Digital Communication

Digitalization greatly affects how organizations and their stakeholders communicate and interact. In our research we analyze the challenges organizations face when communicating with empowered consumers who voice their criticism on social media. When this criticism is voiced directly to the company on their social network sites, companies need choose responses to effectively deal with it in order to restore trust and satisfaction. Critical issues that elicit emotional outrage in many can turn into an online firestorm, which has the potential to severely harm the reputation of an organization. Our research also addresses organizations’ handling of harmful content on their online platforms. Curbing harmful online communication that threatens the dignity and safety of the attacked target is a social responsibility of organizations that operate online forums and networking sites. Aside these challenges, digitalization also involves many opportunities for corporate communication. Gamification, the use of game principles in non-game contexts, is one of the, which we address in our research.


Online Complaining and Recovery Actions

By disclosing information on their corporate social performance over and above their financial reporting obligations firms attempt to legitimize their behavior. According to a study by KPMG, in 2015 over 92 percent of the world’s largest 250 firms issued CSR/sustainability reports. The proliferation in CSR reporting, however, does not lead to increased confidence in the intention of firms to report in a transparent way and to take CSR seriously. Enhancing transparency is a declared goal of the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI). A key aspect of transparency is balance, which includes disclosing “positive and negative aspects of the organization’s performance” (GRI, 2015, p. 17). In fact, one central point of criticism concerns the selectivity in CSR reporting concerning what to report on. Our analyses focus on how balanced CSR reporting is, i.e. whether firms also discuss their challenges, setbacks, and failures or whether CSR reports are mainly self-laudatory. In our research we also analyze the language applied in CSR reports to detect indications for transparency signaling and alignment with disclosure standards.

Contact: Sabine Einwiller

Publications and Presentations:

Einwiller, S., & Carroll, C.E. (2016). How balanced is CSR reporting? An intercultural comparison of negative disclosures. Paper presented at the 66th annual conference of the International Communication Association (ICA), June 9-13, Fukuoka, Japan.

Carroll, C. E., & Einwiller, S. A. (2014). Disclosure alignment and transparency signaling in CSR reports. In R. P. Hart (Ed.), Communication and Language Analysis in the Corporate World (pp. 249-270). Hershey, PA: IGI-Global.


Online Outrage and Firestorms

The networked information and communication environment has greatly enhanced the capacity of individuals to be active and critical participants in the public sphere. Collective outrage and protest are frequently voiced online and can take the form of an online firestorm, which has been defined as a “sudden discharge of large quantities of messages containing negative word-of-mouth and complaint behavior against a person, company, or group in social media networks” (Pfeffer, Zorbach, & Carley 2014: 118). In our research we have analyzed how online firestorms are covered by journalists, who thereby amplify the outcry by elevating it onto a mainstream communication platform. We have found that journalists mainly address firestorms that address perceived discrimination and moral misconduct aiming at societal change and thus focus on the rectification attempts of an aroused public. Our further research examines the side of those who participate in online firestorms by focusing on the motives of individuals to get involved in such online outrage.

Contact: Sabine Einwiller


Einwiller, S., Viererbl, B., & Himmelreich, S. (2016). Journalists' coverage of online firestorms in German-language news media. Journalism Practice.

Himmelreich, S., & Einwiller, S. (2014). Wenn der "Shitstorm" überschwappt – Eine Analyse digitaler Spillover in der deutschen Print- und Onlineberichterstattung (When the "shitstorm" spills over – An analysis of digital spillovers in German print- and online coverage). In O. Hoffjann & T. Pleil (Eds.), Strategische Onlinekommunikation – Theoretische Konzepte und empirische Befunde (pp. 183-205). Wiesbaden: Springer VS.


Harmful Online Communication

In its early days, the internet was envisioned to serve as an electronic forum where a plurality of voices engage in rational argument. Yet, this vision is severely hampered by plenty of emotional and quite often aggressive, hateful and thereby harmful voices disseminated online. Such harmful online communication (HOC) - often debated as online “hate speech” - aims at harming the dignity or safety of the attacked target. Online platform providers, mainly private organizations, play a central role in confining HOC, because as the owner of the space they are the actors who have decisive power of intervention. This research focuses on the measures taken by various types of platform providers in six different national environments. In the first phase of the research, organizations’ comments policies are content analyzed. In the second phase, interviews with representatives of the organizations are conducted to assess measures’ effectiveness. The research generates in-depth insights into organizations’ policies aiming to curb HOC, and unveils good practice examples while considering organization types and national embedding. Based on the findings, best practices and recommendations are derived that will help organizations and policy makers to tackle this issue and to foster the value of "online considerateness".

This project is funded by The Toyota Foundation.

Contact: Sabine Einwiller

Publications and presentations:

Einwiller, S., & Kim, S. (2017). Curbing harmful online communication – A social responsibility of online platform operators. Presented at Bledcom, June 30 - July 1, Bled, Slovenia.



Gamification is the application of game principles in non-gaming contexts. Game and play are essential parts of the human condition. We learn and train cognitive, motoric and social skills through play in our childhood, and continue to do so long after we have grown up. While today most video games are played for the sole purpose of entertainment, researchers have since long also hinted to other potentials of gaming, e.g. to support learning and education, to create awareness for organizational or societal issues, or to increase stakeholder engagement. Our research is concerned with gamification in the context of organizational communication. The core questions are: How does the concept of gamification changes the way organizations communicate with their stakeholders? What are the effects of gamified contents on users? Is gamification more persuasive than traditional forms of organized communication? And how do gaming mechanisms work in this context?

Contact: Jens Seiffert-Brockmann

Publications and presentations:

Dobusch, L. & Seiffert-Brockmann, J. (2015). Memes as Games: A Procedural Rhetoric Perspective on the Critical Potential of Internet Memes. Full paper presented at the annual Momentum Conference, Hallstatt, Austria, 23rd October 2015.

Michel, E-M., & Seiffert-Brockmann, J. (2016, March). Gamifying Public Relations. Computerspiele als Kommunikationsinstrumente. Paper presented at the annual conference of the German Communication Association (DGPuK), Leipzig, Germany, March 2016.

Nothhaft, H., & Seiffert, J. (2015). The Gamification of Democracy. In W.T. Coombs, J. Falkheimer, M. Heide & P. Young (Eds.), Strategic Communication, Social Media and Democracy: The Challenge of the Digital Naturals. Routledge.

Seiffert, J. & Nothhaft, H. (2014). Our Game, Our Rules: The Ethics of Procedural Rhetoric. Full paper presented at the Annual Conference of the European Public Relations Education and Research Association (Euprera), Brussels, Belgium, 11. September 2014.

Seiffert, J., & Nothhaft, H. (2015). The missing media: The procedural rhetoric of computer games. Public Relations Review 41(2), 254-263.

Seiffert, J., Weitzl, W., & Hendriks, M. (2017). Stakeholder engagement through gamification: Effects of user motivation on psychological and behavioral stakeholder reactions. Journal of Communication Management, forthcoming.