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17 March 2021

Crisis communication: How to navigate an increasingly polarized environment?

Dr Michael Etter, Senior Lecturer in Entrepreneurship and Digitization

Understanding how debates play out can be the difference between success and reputational damage

A picture of a fire exploding through the screen of a mobile phone

In recent years, organizations have increasingly found themselves in the midst of heated debates around contested issues, such as racial equality, gender equality and free speech. The COVID crisis has added new subjects, such as mandatory mask-wearing and vaccination, to the list of divisive topics that businesses need to take a stance on. Whether they touch on these issues deliberately, or simply get caught in the ‘culture war’, businesses need an understanding of how to navigate the fire storms that erupt on social media and can escalate into real crises.

The difference between success and failure when it comes to engaging with highly visible debates can be significant. For example, Nike has credibly leveraged the broader movement for racial equality and social justice to position themselves in support of these issues, thereby enjoying massively increased sales and gaining market share. Other firms’ attempts to tap social issues have spectacularly misfired, such as Burger King’s recent International Women’s Day campaign that sought to make a joke out of misogynistic stereotypes.

Debates that explode on social media are strongly polarized. There is rarely any fruitful or meaningful exchange between the two sides of the discussion. Indeed, this polarization often leads to increased incivility of communication that decreases individuals’ willingness to engage with other viewpoints. Research shows that when people are confronted with counter-evidence that could lead them to reconsider their opinion, it often does the exact opposite. People tend to reject information that contradicts their existing beliefs, but are susceptible to misinformation that seems to support those beliefs, even if it is lacking in credibility.

Covid19 protest

This preference for information and ideas that validate rather than challenge our assumptions is further reinforced by the communities that we build on social media. We tend to connect with like-minded people, increasing the chance that we will be exposed to information and opinions that confirm what we already believe. This tendency is strengthened by the algorithms of technical platforms to connect us with people that are more likely to agree with us. These algorithms also make content that provokes strong reactions more visible, fuelling heated debate still further.

Understanding these mechanisms can help organisations to anticipate how debates will evolve. In the current environment, organisations might judge that any attempt to change their audience’s viewpoint in a possible crisis around a highly contested issues may be doomed from the start. This understanding should inform their choices about how they position themselves in some of the biggest discussions of our time.

Michael Etter is senior lecturer in Entrepreneurship and Digitization and teaches on our Executive Education programme.

Learn more about how to tackle crises in the digital age from his online Masterclass on Crisis Communication and Management on 31 March.  

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Michael Etter is a Reader in Entrepreneurship and Digitalization at King's Business School.

Reader in Entrepreneurship and Digitalization