Date of Award

Spring 5-15-2022

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Mass Communications


Kinsey, Dennis F.

Second Advisor

Mangram, Jeffery A.


attribution theory, crisis communication, experimental research, SCCT, Twitter, visual public relations

Subject Categories

Communication | Social and Behavioral Sciences


Human brains are inherently capable of receiving and processing visual messages faster than written text messages. The recent proliferation of internet use, social media platforms, smartphones, and online news media sites facilitated the spread of visual content (e.g., pictures, videos, and data visualizations) online much higher than before. However, visual contents have been largely ignored in crisis communication research, leaving the crisis managers to devise strategic crisis responses and deal with a crisis without sufficient research evidence. Responding to a recent research call to fill the gap, this dissertation conducts a 2 (picture: action vs. damage) × 3 (distinctiveness: high vs. low vs. no) between-subject experimental design, informed by attribution theory (AT) and situational crisis communication theory (SCCT). This online experiment aims to see the effects of pictures and an organization's distinctiveness (i.e., an organization's prior good or bad performance) on people's crisis reactions in a real oil-spill crisis phenomenon and how both the pictures and the distinctiveness interact with each other. The effects were tested on people's five reactions: a) crisis responsibility, b) negative emotion, c) negative word of mouth, d) punitiveness, and e) purchase intention. Visual stimuli manipulation was created using pictures relating to actions (e.g., cleaning spilled oil) and damages (e.g., dolphin carcass). Distinctiveness stimuli manipulation was created using written texts relating good or bad performance in the past. Simple effect results show that the damaging pictures invoke significantly higher negative emotion among participants and their higher punitiveness toward the company than the action pictures. At the same time, the crisis-hit company's prior bad performance information (i.e., low distinctiveness), compared to its prior good performance (i.e., high distinctiveness), leads to people's higher crisis responsibility, higher negative emotion, higher negative word of mouth, higher punitiveness, and lower purchase intention toward the company. There are significant interaction effects between picture and distinctiveness. In other words, the distinctiveness effects are moderated by or depend on the levels of pictures. The results contributed to the crisis communication literature by offering evidence supporting visual effects on people's perceptions in a crisis and the roles of framing devices in both visual and textual content in the SCCT model. The insights are provided in the contexts of a social media platform and a real crisis. Overall, this dissertation proposed an extension of the SCCT model offering a more in-depth understanding of a crisis and its management, which is not adequately explained in the old model. Based on the insights, the study also offered practical implications for crisis communication practitioners and future research directions in visual crisis communication.


Open Access

Included in

Communication Commons