorms at six companies. Based on earlier research regarding the tension field between crisis communication and social media, we will, using an abductive approach, establish three hypotheses that will lead to an answer to our research question. In our first hypothesis we will apply a quantitative and qualitative content analysis to get an understanding of both the communication that creates a shitstorm and the communication that goes on during a shitstorm. To this research we will use Human Coding and a Niklas Luhmann inspired semantics- and forms analysis. In our second hypothesis we investigate the relationship between a shitstorm and an organizational crisis in order to place a shitstorm within a traditional crisis process setting. Furthermore, we identify the companies’ use of traditional crisis response strategies during their respective shitstorms. In our third hypothesis, we investigate to what extent the companies exploit the new means of interaction with the stakeholders that have emerged with the rise of social media. The analysis shows that shitstorms emerge in the wake of a critical remark that gains solid following in the social media. At the same time it becomes clear that stakeholders, through their social media enforced influence, place specific demands on the conduct of organizations on social media, like fast response and open dialogue. So with social media a new platform of communication has emerged where the critical voices of stakeholders can be turned into a shitstorm by gaining sufficient following. Therefore, we conclude that a comparison between an ordinary crisis and a shitstorm is not immediately possible, but that a shitstorm can be characterized as a new kind of crisis where companies need to take the grammar of the media into account in order to establish an effective response strategy. In the analysis it furthermore becomes obvious that traditional response strategies are still, when chosen according to crisis type and crisis history, applicable for fighting off a shitstorm. It is observed, though, that new means of response have emerged due to the very nature of the social media and we suggest that these are further developed and incorporated into existing response strategies. Therefore, we have developed a model based on Coombs’ traditional response strategies that includes the new means of response that have been observed in our analysis. The model also incorporates dialogue strategies with which a company by combining these various means of response can better act according to the expectations of its stakeholders on social media.

EducationsMSc in Business Administration and Organizational Communication, (Graduate Programme) Final Thesis
Publication date2016
Number of pages113