Food safety crises (incidents such as food contamination, foodborne illness outbreaks, food adulterations, etc.) are a major concern for the American public, the US government, and the companies processing food products. However, there is little empirical research specifically focused on food safety crisis communication that is helpful to optimizing the balance between the needs of public health and organizational reputation. In this dissertation, we use a theory-based experimental design to test the applicability of existing crisis communication theory (Situational Crisis Communication Theory, SCCT) to the unique circumstances posed by food safety crises. We also advance theory by proposing and testing a new categorization of food safety crises and new crisis communication strategies, taking into consideration different crisis stages and how a food safety crisis normally unfolds.
Two experiments were conducted using factorial experimental designs with a national representative sample of 743 and 1888 online participants, respectively. The experiments used the scenario of an unfolding food safety crisis involving a fictitious ice cream company (Goodman’s) whose products are initially suspected as being the cause of a widespread outbreak of Salmonellosis. Together, the two experiments examined the main effects and interactions of initial crisis communication strategy (deny responsibility for the outbreak without recalling suspected products, deny responsibility and recall products, and accept responsibility and recall products), linkage (whether the company is linked or not linked to the crisis), food safety crisis type (accidental – crises caused by accidents such as technical error, omission preventable – crises caused by failures to comply one’s obligations , and commission preventable – crises caused by intentional wrongdoing), follow-up crisis communication strategy (deny responsibility with scapegoating – to disconnect the organization from the crisis by blaming others, diminish – to downscale the perceived damage, rebuild with responsibility – to take responsibility and apologize, and rebuild without responsibility – to take corrective actions without taking responsibility and apologizing), and message framing (thematic – focuses on organizational responsibility vs. episodic – focuses on individual responsibility, and victim-centered – focuses on the victim vs. victim-free – focuses on involved organization) on public responses to an unfolding food safety crisis (Time Point 1 - breakout of crisis, Time Point 2 - confirmation of whether the company is involved, Time Point 3 - identification of the cause of crisis, Time Point 4 – release of company statement using follow-up crisis communication strategy).
Our results suggest a less negative public response when the suspected company turns out to be not linked to the crisis than when it turns out to be linked. The public makes a distinction between accidental and preventable crisis, with a preventable crisis generating the most negative public response. Interestingly, the public also makes a distinction between omission and commission preventable crises when it comes to attribution of responsibility and perception of appropriate legal outcomes, but sees them similarly with respect to post-crisis attitude and behavioral intentions. Our results also show that having a recall as a component of the initial communication strategy is extremely important for a company to restore public post-crisis attitude and behavioral intentions, regardless the type of crisis. Moreover, the rebuild with responsibility and apology follow-up strategy generates the most favorable public response to a food safety crisis.
Our study highlights that a crisis represents an ongoing process and that companies should issue communications (initial communication strategy and follow-up communication strategy) appropriate to each stage. Our findings demonstrate the importance of having a corrective action (a recall) at the early stage of a food safety crisis to protect public health, as well as organizational reputation. Furthermore, these results also underline the advantage of taking responsibility and offering apology in restoring organizational reputation and behavioral intentions.
|Advisor:||Hallman, William K.|
|School:||Rutgers The State University of New Jersey - New Brunswick|
|School Location:||United States -- New Jersey|
|Source:||DAI-B 79/05(E), Dissertation Abstracts International|
|Subjects:||Food Science, Communication, Nutrition|
|Keywords:||Crisis communication, Food safety, Organizational reputation, Public perception, Recalls, Responsibility, Risk communication|
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