In a Crisis, the Words, Not the Fidgeting, Matter Most: Study
A new study comes to a somewhat counterintuitive conclusion, even to one of the researchers. It finds that, in responding to a crisis, what is said matters more than the composure of the spokesperson, though the latter is not irrelevant.
The researchers had 801 adults across the United States watch one of four videos that depicted a company spokesperson responding to questions from a journalist about a racial crisis. The respondents were asked to comment on whether the message was favorably received, whether the company was to blame for the crisis and whether they thought negative word of mouth would ensue.
The four versions of the video were:
- The spokesperson delivers a message with normal crisis best practices and appears calm and confident.
- The spokesperson delivers a message with normal crisis best practices but appears nervous and fidgets and is uncooperative.
- The spokesperson delivers an unclear and evasive message but appears calm and confident.
- The spokesperson delivers an unclear and evasive message and appears nervous and fidgets and is uncooperative.
The results found that, while it’s best to appear sincere and use clear and relevant language, what was said triumphed over any nervousness and fidgeting or lack of eye contact. The nervous appearance doesn’t necessarily mean a spokesperson isn’t being honest.
Even one of the researchers, David Clementson, public-relations assistant professor at the University of Georgia Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, said that finding surprised him. He thought that, as long as spokespeople appeared sincere through non-verbal cues, they could get away with dodging questions, according to a Dec. 16 post. The results showed that the words were more important than the antsiness.
“This research showed that words trump behavior,” Clementson said. “Deceptive demeanor has its limit when we get to serious scandals. The general public will lock into verbal sincerity and will not be as easily led astray by nonverbal impressions.”
Obviously, using best practices means addressing the issue, apologizing if appropriate and detailing actions taken to confront the crisis.
Clementson’s co-author is Tyler Page, assistant professor of the Department of Communication at the University of Connecticut. The study, titled “(In)Sincere Demeanor and (In)Sincere Language in Crisis Communication,” was published in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology.
Image Credit: Krasimira Nevenova/Shutterstock
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