Narratives of Crisis
Telling Stories of Ruin and Renewal
Matthew W. Seeger and Timothy L. Sellnow


Contents and Abstracts
1 Narratives of Crisis
chapter abstract

This chapter introduces the concept of crisis, describes the salient features, and explains the roles that communication and storytelling play in these events. A crisis is a deeply disruptive and abnormal event with primarily, although not exclusively, negative consequences. Humans are by nature storytellers. Stories are used to make sense of events, encode lessons, and pass those lessons on to future generations. These narratives play a particularly important role when events are shocking, dramatic, unexpected, and outside our expectations for normal experience, all of which are typical in a crisis. This chapter defines crisis and describes how these events create a communicative space in which the compelling need to tell stories functions.

2 Humans as Storytellers
chapter abstract

Narratives are fundamental tools used to structure experiences, meaning, and cognition. They inform, persuade, and express emotions and values. Humans use stories to comprehend and catalogue the world. This includes how people understand personal events and how they are incorporated into life narratives. When shocking events such as crises occur, individuals may lose the thread of their life story in a process called denarration. Crisis narratives are composed of identifiable elements including characters, settings, plots, and themes. Narratives are assessed based on their probability (does the story hang together?) and fidelity (is the story reasonable and does it represent plural voices?).

3 How Stories Disrupt Our Sense of Meaning
chapter abstract

Crises are forces of social change, and the nature of that change is usually a function of the meaning that is constructed around a crisis. This chapter explores the concept of meaning as a cognitive structure, as the basis of proposal significance, and as a communication process. Global meaning involves a stable set of assumptions and beliefs ,while situational meaning concerns personal experiences and circumstances. Meaning is also associated with the ways in which people remember and memorialize a crisis. Crisis is most often seen as a point of loss, but, in many cases, crisis also adds perspective and insight, and clarifies values.

4 Making Sense through Accounts
chapter abstract

An account is a story that answers the basic question: What happened? Accounts are the basic elements around which larger, more comprehensive narratives are built. They take at least three forms; the first person account, the responsibility account, and third person account. First person accounts or eye-witness perspectives are generally considered the most credible. Responsibility accounts are designed to strategically portray responsibility or accountability. Third person accounts most often form part of the formal, official record of what happened.

5 Blame Narratives
chapter abstract

One of the most common post-crisis narratives involves blame and responsibility. This chapter examines the concept of blame and the ways in which narratives function as strategic efforts to repair damages to individual of organizational reputations or images. They have been described extensively using the framework of image restoration theory. Strategies include denial, evading responsibility, reducing offensiveness, corrective action, and mortification.

6 Renewal Narratives
chapter abstract

While most often the dominant post-crisis narrative is a retrospective focus on loss, blame, and responsibility, occasionally a prospective narrative of growth, recovery, and improvement emerges. This chapter describes these renewal narratives including their value features, the spokespersons who offer them, and the process of learning from crises. Renewal is associated with the natural tendency of systems to reorganize after they collapse, as described in chaos theory. Renewal is also associated with the inherent need to grow and change after a crisis.

7 Victim Narratives
chapter abstract

This chapter explores the narratives of those individuals and groups, typically referred to as victims, who are impacted by the crisis. These stories encapsulate the harm created by a crisis and can engender sympathy and support, while promoting social change. The chapter explores the complex question of who is a victim. Because victims have been impacted by factors beyond their control, questions of power and self-determination often arise. Moreover, these narratives sometimes address the relative level of responsibility victims share for the harm they experience.

8 Hero Narratives
chapter abstract

As with the victim story, the hero story is a common post-crisis narrative. This chapter describes the hero narrative as a more optimistic element of crisis stories. Heroes are often portrayed as individuals who place themselves at risk to help others. In other cases, individuals reach hero status through their leadership. In doing so, the heroes are seen as leading an organization or community to a resolution of the crisis. Thus, the hero is frequently a leader who models pro-social behavior. Leaders are often acknowledged in the media as the source of a positive, proactive response to a crisis.

9 Memorial Narratives
chapter abstract

Memorial narratives are multifaceted, have longevity, and frame the core meaning and lessons of the crisis. This chapter describes the memorial narrative, which may take the form of speeches and ceremonies, physical monuments, and, increasingly, Internet memorial sites. Memorials are an expression of collective grief and cultural memory around an event. In framing a specific meaning around a crisis, a memorial narrative will encourage remembering and promoting some aspects of a crisis and downplaying or forgetting others.

10 How Narratives of Crisis Compete and Converge
chapter abstract

This chapter describes the ways in which narratives come together around common themes in a process of convergence and how narratives compete with one another through a process of divergence. Crisis narratives compete for several reasons including different perspectives, values, and agendas. Narratives converge when they become sufficiently pluralistic to encompass a variety of views. The converged narrative often involves formal reports of investigations and encodes the formal lessons of the crisis.

11 The Consequences of Crisis Narratives
chapter abstract

This chapter summarizes the discussion of crisis narratives, reinforcing the understanding that humans need to tell stories to make sense of crises and to pass on the lessons learned. Crisis narratives are powerful forces in influencing public opinion and collective memory about these events, acting as vehicles of social change. The stories often transcend the actual event, incorporating moral lessons for individuals, organizations, communities, and societies.