Visualising crisis

Three strategies to handle visuals in crisis communication

Visuals play an important role in defining a given event as a crisis. For example, images influence how people interpret, experience and project meaning onto a crisis. Images can also mitigate or deepen a crisis, and even cause new ones.

Digital technology, camcorders and camera–equipped mobile phones make it possible for citizens to participate in the definition and communication of crises events. Still and moving images are created, shared, reproduced and disseminated at a higher speed than ever before, by both professionals and amateurs and for strategic and non-strategic purposes.

The role of images in crisis communication can be expected to grow along with citizen journalism, social media and the closure of local news offices. The proliferation of photographs and films taken by ordinary people on their smartphone and shared with others via social media and professional news organisations imply a new way of thinking about and working with crisis communication. Ordinary images typically provide an early eyewitness account of an event and are therefore important to the definition of the crisis. Visuals, then, seem to meet the needs of a new reality for news and for crises.

While text-based communication appeal to our reason and can be responded to in a rational manner, visual communication appeal to our emotions and require different responses. Here, we present three response strategies that communication professionals can use to effectively handle visuals in crisis situations.

  1. Acknowledge different truths. As evidence, visuals make a strong claim for truth and cannot be denied. Visuals gives real-time witness to events and makes them seem authentic, objective and real.  Non-professional visual accounts of events as they unfold in real time may counter official framings of events and generate new memories, knowledges and realities. Hence, images produced by ordinary people sometimes compete with professionally produced images for strategic purposes about defining the crisis. The increase of different types of images with different agendas makes it more difficult to define the crisis situation and predict how it will develop in time and space. Acknowledging the complexity of defining the crisis and that there are different truth claims increases trustworthiness. Communicators should research the crisis broadly and incorporate the view of critics.

    "Visuals gives real-time witness to events and makes them seem authentic, objective and real."

  2. Confirm emotions and provide alternative emotional states. Visuals make us feel and react in complex ways and affect us both psychologically and physiologically. For example, the image of the lifeless body of a young boy who drowned trying to reach Europe by sea is believed to have increased empathy for and transformed popular sentiment towards the refugee crisis. Because visual images shape perceptions of crisis on the basis of emotions, they are difficult to respond to by means of a reason.Instead, existing feelings first need to be confirmed, after which alternative emotional states can be suggested. One way of suggesting alternative emotional states is to use images in your response.
  3. Develop knowledge of visual conventions. Visuals are polysemic, which means that they have multiple meanings and interpretations. It also means that their meaning is difficult to control by an organisation. Images invite us to find new angles and perspectives and there is no “right” or “wrong” interpretation of images. There are, however, visual conventions in how to portray and assign meaning to events. Images frame events in particular ways for particular purposes. Ways of framing can be traced to conventions in the history of art of portraying people and events. Gaining awareness of such conventions can help predict the impact of certain images for a crisis.

In sum, embracing visuals in crisis communication not only involves approaching images on their own terms, but also approaching the crisis as a set of events defined by many different stakeholders. Knowledge about visuals enables a better understanding and readiness of the images that are likely to constitute and impact crises and the way they are unfolded.

This text is based on the presentation “Visuality and Crisis Communication” that was delivered at the 4th International Conference on Crisis Communication in the 21st Century, and on the book chapter “Rotation Curation on Instagram: A Cultural Practice Perspective on Participation”, published in Strategic Communication, Social media and Democracy: The Challenge of the Digital Naturals (Routledge, 2015).

Image: Valeriy Kachaev/Thinkstock

Cecilia Cassinger

Cecilia Cassinger is assistant professor and lecturer in strategic communication at Lund University, Sweden. She has written on research methodology, consumption practices, and the relationship between image and narrative in a business context.

Åsa Thelander

Åsa Thelander is associate professor and senior lecturer in strategic communication at Lund University, Sweden. Her research interests include: visual studies, consumer research and qualitative methodology.