Guest contributor: Jo Detavernier, SCMP, APR – Owner of Detavernier Strategic Communication

Over the last few decades, crisis communicators have been handed from academics different empirically validated theories that help them make the best possible choices in a crisis.


Situational Crisis Communications Theory (SCCT) and Stealing Thunder are two examples in point. SCCT teaches them what the best strategic messaging options are based on the degree to which stakeholders find their organizations accountable for a given crisis and Stealing Thunder makes clear to them that they are best served by breaking the bad news themselves.

Research into how heuristic biases impact proper crisis communications and make that communicators who should know better will at times not apply any one of the aforementioned theories will help us understand how best to prepare and arm spokespeople to perform well under severe pressure.

The examples of research mentioned thus far pertain to verbal communication, which is the domain that has received till now most of the attention from crisis communications researchers. A welcome addition to the research on verbal communications has come in recent years from among others researchers from the University of Leuven.

Aurélie De Waele, An-Sofie Claeys, and Verolien Cauberghe examined the impact of two vocal cues. Their research showed that both voice pitch and speech rate affect post crisis reputation. The cues affected perceptions only when the organization applied a rebuild strategy in a preventable crisis and not when it was in denial mode. Their research has made clear – among other things – how a recommended low voice pitch should be combined with a slow speech rate and that a high voice pitch can also have a positive impact when combined with a fast speech rate. Mind how these findings go against earlier findings on spokesmanship in general which recommends to talk fast with a low voice pitch.

Their research also teaches us that not only the extent to which a voice is perceived as competent or powerful is important, but also the extent to which a voice is perceived as attractive. The authors also remind their readers that a voice that vocal cues that render a male voice attractive are not the same as the ones that are considered attractive in women.

Findings on vocal cues such as the ones delivered from these Belgian researchers give considerable aid to crisis communicators and the counselors who are tasked with advising, coaching and supporting them.

If crisis communications is to be efficient and effective, it will have to be evidence-based. Both verbal and non-verbal (visual and vocal cues) delivery will need to adhere to best practices that are grounded in science. This entails among other things, as we learn from this new research, that the way communicators deliver their messages has to be pitch perfect.