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Putting Out Fires: How Tim Coombs Blazed a Trail in Crisis Communication

Tim Coombs, communication professor and holder of the George T. and Gladys Abell Professorship in Liberal Arts, is blazing a trail in crisis communications research used globally.

By Heather Rodriguez ’04

There’s a line in the Spirit of Aggieland that rings true for both the university and the College of Liberal Arts: “After they’ve boosted all the rest, they will come and join the best.” Thanks to generous donors like *George T. and Gladys Abell, the College of Liberal Arts at Texas A&M University empowers trailblazers to conduct research that benefits everyone.

Like a fire, the results of the research you empower faculty to conduct blazes brighter when it’s properly tended and fueled. If you’re interested in fueling a blaze that helps humanity, contact Larry Walker or Andrew Millar.

From a slow burn to a wildfire: The making of a crisis

In January of 2020, Americans heard whispers of a virus spreading from a place called Wuhan, China. We felt terrible for those affected, yet the situation seemed so far away. Then we began to hear stories of the virus in other countries, and it became harder to ignore. By March, the United States had confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus, and the president had declared a national emergency.

Everyone handled the crisis differently. Some people panicked and raided stores in preparation. Some people remained calm and came up with emergency plans. Everyone had questions: What do we do? How can we keep our loved ones safe? Can our country survive this?

Photo of Tim Coombs.

The trail Tim Coombs blazed in crisis communication led to research that’s been used globally throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

Thankfully, by mid-March, crisis communicators were on the scene. They told everyone the importance of washing our hands for 20 seconds, and gave us ways to make that fun. They explained the need for social distancing to people who thrive on companionship.

“And it helped,” said W. Timothy Coombs, crisis communicator and George T. and Gladys Abell professor in the Department of Communication of the College of Liberal Arts. “Those practices help prevent the health care system from being overloaded with patients, and that’s what you want.”

According to Coombs, life-saving messages aren’t enough; crisis communication is also about how those messages get delivered to the public.

“In a crisis like this, there’s certain messaging that needs to get out there immediately that deals with public safety; that is, what you need to do to protect yourself physically,” he said. “Also, you have to keep the message simple. You don’t want to send out long, complicated instructions because anxiety can inhibit your ability to process information. So that needs to be the first message out to the public.”

The second message from organizations, Coombs said, is how to help people cope with the situation psychologically. That’s when organizations tell their customers how they are making the situation better.

“This is where you see companies like Disney step up and stream Frozen 2 and the new Trolls movie,” he said. “Or State Farm, who is giving auto insurance rebates to customers. Here in Aggieland, the local restaurant Blue Baker is selling in-demand groceries from their drive-through. It’s all a company’s way of saying, ‘Here’s how we can help, even if it’s not much. And when this is all over, we hope to continue to do business with you.’”

That’s one of the core tenets of crisis communication: everyone benefits.

“Crisis communicators look at how an organization, corporation, or government entity endures a crisis, and then we identify the optimal response strategy,” Coombs said. “That is the strategy that benefits both the people affected by the crisis as well as the organization. You are trying to balance the demands of both sides.”

Blazing a trail: The Situational Crisis Communication Theory

Today, he’s known as a pioneer in his field and author of a foundational theory of crisis communication. But Coombs’ career in communication also started gradually; he originally studied engineering at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. He found his passion wasn’t there and, fueled by his interest in competitive public speaking, he made the switch to communication.

It wasn’t until he attended graduate school at Purdue that he realized handling crises sparked his interest, although in an unconventional way.

“In one of my classes, we looked at different genres of rhetoric, and I was assigned the genre of gallows speeches—what people say to the crowd right before they’re hanged,” Coombs said. “I saw a parallel between those speeches and the way some corporations handle a crisis: they’ve been found guilty of something, and they’re in front of the public… now what do they say?”

At the time, Coombs said, there wasn’t any such field as crisis communication; his Ph.D. is technically in public affairs and issue management. Crisis communication wasn’t recognized as a specialty until the late-1980s or early-1990s. And while it is still an evolving field, Coombs’ research sits at the center of it—he is known as the father of the Situation Crisis Communication Theory (SCCT). Posited in 2007, this theory states that there is no one-size-fits-all response to a crisis; instead, the response should depend on who is culpable and how the issue will affect customers’ relationships with an organization.

The SCCT is foundational to the field of crisis communications, and his book, Ongoing Crisis Communication: Planning, Managing, and Responding, is now in its fifth edition and is used all over the world in various languages.

“Many public relations firms in China are using my book,” Coombs said. “It was later used in Korea as well, where I’ve gone and given lectures to government officials.”

Coombs has also traveled the globe to give lectures in countries including Estonia, Sweden, and Indonesia. But he is proud to call the College of Liberal Arts at Texas A&M his home.

“The crisis communication field is one of the broadest fields out there. You need to understand psychology, communication, politics … if you don’t take an interdisciplinary approach, your research will be weak,” he said. “That’s why the College of Liberal Arts is the best place to house this field—because of its interdisciplinary nature.”

Putting out fires: Keeping the public safe

Between teaching communication classes in the college, Coombs continues his research. In his studies, which he funds with his professorship, he pays non-student populations (required by some journals) to read about crises and the responses to crises. Data is then collected through surveys and used to help influence organizations’ future responses.

“This data is necessary to prove why some responses are bad,” Coombs said. “We’ve had to show, for example, why ignoring a crisis is a bad strategy: by trying to protect yourself you are intensifying the damage. And there’s research that backs that up.”

While Coombs tends to focus on corporate crises, he says crisis communication affects everyone.

“We’ve helped change company policies in a way that benefits the consumer,” he said. “We’ve handled food or product recalls, for example. Or data breaches, which have a very specific effect on people and weren’t typically disclosed previously. If you’re a victim of a crisis, you want leaders to handle it in a way that shows the organization is actually thinking about you.”

The same thought process applies to public health crises, like pandemics.

“It’s about safety,” Coombs said. “How can we improve warnings for evacuations or shelter in place? That’s where we see an impact for everyone—we have to explain these response strategies to organizations using real data. That’s why my professorship is so important—I can’t collect this data without it.”

About the Endowment that Fuels Coombs’ Research Blaze

*The Abell-Hanger Foundation established the George T. and Gladys Abell Professorship in Nautical Archaeology in 1985—the first endowed chair in the college. Texas A&M matched the funds and used them to create three endowments to be named George T. and Gladys Abell Professorship in Liberal Arts. The other two current endowment holders are Les Morey from psychology and Clare Palmer from philosophy.