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Leadership Series: Dr. Timothy Coombs

Posted At: October 10, 2013 5:10 p.m.
by Aime O’Keefe

Crisis communication management is one of the most recognizable forms of public relations. When a business’ reputation is at risk and shareholders are on the edge of panic, a company needs to be prepared with a communication plan to remediate the situation as efficiently as possible.

Dr. W Timothy CoombsEnter Dr. W. Timothy Coombs, professor at University of Central Florida’s Nicholson School of Communication and a crisis communication specialist. Internationally recognized for his research and development of situational crisis communication theory (SCCT), Coombs balances shaping future practitioners with international crisis management counseling and speaking.

So how does one become so decorated in the communication field while also committing to full-time professorship?

Commitment to Excellence
Initially an engineering major, Coombs decided his sophomore year to change routes. “The classes lacked creativity,” Coombs said. “So I switched to communication because I was doing competitive public speaking while in college.”

Coombs continued on to earn a PhD from Purdue University in public affairs and issue management. Since then, he has risen to the elite ranks of his field, counseling governments and businesses around the world, speaking at conventions, and contributing to literature.

He has published more than 40 research articles, contributed to more than 30 book chapters and collaborated on six books related to crisis management. He has received three PRIDE awards for Outstanding Textbook and the PRSA’s Jackson Jackson & Wagner Behavioral Science Prize.

Perhaps his most well-known achievement is the development and continued research of SCCT. During development, Coombs looked for a way to relate crisis response strategies to crisis types in a meaningful way — and attribution theory provided that link. Attribution theory suggests people naturally look for a cause to blame reactions. 

“Crisis types generate perceptions of crisis responsibility, and the crisis response strategies offer different levels of accepting crisis responsibility,” Coombs said. “The theory allowed me to connect the two lists in a meaningful and thoughtful way.”

“Over the years I have worked to refine SCCT,” Coombs said. “I work to test its applications and explore adding new variables to the model.” He just presented a new version of the model that will require additional research.


At UCF, Coombs teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in crisis communication, research methods, crisis communication and public relations theory.

Well-received among students, Coombs works to balance his travel commitments with teaching responsibilities.

In order to facilitate time management, Coombs uses a split classroom structure. While he’s away on business, his students complete online modules to be discussed later in class. Combining this approach with lecture and smaller class discussions allows time for travel.

“The split classroom style was very successful for my learning style,” said Tina Flemming, UCF senior majoring in advertising-public relations. “I took Crisis Communication with him and it’s my favorite class at UCF to this day.”

Coombs tries to keep class topics relevant by discussing current events. “We use case studies . . . to discuss ways various public relations topics can be applied to society,” Coombs said.

Coombs facilitates hands-on learning to students who show interest in SCCT, including them in the research process. He recognizes the opportunity to familiarize them with the basics of the theory and how to collect experimental data.

Research is essential evidence to correcting misunderstandings about crisis management. Clients frequently have an incomplete crisis plan. Solid evidence helps to make the remediation process easier.

“When you can show managers data and the theory behind the data, it can be very convincing,” Coombs said. “Frequently, holes in crisis management plans are because of a failure to update plans for changes in the organization or stakeholders.”

Testing SCCT against new variables helps confirm its accuracy and justify its implementation by businesses.

Continued Professional Development

Coombs is a member of PRSA and a frequent speaker at its international conference on topics of crisis management. He advocates the organization to students and colleagues as a facilitator of networking and collaboration.

“PRSA provides an opportunity to stay in touch with practitioners,” Coombs said. “As teachers, we need to update our courses to ensure our students are current when they graduate and apply for jobs.”

Coombs appreciates PRSA conferences as an opportunity to stay up to date on developments in public relations theory. “You cannot stay current if you do not know what practitioners are doing in their work,” Coombs said.

Coombs prepares for PRSA conferences like any other business opportunity: professionally. He recognizes the opportunity to build constructive relationships with colleagues.

Secondly, he values the teaching resource. “I research the conference program to see what sessions and speakers I want to see,” Coombs said. “The PRSA conference can be a valuable teaching resource if you do your homework and search for the sessions that fit your teaching needs.”

Coombs will be speaking at the PRSA International Conference in Philadelphia, Oct. 26-29, (hyperlink: as part of the PR research articles showcased in the workshop titled “Livestrong to Livewrong: Analyzing and Conceptualizing Sub-Arenas of Crisis Communication in the Lance Armstrong Doping Crisis.”

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