Crisis Case Study Paper

Order Description
The case: Barclays’ interest rate scandal (the Libor scandal) in 2012
Conduct research on and analyze the Barclays’ crisis, then write a crisis case study paper on it. The crisis case study paper should include:

(1) An historical overview of the organization, its brands and or services.
(2) A chronological tracing and a critical assessment of the crisis. Consider conducting research by obtaining organizational documents, official statements, and media reports. Make sure to include direct quotes gathered from these documents to give the case study flavor. Make sure you include in-text citation of research.
(3) An analysis, guided by appropriate theory of the organization’s response to the crisis (e.g. Benoit’s theory of image restoration, news framing theory, situational crisis communication theory etc.).
(4) An assessment of the success or failure of the organization’s actions or communication strategies based on effects, aesthetics, ethics, or comparison to other cases. Select any of the lessons from the course text, Effective Crisis Communication that you feel helps explain the crisis and crisis response (feel free to mix and match lessons). At the end of the crisis case study paper , you should be able to clearly state the lessons that were learned from the Barclay’s case.
(a digital version of the textbook Effective Crisis Communication will be uploaded to this order. The lessons introduced in the textbook can be found at the end of the chapter 3, chapter 5 and chapter 7. Pick a few lessons that you think are relevant to the Barclays’ case to discuss in your paper.)

EFFECTIVE CRISIS
COMMUNICATION
3
edition

EFFECTIVE CRISIS
COMMUNICATION
Moving From Crisis to Opportunity
Robert R. Ulmer
University of Arkansas at Little Rock
Timothy L. Sellnow
University of Kentucky
Matthew W. Seeger
Wayne State University
3
edition
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Copyright ?? 2015 by SAGE Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced
or utilized in any form or by any means, electronic or
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information storage and retrieval system, without permission
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Printed in the United States of America
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Ulmer, Robert R., 1969–
Effective crisis communication : moving from crisis to
opportunity / Robert R. Ulmer, University of Arkansas, Little
Rock, Timothy L. Sellnow, University of Kentucky, Matthew
W. Seeger, Wayne State University. — 3rd edition.
pages cm
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-1-4522-5751-8 (pbk.)
1. Crisis management. 2. Emergency management.
3. Communication in management. 4. Communication in
organizations. I. Sellnow, Timothy L. (Timothy Lester), 1960–
II. Seeger, Matthew W. (Matthew Wayne), 1957– III. Title.
HD49.U44 2015
658.4’77—dc23 2013032048
This book is printed on acid-free paper.
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B R I E F C O N T E N T S
Preface xiv
Acknowledgments xvi
PART I: THE CONCEPTUAL FOUNDATION 1
Chapter 1: Defining Crisis Communication 3
Chapter 2: Understanding Crisis Communication Theory
and Practice 20
PART II: THE LESSONS
AND PRACTICAL APPLICATION 37
Chapter 3: Lessons on Effective Crisis Communication 39
Chapter 4: Applying the Lessons to Produce Effective Crisis
Communication 60
Chapter 5: Lessons on Managing Crisis Uncertainty Effectively 90
Chapter 6: Applying the Lessons for Managing Crisis
Uncertainty Effectively 105
Chapter 7: Lessons on Effective Crisis Leadership 138
Chapter 8: Applying the Lessons for Developing Effective
Crisis Leadership 154
PART III: THE OPPORTUNITIES 183
Chapter 9: Learning Through Failure 185
Chapter 10: Risk Communication 196
Chapter 11: Responding to the Ethical Demands of Crisis 212
Chapter 12: Inspiring Renewal Through Effective Crisis
Communication 226
Index 240
About the Authors 248
Preface xiv
Acknowledgments xvi
PART I: THE CONCEPTUAL FOUNDATION 1
Chapter 1: Defining Crisis Communication 3
A Definition of Crisis Communication 6
Surprise 7
Threat 7
Short Response Time 8
Expanding the Traditional Definition of Crisis 8
Disasters, Emergencies, Crisis, and Risk 9
Types of Crises 10
Intentional Crises 10
Unintentional Crises 12
The Significance of Crisis in a Global Environment 14
Understanding the Misconceptions Associated With
Crises and Crisis Communication 15
Summary 18
References 19
Chapter 2: Understanding Crisis Communication
Theory and Practice 20
Media Theories and Crisis Communication 22
News Framing Theory 22
Focusing Events 24
Crisis News Diffusion 25
Organizational Theories of Crisis Communication 26
Corporate Apologia 26
Image Repair Theory 27
Situational Crisis Communication Theory 28
Discourse of Renewal Theory 29
D E T A I L E D C O N T E N T S
Crisis Communication Theories That Describe,
Explain, and Prescribe 30
Understanding and Defining the Threat Bias in Crisis
Communication 31
Summary 32
References 33
PART II: THE LESSONS AND
PRACTICAL APPLICATION 37
Chapter 3: Lessons on Effective Crisis Communication 39
Determining Your Goals 39
Partnering With Crisis Audiences 40
Understanding the Diversity of Your Audiences 42
Primary and Secondary Stakeholders Defined 42
Communicating With Underrepresented Populations
During Crises 44
A Word on Partnerships and Listening 46
What Information Do Stakeholders Need
Following a Crisis? 47
Communicate Early and Often With Both
Internal and External Stakeholders 47
Identifying the Cause of the Crisis 47
Contacting Everyone Affected by the Crisis 48
Determining Current and Future Risks 48
Is Certain Communication Always the
Best Approach? 49
Be Careful of Overreassuring Your Stakeholders 50
Tell Your Stakeholders How to Protect Themselves 50
Reducing and Intensifying Uncertainty Before,
During, and After Organizational Crises 51
A Summary of Research and Practice in
Crisis Communication and
Generating Renewal 51
Social Media and Effective Crisis Communication 54
The Power of Positive Thinking 56
Summary 58
References 59
Chapter 4: Applying the Lessons to Produce Effective
Crisis Communication 60
Example 4.1. The Largest Environmental Crisis in
United States History: BP and the United States
Coast Guard Respond 60
You Make the Call 63
Summary 65
Example 4.2. A Plant Fire at Malden Mills 65
Crisis Preparation and Planning 66
Courageous Communication in the
Wake of a Disaster 66
You Make the Call 67
Summary 69
Example 4.3. Long-Term Complexities
in the Tainted Odwalla Apple Juice Crisis 69
Challenges for Multiple Stakeholders 70
Odwalla’s Crisis Response 70
Impact on Stakeholders 71
You Make the Call 72
Summary 73
Example 4.4. The Oklahoma City Bombing 73
You Make the Call 77
Summary 78
Example 4.5. Rural Renewal After a Tornado in
Greensburg, Kansas 79
Initial Framing of the Crisis 79
Consequences of a Bold Environmental Vision
Following the Tornado 81
Community Response 82
You Make the Call 82
Summary 83
Example 4.6. A Costly YouTube Hoax for
Domino’s Pizza 84
Unusual Challenges for Domino’s 84
Domino’s Crisis Response 85
You Make the Call 87
Summary 88
References 88
Chapter 5: Lessons on Managing Crisis Uncertainty Effectively 90
Defining Uncertainty 91
Unexpected Crises and Uncertainty 91
Nonroutine Crisis Events and Uncertainty 92
Threat Perception and Uncertainty 93
Short Response Time and Uncertainty 93
The Impact of Crisis-Induced
Uncertainty on Stakeholders 95
Managing Communication Ambiguity
Ethically During Crisis 97
Consistent Questions of Ambiguity 98
Training, Simulations, and Uncertainty 101
Belief Structures and Uncertainty 102
Summary 103
References 104
Chapter 6: Applying the Lessons for Managing Crisis
Uncertainty Effectively 105
Example 6.1. Tennessee Valley Authority and the
Kingston Ash Slide 105
Missed Opportunities in Crisis Preparation
and Planning 106
Tennessee Valley Authority’s Response to an
Uncertain Crisis 107
You Make the Call 110
Summary 111
Example 6.2. 1997 Red River Valley Floods 112
Predicting Floodwaters in the Red River Valley 113
Communicating to the Public About Crest Levels 113
Understanding the National Weather Service’s
Response to the Red River Valley Floods 114
You Make the Call 115
Summary 116
Example 6.3. The Case of 9/11 117
You Make the Call 120
Summary 121
Example 6.4. King Car’s Response to the 2008
Melamine Crisis 121
Reducing Crisis Uncertainty 122
A Guiding Vision for King Car’s Crisis
Communication 122
Initial Crisis Communication 123
The Recall 123
Critical Acclaim 124
You Make the Call 124
Summary 126
Example 6.5. Enron 126
Leadership Communication 127
Divergent Corporate Values 127
Responsibility to Be Informed 128
Openness to Signs of Problems 129
You Make the Call 130
Summary 131
Example 6.6. Fukashima Daiichi: Uncertainty
Created by Three Interrelated Crisis Events 132
You Make the Call 134
Summary 135
References 136
Chapter 7: Lessons on Effective Crisis Leadership 138
The Importance of Effective Leadership 138
Why Visibility Following a Crisis Is Important 139
Developing Networks of Support 141
Being Available, Open, and Honest 142
The Impact of Leadership on Renewal
Following a Crisis 143
Ineffective Leadership During a Crisis 143
What Makes an Effective Crisis Leader? 145
Leadership Styles 145
Contingency Approach to Leadership 146
Transformational Leadership 147
Leadership Virtues 148
Managing Uncertainty, Responding, Resolving, and
Learning From Crisis 148
Suggestions for the Leader as Spokesperson 149
Summary 151
References 152
Chapter 8: Applying the Lessons for Developing Effective
Crisis Leadership 154
Example 8.1. The Sweeping Impact of a Contaminated
Food Ingredient: Peanut Corporation of America 154
Pervasiveness of the Product 155
PCA’s Crisis Response 156
You Make the Call 157
Summary 158
Example 8.2. A Fire at Cole Hardwood 159
Crisis Planning and Preparation 159
Leading Instinctively After a Disaster 160
You Make the Call 161
Summary 162
Example 8.3. The Largest Food-Borne Illness Outbreak
in History: Schwan’s Sales Enterprises 162
A Guiding Philosophy 164
Schwan’s Crisis Response 164
Learning From the Crisis 165
You Make the Call 165
Summary 167
Example 8.4. Leadership During a Terrorist Attack:
Coping With 9/11 by Rebuilding 167
Cantor Fitzgerald’s Precrisis Reputation 168
Howard Lutnick’s Crisis Response 168
Reservoir of Goodwill 169
Post-9/11: Recovery, Remembrance, and Renewal 170
You Make the Call 170
Summary 171
Example 8.5. Hurricane Katrina 172
You Make the Call 174
Summary 175
Example 8.6. Rising From the Wreckage: General Motors
and the Crash of 2008–2009 176
General Motors’ Initial Response to the Crisis 176
A Second Attempt to Respond to the Crisis 177
Bankruptcies at General Motors and Chrysler 177
Televising and Promoting a New Vision at
General Motors 177
You Make the Call 178
Summary 179
References 180
PART III: THE OPPORTUNITIES 183
Chapter 9: Learning Through Failure 185
Failing to Learn From Failure 186
Learning Through Failure 188
Vicarious Learning 190
Organizational Memory 190
Unlearning 192
Summary 194
References 194
Chapter 10: Risk Communication 196
Distinguishing Between Risk and Crisis 197
Identifying Risk 199
Mindfulness 200
Analyzing Multiple Audiences 202
Convergence Theory and Risk Communication 205
Responsible Risk Communication 207
Significant Choice 207
Fantasy Messages 209
Summary 209
References 210
Chapter 11: Responding to the Ethical Demands of Crisis 212
Ethics 213
Corporations as Moral Agents 215
Values 215
Values and Crisis 217
Responsibility and Accountability 217
Access to Information 218
Humanism and Care 220
The Role of Values in a Crisis Response 221
Summary 223
References 224
Chapter 12: Inspiring Renewal Through Effective
Crisis Communication 226
Considering the Opportunities Associated With Crisis 226
Theoretical Components of the Discourse of Renewal 227
Organizational Learning 228
Ethical Communication 230
Prospective Versus Retrospective Vision 232
Optimism 232
Effective Organizational Rhetoric 233
Summary of the Discourse of Renewal 234
The Discourse of Renewal and Crisis Planning 235
Summary 237
References 238
Index 240
About the Authors 248
xiv
he third edition of Effective Crisis Communication: Moving
From Crisis to Opportunity supports the central thesis that crisis
communication is not solely about managing crisis-induced
threat but also about creating the potential for opportunity,
renewal, and growth through effective crisis communication.
From a communication focus, crises are most often described
as destructive, threatening, and negative events without any redeeming value.
Consequently, communication following a crisis is often defensive and negative.
Organizations deny responsibility for the crisis, look for scapegoats
to attribute responsibility to, minimize the extent or impact of the damage,
take a rigid legalistic approach, or say nothing at all. These types of responses
have resulted in a declining confidence in our public and private institutions.
Much of the current crisis communication theory has effectively categorized
strategies that organizations employ to preserve their images and reputations.
The approach to crisis communication described in this book is different
in that it provides the reader with more options for responding to
a crisis beyond managing the organization’s image or reputation. This is
certainly a mind-set shift. All crises carry a level of threat. However, we
suggest that an organization experiencing a crisis also take the opportunity
to learn from the event, communicate honestly and ethically, work to
minimize harm to those most directly impacted by the crisis, and develop
a prospective vision with which the organization can move forward. This
approach suggests that organizations should enact strong and positive ethical
core values and effective crisis communication principles to guide their
crisis responses. If this approach seems radical and unconventional, it is.
However, as you will see in this book, we have tested this approach through
many different case studies, crisis types, and contexts, including international
applications.
As you read the third edition of this book, you will notice that it is
reorganized from previous editions. The book is still comprised of three
sections. The first section of the book, Chapters 1 and 2, provide the conceptual
foundation for the book. Chapter 1 defines crisis communication,
and Chapter 2 examines current crisis communication theory. The second
T
P R E F A C E
Preface xv
section of the book, Chapters 5–8, is comprised of lessons for managing
crises, followed immediately by practical applications. For instance,
Chapter 3 discusses lessons on effective communication practices during
a crisis. Chapter 4 follows up with several cases for applying those lessons
to a wide variety of crisis types. Chapter 5 delineates lessons on managing
crisis uncertainty effectively. Chapter 6 examines many cases to test
the reader’s ability to apply the lessons on managing uncertainty across
crisis contexts. Chapter 7 describes lessons on effective crisis leadership.
Chapter 8 provides several case examples to consider each of the lessons
and how they function during a crisis. Taking time with the lessons and
the cases will help the crisis communication researcher and practitioner
analyze, consider, and evaluate theory and practice in these crisis communication
contexts. The reader who spends some time answering the questions
at the end of the cases will build a strong foundation for developing
effective crisis communication skills.
The last section of the book, the opportunities, examines the role of
organizational learning, risk communication, and ethical communication
in creating opportunities following a crisis. These chapters provide suggestions
for the reader to resist a threat bias in crisis communication and
consider more mindfully the opportunities the crisis may produce. The last
chapter of the book introduces our theory, the Discourse of Renewal, as an
approach to effectively manage crises. Researchers can use this approach
to test the viability of the theory across contexts and to assess the strengths
and weaknesses of particular instances of crisis communication. Researchers
and practitioners will be able to use the Discourse of Renewal to develop
crisis messages and more fully consider risk and crisis communication policy
decisions.
Theories help us understand and view the world around us in different
ways. We view theory as a lens to help better understand the world around
us. This book provides lessons and new perspectives for examining crises
of all types. We hope that our suggestions for effective crisis communication
help the reader expand and reconsider the way he or she views and
communicates about crises. We also hope that the cases we describe in the
upcoming chapters provoke thoughtful debate and discussion about how
people perceive and communicate about these events. Finally, we hope this
book provides the impetus for an expanded understanding about research,
practice, and policy in crisis communication.
xvi
e have many people to thank who have helped us
develop these ideas. The following colleagues have
provided helpful feedback: Andrew Pyle, Alesia
Ferguson, Shari Veil, Steven Venette, Jeffrey Brand,
Julie Novak, Joel Iverson, Kimberly Cowden. We
also have many students at each of our universities
who have pushed our thinking about effective crisis communication and
the Discourse of Renewal. We would particularly like to thank Kathryn
Anthony, Curtis Liska, Patty Mossett, Alyssa Millner, Elizabeth Petrun,
Kathleen Vidoloff, Kelly Wolf, Carina Cremeen, Fan Ku, Reagen McGee,
Rhonda Troillett, Ashley Bocarossa, Jennifer Medley, Mary Busby, Jessica
Smith-Ellis, and Mark Friedlander.
We would like to thank the following reviewers for their valuable feedback
on the third edition:
Jeffrey D. Brand, Millikin University
Michael A. Caudill, Western Carolina University
Arlene MacGregor, Massachusetts Maritime Academy
JJ McIntyre, University of Central Arkansas
Patric R. Spence, University of Kentucky
R. Tyler Spradley, Stephen F. Austin State University
Jerry Thomas, Lindsey Wilson College
We would also like to thank the following reviewers for the first and
second editions of this book:
Second Edition
John R. Fisher, Northwest Missouri State University
Carol M. Madere, Southeastern Louisiana University
Joseph Eric Massey, National University
W
A C K N O W L E D G M E N T S
Acknowledgments xvii
Melinda Bond Shreve, University of Detroit Mercy
R. Tyler Spradley, Stephen F. Austin State University
Shari R. Veil, University of Oklahoma
First Edition
Jeffrey Brand, Millikin University
Elise Dallimore, Northeastern University
Roberta Doggett, University of North Florida
Vicki Freimuth, University of Georgia
Keith Hearit, Western Michigan University
David Ritchey, University of Akron

The Conceptual Foundation
Chapter 1: Defining Crisis Communication
Chapter 2: Understanding Crisis Communication Theory and Practice
P A R T I

3
1 Defining Crisis
Communication
We live in a society continually affected by natural
disasters, such as hurricanes, tsunamis, and forest
fires, and by organizational crises, such as foodborne
illnesses, corporate malfeasance, and terrorism.
Regardless of where you live or the kind of work
you do, many different types of crises have the potential
to significantly disrupt your personal and work life. No community and
no organization, public or private, is immune from crises.
At the writing of the third edition of this book, the need for understanding
effective crisis communication practices and building those skills
are in more demand than ever. In 2 short years since the last edition, fast
food company Chick-fil-A experienced a crisis over its charitable giving;
Netflix experienced a crisis after it changed its customer billing practices;
the BBC experienced a crisis after shelving and erroneously reporting
sexual abuse; the LiveStrong Foundation experienced a crisis after Lance
Armstrong, the foundation’s founder, admitted to using performance
enhancing drugs to win his seven consecutive tours de France; and finally,
Penn State University experienced a crisis after it covered up sexual abuse
on its campus for years. This is not an exhaustive list but rather highlights,
or lowlights, by organizations that experienced devastating crises recently.
Beyond organizational crises, communities experienced natural disasters
like the recent tornadoes in Moore, Oklahoma, Superstorm Sandy that hit
the East Coast of the United States, and the tsunami and nuclear meltdown
in Japan at Fukashima to name a few. Check out www.disaster-report.com
for an update on the current status of natural disasters around the world.
We continue to experience devastating crises of all types and, as a result,
the current need for effective crisis communication understanding and
skills continues to grow.
4 Part I The Conceptual Foundation
Because of the prevalence of crises, organizations like the Department
of Homeland Security (DHS), the Federal Emergency Management Agency
(FEMA), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), local and
state emergency management departments, and public health departments
along with government agencies, public relations firms, and corporations
across industries, need professionals who have sound crisis communication
skills. In short, crisis communication skills and knowledge are useful in any
industry. However, due to the prevalence of crises, crisis communication
skills are some of the most sought after by employers. Regardless of the type
of work that you do, the knowledge and skills discussed in this book will
enable you to communicate more effectively during a crisis.
Some might ask, “Who would want to work in a depressing field studying
negative crises?” We answer by saying crises are not intrinsically negative
forces in society. In fact, our proposition is that crises can actually
lead to positive outcomes. We see crises as opportunities for learning and
improvement, viewing them as they are perceived in Chinese culture, where
the symbol for crisis in the Mandarin language is interpreted as dangerous
opportunity (see Figure 1.1). By their nature, crises are dangerous moments
or turning points in an organization’s life cycle; nevertheless, crises provide
opportunities with the potential to leave the organization stronger in some
ways than it was before the crisis.
If we do not study crisis communication, organizations and the
many people associated with them are likely to be stunned, frightened,
and depressed when enveloped by a crisis. In fact, some organizations
communicate so poorly in the wake of a crisis that they are forever
Figure 1.1 The Chinese symbol for crisis
Chapter 1 Defining Crisis Communication 5
weakened, having lost the confidence of both their own members and
the public.
This book presents strategies accumulated over many years of research,
as well as our experience as organizational consultants, emphasizing the
opportunities in a crisis rather than the calamities of these events. The
chapters illustrate key communication lessons to create renewal, growth,
and opportunity following a crisis. At the crux of our argument is the contention
that effective communication skills are essential to creating positive,
renewing opportunities at these turning points.
The new edition of this book is organized into three parts designed
to increase the reader’s understanding and skills in crisis communication.
Part I contains two chapters that develop the conceptual understanding
of effective crisis communication. Chapter 1 directs the reader
to consider expanded definitions of crisis communication and explains
the many types of crises that one may experience. Chapter 2 introduces
the reader to key research and theories in crisis communication. This
chapter serves as a tool for building the reader’s vocabulary for describing,
explaining, and understanding crisis communication. Part II moves
from the conceptual to the practical. In this section, the reader is presented
with practical lessons, based on empirical research, for communicating
effectively, managing uncertainty, and leading during a crisis.
After each chapter of lessons, the reader is presented with an opportunity
to apply those lessons to crisis case studies in the next chapter.
For instance, Chapter 3 focuses on effective crisis communication.
This chapter contains 10 lessons for effectively communicating during
a crisis. Chapter 4 is comprised of six current cases to be assessed
for their effective crisis communication practices. In this chapter, the
reader is able to build his/her skills by applying the lessons of effective
crisis communication to each case. Chapter 5 contains 10 lessons for
managing uncertainty during a crisis. Every crisis carries with it some
level of uncertainty. Chapter 5 explains how to communicate effectively
under crisis-induced uncertainty. Chapter 6 introduces six cases that
the reader can use to test their skills at communicating under high levels
of uncertainty. Chapter 7 delineates 10 leadership lessons for effective
crisis communication. Chapter 8 consists of six cases designed to test
the reader’s ability to assess the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of the
leader’s crisis communication. In each of the case chapters, the reader is
asked to make the call regarding the effectiveness of the crisis response.
Parts I and II thus provide the conceptual understanding and skill
development for effective crisis communication practices. Part III
6 Part I The Conceptual Foundation
contains chapters on learning through failure, risk communication,
communication ethics, and a final chapter on inspiring renewal following
a crisis. This third part of the book describes several content
areas that every crisis communicator should consider as opportunities
in crisis communication. In Chapter 9, we explain how organizations
can improve their crisis preparation and response capacity by learning
through their failures. In Chapter 10, we demonstrate how effective risk
communication provides crisis communicators opportunities to prevent
future crises. Chapter 11 examines the ethical implications of crisis
and the opportunities provided by strong ethical stances and communication.
Chapter 12 proposes a theory of effective crisis communication
we call the Discourse of Renewal. We provide a description of this
theory along with its applications to crisis communication. Throughout
the book, we turn to a small group of landmark cases to illustrate the
various aspects being discussed.
A DEFINITION OF CRISIS COMMUNICATION
Initially, we need to clarify what we mean by crisis. In daily conversation,
the word is used quite casually. As a simple experiment, listen to the people
around you for a day or two. Most likely, you will hear friends, fellow employees,
or fellow students describe routine problems they are facing—fender
benders, forgotten appointments, disgruntled mothers-in-law, bad hair days,
or losing records of favorite university football teams—as crises. All are bad
experiences; however, they are not, by our definition, crises. Similarly, with
some degree of regularity, organizations face events, such as unexpectedly
low sales or the defection of key employees. Again, these are difficult times for
organizations, but they are not necessarily crises. Crises are unique moments
in the history of organizations.
In a classic study, Hermann (1963) identified three characteristics separating
crises from other unpleasant occurrences:
1. Surprise
2. Threat
3. Short response time
A troubling event cannot reach the level of crisis without coming as a
surprise, posing a serious level of threat, and forcing a short response time.
Let’s take a moment to define Hermann’s characteristics of crisis.
Chapter 1 Defining Crisis Communication 7
SURPRISE
Even naturally occurring events, such as floods, earthquakes, and forest
fires, do not escalate to the level of crisis unless they come at a time or a level
of intensity beyond the expectations of government officials and residents.
For example, weather conditions combined in such a way that the 2013 tornadoes
that hit Moore Oklahoma introducing a high degree of surprise to
the situation. Hundreds of homes were lost, 24 people died, and the city was
declared a disaster area.
Similarly, in 2011, a FedEx customer posted a YouTube video (see
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cpVFC7bMtY0 or search FedEx delivery
goes terribly wrong) of the carrier throwing his computer monitor over
a high gate and into his yard. The video was viewed millions of times. At
the time, this event was certainly a surprise and a crisis for FedEx. FedEx
quickly responded to the surprise of the crisis (see http://www.youtube
.com/watch?v=4ESU_PcqI38 or search FedEx response to customer video)
by communicating with its customers and the general public about the crisis.
Ultimately, this crisis threatened the long-standing values of FedEx and
the viability of its service for customers.
THREAT
All crises create threatening circumstances that reach beyond the typical
problems organizations face. The threat of a crisis can affect the organization’s
financial security, its customers, residents living near a production
facility, and others. For example, when a BP oil rig exploded in the Gulf
of Mexico in 2010 and spilled millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf, the
crisis threat was widespread. The considerable amount of oil on the water’s
surface was devastating to the fishing industry in the area. Birds and other
sea animals were also impacted by the spill, thereby adding levels of threat
to the ecosystem of the region. To begin to learn about the effects of the
oil spill, BP initially contributed $500 million through a Gulf of Mexico
Research Initiative to study the short- and long-term effects of the oil spill
on the environment and marine life. One would expect the response and
recovery efforts, along with a complete understanding of the effects of the
oil spill on the Gulf of Mexico, to continue for many years.
Oil spills occur with some regularity worldwide. They are usually contained
quickly, causing little long-term damage. Oil spills seldom reach the
crisis level. In BP’s case, however, the amount of oil spilled created a heightened
threat level. Ultimately, the crisis became the largest environmental
disaster in U.S. history.
8 Part I The Conceptual Foundation
SHORT RESPONSE TIME
The threatening nature of crises means that they must be addressed
quickly. BP was criticized initially for not communicating and responding
more quickly to the crisis. In addition, the company was criticized for not
having clear risk and crisis communication provisions in place for a disaster
of this magnitude. As a result, after the explosion, the crisis appeared to be
beyond BP’s control as oil rapidly gushed into the water. Tony Hayward,
the CEO of BP at the time of the crisis, was widely criticized for several
communication missteps including minimizing the scope and intensity of
the crisis and for lacking compassion and empathy in his initial postcrisis
responses. Organizations must provide effective communication immediately
following the crisis. This can be difficult due to the inherent uncertainty
of crisis events and because little is often known about the cause of
the crisis. However, organizations have a short window to take control of
the crisis and set the tone for the response and recovery efforts.
As you can see from these examples, one of the most frustrating and
distressing aspects of crisis is the persistent urgency of the situation. This
urgency is compounded by the fact that a crisis comes as a surprise and
introduces extreme threat into a situation.
EXPANDING THE TRADITIONAL DEFINITION OF CRISIS
In this book, we discuss organizational crises of many types, ranging from
those caused by industrial accidents to natural disasters. To account for all
these types, we offer the following description as a working definition of
organizational crisis:
An organizational crisis is a specific, unexpected, and nonroutine
event or series of events that create high levels of uncertainty and
simultaneously present an organization with both opportunities
for and threats to its high-priority goals.
As we have established, much of the intensity of a crisis comes with some
degree of surprise. Even in cases where there are clear warning signs, most
people are still surprised when a crisis actually occurs. Thus, crises are almost
always unexpected events. Because they exceed any planning expectations,
they cannot be managed with routine procedures. Once an organization
abandons its routine procedures, its leadership is faced with managing this
uncertainty by emphasizing either opportunities for growth or renewal or
threat to the organization’s image or reputation in their crisis communication.
See Table 1.1 for a description of each component in our working definition.
Chapter 1 Defining Crisis Communication 9
DISASTERS, EMERGENCIES, CRISIS, AND RISK
The term crisis most often relates to organizations experiencing high consequence
events. However, communities often experience disasters like tornadoes
and hurricanes. Similarly, on a much smaller scale compared to crises
and disasters, organizations or communities might experience an emergency,
which is a small-scale crisis that is more contained and controlled
than crises or disasters. For the purposes of our discussions in this book,
an evacuation of a building due to a gas leak is an emergency. Now, there
are important communication protocols for handling emergencies; however,
they are outside the scope of this book. Conversely, a gas explosion at an
organization is a crisis. The type of response necessary to deal with this type
of crisis is directly within the scope of this book. Similarly, as you will see in
the case chapters, the ideas discussed in this book are useful for understanding
organizational and community responses to a wide range of disasters like
terrorism, natural disasters, and environmental disasters.
Furthermore, note that the foregoing definition does not mention risk.
We separate crisis and risk because we believe that, while risk is a natural
Unexpected An event comes as a surprise. This surprise may be something for
which the organization could not have anticipated or planned.
It could also result from conditions that exceed even the most
aggressive crisis management plans.
Nonroutine Problems occur daily in nearly all organizations. To account for
these problems, organizations engage in routine procedures. Crises
are events that cannot be managed by routine procedures. Instead,
crises require unique and often extreme measures.
Produces
uncertainty
Because they are unexpected and beyond the routine actions
of organizations, crises produce tremendous uncertainty.
Organizations cannot be aware of all causes and ultimate effects
of crises without some degree of investigation. Efforts to reduce
uncertainty may continue for months or even years after a crisis.
Creates
opportunities
Crises create opportunities that may not be available during normal
business opportunities. Crises create opportunities to learn, make
strategic changes, grow, or develop new competitive advantages.
Threat to image,
reputation, or
high-priority
goals
Crises can produce an intense level of threat to the organization
and its affiliates. This threat is often described as damage to the
image or reputation of an organization. However, crises can also be
threatening enough to permanently destroy an organization.
Table 1.1 Key Components of a Working Definition of Organizational Crisis
10 Part I The Conceptual Foundation
part of life, crisis can often be avoided. Naturally, some people live with
more risk in their lives than others. For example, some people choose to
live next to oil refineries, on hurricane-prone coasts, or in areas susceptible
to mudslides or forest fires. Please understand, however, that crisis and risk
are closely connected, as poor risk communication can cause a crisis. In
Chapter 10, we talk more about the opportunities associated with effective
risk communication. What follows is a discussion of various crisis types.
TYPES OF CRISES
Now, with that definition of organizational crisis in mind, think about some
of the events that would qualify as a crisis. Have you been in a crisis situation
either directly or indirectly? You may not have faced a Fortune 500
company bankruptcy, but you may have witnessed a flood, an organizational
leader’s dishonesty, a food-borne illness outbreak at a national restaurant
chain, a catastrophic industrial fire, or the wide-reaching impacts
of a terrorist event. All these incidents can be described as crisis situations.
Crisis communication researchers develop classification systems of crisis
types to assist them in their crisis planning and, in so doing, reduce the
uncertainty when crises occur. The simplest and possibly the most useful
distinction to make in crisis types is to divide them into two categories:
intentionally caused crises and crises caused by natural, uncontrollable factors.
When crisis planners attempt to think the unthinkable regarding all
the potential crises they could face, the list is not only endless, but it is also
unique to the organization. We do not pretend to list every possible type of
crisis that could be caused by intentional or unintentional acts. Rather, we
provide a list of categories into which most crises fall.
INTENTIONAL CRISES
We identify seven general categories for crises that are initiated by
intentional acts designed to harm an organization:
1. Terrorism
2. Sabotage
3. Workplace Violence
4. Poor Employee Relationships
5. Poor Risk Management
6. Hostile Takeovers
7. Unethical Leadership
Chapter 1 Defining Crisis Communication 11
Since the distressing events that occurred on September 11, 2001,
terrorism tops the list of the most urgent intentional causes of crisis.
Organizations of all types must now be aware of their vulnerability to
terrorist acts that can disrupt both the organization and the nation as a
whole.
Organizations are also vulnerable to sabotage, which involves the intentional
damaging of a product or the working capacity of the organization
by someone inside the organization. Typically, sabotage is done for revenge
or for some benefit, such as economic gain. Similarly, workplace violence
has become all too common in the United States. Distressed over their
perceived mistreatment by an organization, employees or former employees
undertake violent acts. Sadly, this form of violence has become more
frequent even on college campuses. The result is often multiple injuries,
deaths, and disruption of the organization and its workforce.
Wide-scale crises can also result from poor employee relationships. If
an organization cannot develop positive relationships between management
and its workers, trouble is likely to occur. For example, an organization
could develop a reputation of having poor working conditions. If
these conditions persist, the organization is likely to have difficulty both
retaining and recruiting employees. Without enough qualified employees,
an organization cannot continue to function.
Another possibility is that, when unionized employees become very frustrated
with their working conditions, they may choose to take some action,
such as striking. In most cases, employee strikes adversely affect an organization’s
financial stability. We realize that poor employee relationships are not
responsible for all strikes or employee turnover problems. We are convinced,
however, that when turnover and strikes lead to crisis situations, the relationships
between management and employees are often controversial.
If organizations are guilty of poor risk management, the outcomes can
be disastrous for consumers, employees, or both. For example, a beef processing
plant in a Midwestern city failed to adequately maintain its sewer
system, creating a dangerous public health hazard. The sewer system overflowed,
sending foul-smelling cattle waste and remnants from the slaughter
process directly into a river flowing through the community of nearly
100,000 people. The ultimate consequence of this poor risk management
was heavy fines that forced the plant to close.
Hostile takeovers are still a major threat to organizations. Simply
put, hostile takeovers occur when the majority of an organization’s stock
is purchased by a rival organization. The result can be an overthrow of
the current leadership and the dismantling of the organization. Hundreds
or thousands of employees can find themselves unemployed due
12 Part I The Conceptual Foundation
to actions that have taken place completely outside their workplace.
Federal regulations address some of the issues related to hostile takeovers,
but such aggressive assaults on organizations still exist.
The broadest and most inclusive subcategory of intentional crises is
unethical leadership. An extensive review of more than 6,000 newsworthy
organizational crisis events reported annually by the Institute for Crisis
Management found that management was in some way responsible for the
majority of them. Worse, many of these crises were caused by criminal acts
of managers (Millar & Irvine, 1996). We dedicate Chapter 11 of this book to
ethics. At this point, we want to emphasize that unethical behavior can and
often is the ultimate cause of a crisis situation. When an organization’s leadership
knowingly puts its workers, consumers, investors, or the surrounding
community at risk without being honest about that risk, two events are
likely to occur. First, a breakdown in the system occurs, which often results
in a crisis. Second, when the public learns of the organizational leadership’s
dishonesty, it is likely to be unforgiving. Thus, the road to recovery is likely
to be much longer for dishonest leaders than it is for honest leaders.
UNINTENTIONAL CRISES
Clearly, not all crises are caused by the intentional acts of individuals
with questionable motives. Rather, many are simply unforeseeable or
unavoidable. In this section, we describe five types of unintentional crises:
1. Natural Disasters
2. Disease Outbreaks
3. Unforeseeable Technical Interactions
4. Product Failure
5. Downturns in the Economy
Like us all, organizations are vulnerable to natural disasters. Tornadoes,
hurricanes, floods, wildfires, and earthquakes have the potential to
destroy organizations’ and industries’ physical plants and entire communities.
Although these events are largely unpredictable, some steps can be
taken to reduce their impact on an organization. For example, building
a nuclear reactor on or near an existing earthquake fault line would be
unwise. Similarly, locating an organization in an area that is uncommonly
susceptible to floods or tropical storms is indefensible. The earthquake in
Haiti was much more damaging due to poor building practices. In short,
Chapter 1 Defining Crisis Communication 13
organizations must take into account possible threats of natural disasters
before they invest in their facilities. A natural disaster can be made much
worse due to decisions made by organizations. Despite this caution, natural
disasters are unavoidable as potential crises.
Disease outbreaks are an inevitable form of crisis. Some of these occur
naturally. For example, the H1N1 virus caused worldwide alarm in 2009.
Other crises, such as food-borne illness, occur due to organizational failure.
For example, Schwan’s Sales Enterprises discovered that its ice cream,
distributed nationally, was contaminated with salmonella. Thousands of
consumers became ill. Schwan’s successful crisis recovery was based largely
on the fact that the company responded quickly with a recall in an effort to
limit the number of illnesses caused by the tainted product. Product failures
at some level are nearly impossible to prevent. The severity and frequency
of these failures, however, can be reduced significantly with good crisis
planning.
Many of the malfunctions that lead to crises are the result of unforeseeable
technical interactions. In his classic text, Normal Accidents, Charles
Perrow (1999) describes dozens of examples of organizations whose monitoring
and safety equipment became inaccurate and inoperable because of
a series of seemingly unrelated errors or equipment failures. For example,
he describes how a commercial aircraft was forced to crash-land after a
coffeemaker shorted out, causing an electrical fire in a series of wires and
disabling other safety equipment and vital control systems. In this case,
the pilots and maintenance crew were following all the prescribed procedures.
The coffeemaker was wired appropriately. The crisis resulted from
an almost unimaginable sequence of events piling on top of one another.
Product recalls are rather commonplace. Organizations discover unintended
risks or flaws in a product, issue a recall, repair or replace the product
or refund the purchase price, and move forward. Americans are so used
to recalls based on product failure that many consumers weigh the inconvenience
of having a product repaired or replaced against the risk posed by a
flawed product. In many cases, consumers do not even respond to the recall.
Some, however, reach crisis level. Organizations like Safe Kids Worldwide
(http://www.safekids.org) monitor and list product recalls of all types for
parents. By checking websites like this, one can see the varied and numerous
product recalls that affect organizations and children across the world. For
this reason, product recalls are one of the more frequent crisis types.
Last, organizations of nearly every kind are subject to crises caused by
downturns in the economy. Even organizations that are ethical, thoughtful in
their planning, and strict in their maintenance of safety regulations can be victims
of economic crises. If consumers cannot afford an organization’s products,
14 Part I The Conceptual Foundation
there is little opportunity to resolve the situation with better communication.
Downsizing and plant closings are often the result of economic downturns.
From 2008 through 2010, the United States experienced one of the worst financial
downturns in the economy since the Great Depression. The crisis, caused
by increased risk taking by the banking industry and the collapse of the housing
market, led to a complete collapse of our financial system. Businesses large
and small had no access to credit, and as a result, several large banks, such as
Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch & Co., Washington Mutual, and Wachovia
Corporation, went bankrupt or were taken over by other companies. In addition,
companies like General Motors (GM) and Chrysler also declared bankruptcy
because of a lack of access to credit and the downturn in the economy.
Economic downturns can create unexpected crises that have consequences that
are far-reaching beyond the organizations that are responsible for creating the
problems.
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF CRISIS
IN A GLOBAL ENVIRONMENT
Organizational crises are a consistent part of our existence. We cannot prevent
them and, as consumers, we cannot avoid them. Worse, crises are becoming
more prevalent. Perrow (1999) explains that, as technology continues to
advance and as our population continues to grow, we are increasingly exposed
to and affected by crises that we could not have imagined 20 or 30 years ago.
As consumers, we are also dependent on more organizations than
ever before. Twenty-five years ago, the Internet was a concept, cable television
was considered a luxury, satellite television was in its infancy, and
cell phones were nearly the size of chainsaws. Now, these technologies and
the organizations that support them are central features in our daily lives.
As we become more and more dependent on the services of an increasing
number of organizations and technologies, our exposure to potential crises
naturally increases.
In addition, as we move closer to a truly global society, the incidents on
one continent can create a crisis an ocean away. Think of the impact that
the most recent economic downturn had on the global economy. Excessive
risk taking in one economy can create a global recession. Another example
of our global society is our food system. As we mentioned earlier, the 2008
crisis that began in China had severe effects for many infants and young
children across the world who drank imported milk products tainted with
artificially inflated levels of the protein supplement melamine. This crisis
resulted in many countries banning, recalling, or creating more elaborate
testing measures for any milk products produced in China. As our world
becomes more complex, interconnected, centralized, and efficient, the
Chapter 1 Defining Crisis Communication 15
frequency and forms of crises will steadily increase. Understanding how to
effectively engage in crisis communication, then, is a skill ever increasing
in value. To be effective, one must be able to recognize and resist the varied
misconceptions associated with effective crisis communication.
UNDERSTANDING THE MISCONCEPTIONS ASSOCIATED
WITH CRISES AND CRISIS COMMUNICATION
Before we move on to presenting key theories in crisis communication, we
want the reader to consider 10 misconceptions that people have about crises
and crisis communication. Our misconceptions relate not only to how we
define and understand crisis but also how we should communicate during a
crisis. For this reason, this understanding is an important transition to our
next chapter that addresses theories of crisis communication. More important,
our misconceptions about defining crisis and crisis communication
practice often leads to ineffective and maladaptive crisis communication in
practice. To be an effective crisis communicator means to resist these misconceptions.
The preponderance of miscues and ineffective responses to
crisis communication suggest that leaders and crisis communicators have
some misconceptions about communication and crisis. What follows are 10
common misconceptions of crisis and crisis communication and descriptions
of how correcting those misconceptions can lead to more productive
and effective crisis responses (see Table 1.2).
Table 1.2 Misconceptions of Crisis Communication
1. Crises build character.
2. Crises do not have any positive value.
3. Crisis communication is about determining responsibility and blame.
4. Crisis communication is solely about getting information out to stakeholders.
5. Crisis communication involves taking a rigid and defensive stance.
6. Crisis communication is about enacting elaborate prefabricated crisis plans.
7. Crisis communication is about overreassuring the public about the impact of
the crisis to avoid panic.
8. Crisis communication is about communicating only when new information is
available.
9. Crisis communication is primarily about managing the image or reputation of
an organization.
10. Crisis communication involves spinning the facts surrounding the crisis.
16 Part I The Conceptual Foundation
First, a common misconception is that going through a crisis helps an
organization build its character. We believe that crises do not build character
but expose the established character and values of organizations through
their communication. In fact, a crisis is one of the only times an organization’s
stakeholders can view the values of an organization in action. For
instance, it was not until the now famous crisis at Enron that stakeholders
were able to see firsthand the greed and unethical business practices inherent
to the organization’s culture, even though these practices had been going on
for some time. Similarly, Aaron Feuerstein’s crisis communication following
his plant fire in 1995 illustrated the care and value he had established over
time for his workers and the community in which he operated. Both cases
are discussed extensively throughout the book and suggest that crises serve
as an opportunity to expose the current values inherent to an organization.
A second misconception about crises is that they are inherently negative
events. As this book suggests, crises can present both threat and opportunity
if viewed mindfully. Although threat often becomes the most salient
feature of crisis events, we contend that crises should be viewed mindfully
as dangerous opportunities, as discussed in our first chapter. For instance
the Greensburg, Kansas, case, discussed in Chapter 4 illustrates that crisis
ultimately created an opportunity to save a town that was slowly in decline
already. The food-borne illness crises for Schwan’s and Odwalla, discussed
in Chapters 4 and 8, allowed the companies to update their pasteurization
processes and create safer food processing systems.
The third misconception about crisis is that resolution to a crisis
solely involves retrospectively determining fault, assigning blame, and
investigating what happened. Crisis leadership and effective crisis communication
involves creating a vision for moving beyond the crisis, learning,
and creating meaning. As you read the case chapter of this book, pay
special attention to how the most effective leaders are able to develop a
prospective vision during a crisis. Effective crisis communicators should
not get mired in the investigation processes of a crisis. Pay special attention
to the industrial fires of Cole Hardwood and Malden Mills, discussed
in Chapters 4 and 8, as excellent examples of how leaders can resist the
misconception that crisis communication is about determining blame
and responsibility. In both cases, insurance companies and other agencies
determined the causes of those fires. However, the leaders of both
companies, Milt Cole and Aaron Feuerstein, focused on setting a vision
for moving their companies beyond the crises.
A fourth misconception about crisis communication is that it is inherently
about providing scripted messages designed in advance. We find that
crisis communicators would do well to devote more attention to listening to
Chapter 1 Defining Crisis Communication 17
and adapting messages for their stakeholders. Recognizing and responding
to stakeholder concerns is far more important than producing prefabricated
messages based on what the organization feels its stakeholders need to hear.
Clearly, organizations can work with stakeholders to consider risks before
a crisis and develop a crisis needs assessment of types of messages and preferred
channels to be most effective. However, crises are dynamic and, by
definition, a surprise to most or all the people impacted by the event. Consider
the 2008 collapse of the United States’ financial institutions. Even with
strong economic models and countless organizations in the financial industry,
almost no one predicted the collapse of the housing market and subsequent
credit crisis. This example reveals that effective crisis communicators
listen to the unique needs of those impacted by these surprising events to
comprise their messages. The best crisis messages in this book come from
leaders who responded to a crisis authentically based on laudable values and
what they believed was in the best interests of their stakeholders. In each
case, they met regularly with stakeholders to hear their concerns.
Our fifth misconception is that organizations and social systems need
to become more rule-based and rigid in their organizational structure following
a crisis. We believe that the more flexible and agile an organization
or system is, the more it is able to respond to the uncertain, complex, and
ever-changing demands of the crisis. Effective crisis communicators need
to change accordingly and follow the dynamic nature of a crisis. Organizations
would do well to take some action during a crisis to make sense of the
situation. More often than not, organizations freeze and fail to act, often
making the crisis worse. Organizations that embrace the situation and the
uncertainty, and take action to reduce uncertainty, are more effective crisis
communicators. Rudy Giuliani was effective for many reasons following
9/11; he was very agile with his response following the terrorist attack. He
left his office and went to the street where he could assess the situation himself.
Further, he frequently held media briefings for the people of New York
and around the world. He did not have all the answers, but he was engaged,
agile, and effective in his response to the crisis.
Misconception six is that having a crisis plan in place is the best preparation
for a crisis. Although crisis plans can be helpful in preparing for
a crisis, the best predictor of effective crisis management is strong, positive
stakeholder relationships. As you read the cases in this book pay special
attention to how many effective organizations relied on stakeholders
to support them during a crisis. For this reason, organizations looking to
prepare for crises should work with their stakeholders to establish strong,
positive relationships with them. We recommend that organizations work
through problems and concerns before a crisis happens. Organizations that
18 Part I The Conceptual Foundation
spend time establishing these relationships are better able to respond to the
needs of these groups following a crisis.
Overreassuring stakeholder safety regarding the impact of a crisis is the
seventh common misconception of effective crisis communicators. Effective
crisis communicators do not overreassure their publics but provide
information to their stakeholders to help protect themselves. In Chapter 5,
we discuss this type of communication as self-efficacy. The more you can
do as a crisis communicator to help protect your stakeholders, the better.
Overreassuring stakeholders about the outcome of a crisis is sure to kill the
credibility of any spokesperson.
The eighth misconception about crisis communication is to say no
comment or to stonewall. Effective crisis communicators meet regularly
with their stakeholders and the media to answer questions, remain open
and accessible, and keep everyone updated with information about the crisis.
Organizations are typically caught so off guard following a crisis that
they do not know what to say. In this case, we suggest that they tell people
what they know, tell them what they do not know, and tell them what they
are going to do to collect information about the crisis.
Misconception nine is to focus more on the organization’s image and
less on solutions to the crisis. Ineffective crisis communicators try to control
their images, scapegoat other parties, and absolve themselves from
blame. Once a crisis occurs, there is not much that can be done to save or
repair an image. Rather, effective crisis communicators focus on finding
solutions to the crisis and lessen the impact on those most impacted by the
crisis. We contend that it is impossible to control the image or reputation of
a company. Multiple events and perspectives by many different stakeholders
comprise the overall image or reputation of a company. Ultimately, we
argue that organizations should control what they can, which is correcting
the problem and learning from the crisis.
The final misconception is that spin is a viable option in effective crisis
communication. Spin only makes the crisis worse and makes the crisis communicator
look unethical and irresponsible once the truth comes out. Be
wary of any advice to use spin as a strategy in crisis communication. Organizations
should be wary of those who suggest trying to spin the information
surrounding a crisis to obscure responsibility. Organizations that resist
this strategy are going to be more effective in their crisis communication.
SUMMARY
This chapter provided an expanded definition of crisis, explained different
crisis types, and delineated key misconceptions associated with the
Chapter 1 Defining Crisis Communication 19
understanding and practice of crisis communication. The next part of
this book examines key theories of crisis communication. These theories
provide both a vocabulary for understanding crisis communication along
with ways to describe, explain, and prescribe the practice of crisis communication.
Let’s now examine how different theories help us understand
and practice crisis communication.
REFERENCES
Hermann, C. F. (1963). Some consequences of crisis which limit the viability of
organizations. Administrative Science Quarterly, 8, 61–82.
Millar, D. P., & Irvine, R. B. (1996). Exposing the errors: An examination of the
nature of organizational crises. Paper presented at the Annual Conference of
the National Communication Association, San Diego, CA.
Perrow, C. (1999). Normal accidents. New York, NY: Basic Books.
20
Understanding Crisis
Communication Theory
and Practice
2
To define and better understand crises of all types, researchers
have developed theories to understand and manage
these events. Crises are studied by a wide variety of
disciplines including psychology (Morgan, Fischhoff,
Bostrom, & Atman, 2002; Slovic, 1987), sociology (Chess,
2001; Clarke & Chess, 2008; Mileti & Peek, 2000; Mileti &
Sorensen, 1990; Quarantelli, 1988), business (Mitroff, 2005; Mitroff &
Anagnos, 2001; Weick, 1988; Weick & Sutcliffe, 2007), mathematics and
physics (Bak, 1996; Lorenz, 1993; Mandelbrot, 1977), and political science
(Birkland, 2006; Comfort, Sungu, Johnson, & Dunn, 2001; Ramo,
2009) among others. In addition, there are a number of practitioners
who have written books about crisis communication (Reynolds, 2002;
Witt & Morgan, 2002). James Lee Witt, former director of FEMA from
1993 to 2001, provides clear advice about effective crisis communication
through his experiences managing major natural disasters. Barbara
Reynolds provides a guide for crisis and emergency risk communication
based on her considerable experience communicating about public
health outbreaks around the world. Each of these disciplines and practitioners
has contributed greatly to defining and better understanding
how to manage crises.
Psychology, for instance, provides the theoretical background on
mental model approaches to crisis communication and the social amplification
of risk and crisis communication. These theories help us better
understand how people cognitively perceive and ultimately respond to
risk and crisis situations. Sociology provides theories on how to conduct
community evacuations during all types of disasters and how communities
respond to these disasters. The field of business examines sensemaking
processes of leadership before, during, and after a crisis; the role
Chapter 2 Understanding Crisis Communication Theory and Practice 21
of organizational learning in response to crisis; as well as organizational
structures that exemplify a crisis-prepared or crisis-prone organization.
Mathematics and physics produced chaos and complexity theories that
have been used widely in the communication discipline as metaphors for
the disruption and self-organization produced by crisis events (Gilpin &
Murphy, 2008; Murphy, 1996; Sellnow, Seeger, & Ulmer, 2002). Political
science provides theories, such as Ramo’s (2009) deep security theory, that
build on complexity and network theories for policymakers to prepare and
respond to crises such as terrorism. For full discussions of the interdisciplinary
approach to crisis communication and the theoretical approaches
associated with them, take a look at one of the recent handbooks on risk
and crisis communication (Coombs & Holladay, 2010; Heath & O’Hair,
2009; Pearson, Roux-Dufort, & Clair, 2007). You will find that many of the
lessons described in the upcoming chapters are grounded in the interdisciplinary
research described above. However, the communication discipline
has produced considerable research on crisis communication. What follows
is a discussion of the several important theories of crisis communication.
The first section examines the important role media theories provide
for contributing to the understanding of crisis communication.
Discipline Theory Contribution
Psychology Mental models approach to risk and crisis communication
Social amplification of risk and crisis perceptions
Sociology Disaster evacuation theory
Social response to disasters
Social and institutional networks during disasters
Business Organizational sensemaking theory
Organizational learning theory
High reliability organizational theory
Mathematics
and Physics
Chaos theory
Complexity Theory
Sandpile/Self-organized criticality theory
Political
Science
Policy change theory and catastrophic disasters
Deep security theory
Academic Disciplines Contributing to Understanding of
Table 2.1 Risk and Crisis Communication
22 Part I The Conceptual Foundation
MEDIA THEORIES AND CRISIS COMMUNICATION
Considerable theory building in crisis communication has focused on the
role of media in the life cycle of a crisis. In some cases, media coverage can
amplify the public’s fear beyond what is reasonable (Pidgeon, Kasperson,
and Slovic, 2003). Conversely, the media often moves beyond “environmental
surveillance” to the point of “community building” to assist with
crisis recovery period (Wilkins, 1989, p. 33). In either case, the media is a
prominent player, making a substantial impact during crises. For this reason,
Seeger (2006) prioritizes forming partnerships with the media as a best
practice of crisis communication. In this section, we review three theories
that have been adapted through considerable research to explain the role
the media play during crises. These theoretical perspectives include news
framing, focusing events, and crisis news diffusion.
NEWS FRAMING THEORY
At the heart of news framing theory is the fact that “reporters and editors
routinely choose among various approaches to the presentation of news
stories” (Hook & Pu, 2006, p. 169). The approach selected results in a pattern
of coverage that can frame a topic positively or negatively. The controversy
Theory Characteristics
News
Framing
Emphasizes the degree to which the crisis is framed positively or
negatively
Focuses on news reporting
Features messages by both the media and organizations (often
contrasting) designed to frame the crisis
Focusing
Events
Emphasizes policy decisions made in response to crisis events
Focuses on policy debates that are played out publicly
Features determining blame, likelihood of similar crises in the
future, and lessons learned
News
Diffusion
Emphasizes the distribution of information in response to crises
Focuses on the speed and accuracy of messages shared
Features the diverse means through which people receive
information and the resilience of those sources during crises
Media Theories Contributing to the Understanding of
Table 2.2 Crisis Communication
Chapter 2 Understanding Crisis Communication Theory and Practice 23
inherent in many crises often intensifies and polarizes the framing process.
For example, an organization may seek to frame a crisis as an aberration or
as unavoidable. Conversely, the media may frame the same crisis as having
manifested from a lack of responsible caution on the part of the organization.
This type of polarity in framing crises is not unusual.
The news framing process can have a profound impact on how readers
and viewers perceive a crisis. For this reason, Holladay (2010) argues, “it is
imperative that organizations participate in this framing process” (p. 161).
If organizations remain passive in the framing process they make themselves
completely vulnerable to their adversaries who will likely strive to
tip the media coverage of the crisis negatively. For example, a metropolitan
hospital recently responded to a budget shortfall by laying off a large
number of nurses. Area media reported on the layoffs, framing the budget
issues as having been caused by administrative mismanagement. Worse, the
stories often featured laid off nurses with young children in tears over their
impending financial hardship. Meanwhile, another hospital in the community
offered to hire some of the nurses at comparable wages. The financially
struggling hospital remained silent throughout the crisis. The hospital
never fully recovered from the crisis and was eventually sold to another
health management company. Had the hospital offered a competing explanation
or frame for needing to lay off employees, the outcome might have
been very different.
As the hospital example reveals, the framing process influences the
public’s perception of the organizations afflicted with the crisis. If the crisis
is framed in a way that reflects negatively on an organization, that organization’s
ability to recover from the crisis is impaired or delayed. Hence,
news framing theory advocates that organizations take an active role in the
framing process.
Occasionally, news stories that would not normally top the media’s
agenda do so when they are reported in a way that exemplifies the story.
Exemplars are elements of a news story that are made memorable by their
“visually vivid and emotionally strong” content (Aust & Zillmann, 1996,
p. 788). Stories that are graphic in nature or that include a particularly
disturbing visual element can capture audience attention and cause them
to exaggerate the seriousness of the issue or event (Westerman, Spence, &
Lachlan, 2009). This exaggeration is intensified when the viewers believe they
are directly exposed or vulnerable to the risk that is exemplified (Westerman,
Spence, & Lachlan, 2012). For example, when ABC News portrayed Lean
Finely Textured Beef as “pink slime” in a series of news stories, the network,
in essence, created an exemplar that, due to public outrage, rose on the
media’s agenda and created a crisis for the product’s primary producer, Beef
24 Part I The Conceptual Foundation
Products Incorporated. The power of exemplars to shift the media’s attention
warrants caution on the part of reporters. Zillmann, Gibson, Sundar,
and Perkins (1996) urge reporters to comprehend the influence of exemplars
as well as the challenges for correcting or countering them once they
are introduced to the public.
FOCUSING EVENTS
Focusing event theory is an extension of agenda setting theory. Agenda
setting refers to the way the media determines the importance of various
news stories or political issues. The higher a story ranks on the media’s
agenda, the more attention or coverage it receives. Crises become focusing
events when they are high on the media’s agenda and the discussion moves
from reporting on the cause and impact of the crisis to the reconsideration
of existing policies or the consideration of new polices for preventing similar
crises in the future.
Wood (2006) explains that focusing events include four consistent attributes.
First, like all crises, they occur suddenly. Second, they are rare. Third,
they garner large-scale attention. Finally, both the public and policy makers
simultaneously prioritize them. Fishman (1999) argues that the combination
of “a dramatic news event, and the media’s coverage of that event creates
an urgency to take action” (p. 353). That action takes the form of policy
debates and recommendations for revising current policies or developing
new policies. For example, the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary
School in the village of Sandy Hook in Newtown, Connecticut inspired considerable
debate over gun laws. Although no meaningful change occurred
on the national level, many communities revised existing policies regarding
firearms and schools after the Sandy Hook crisis.
Policy debates stemming from focusing events are typically based on
three topics: blame, normalcy, and learning. Questions of blame ask whether
or not the crisis was caused by human or mechanical failures that could be
addressed with policy changes. Questions focusing on normalcy address
the extent to which the crisis is a manifestation of routine procedures. In
Chapter 1, we discussed various types of recurring crises. A normal crisis
would fit within this typology. Sadly, mass shootings, as discussed above,
are repeated with enough frequency that they are considered normal and
warrant policy debates. By contrast, novel crisis types are highly unusual
and difficult to address through policy changes. For example, Ebola outbreaks
occur rarely in parts of Africa. The virus causes grotesque bleeding
and is almost always fatal. The occurrence of these outbreaks, however, has
always been contained quickly. Finally, learning is central to policy debates.
Chapter 2 Understanding Crisis Communication Theory and Practice 25
The changes in policy that occur in response to focusing events are, in
essence, a manifestation of lessons learned from the crisis.
As we mentioned in Chapter 1, crises often lead to new opportunities
for organizations and communities. Focusing events can provide the practical
means for formalizing such opportunities into formal policies. Thus,
focusing events inspire crisis communication that is dedicated to seizing
the opportunity to improve public safety in the aftermath of a crisis.
CRISIS NEWS DIFFUSION
The shock and impact of crises create intense public interest. The
media play a central role in diffusing or spreading that information. As
crises emerge, curious and concerned publics often view television or
Internet coverage continuously for extended periods of time. As McIntyre,
Spence, and Lachlan (2011) explain, “media exposure is a popular method
of coping with crises” (p. 303). Theories of crisis news diffusion seek to
understand how and when people receive information about crises. News
diffusion includes all channels of communication ranging from television
and the Internet to newspapers, radio, and face-to-face interpersonal communication
as well as all forms of social media.
The surprise and uncertainty during crises pose challenges for reporters.
These trials are further intensified by the high demand for information.
Those who study news diffusion are interested in the accuracy as well as
the expediency of coverage. Social media resources such as Twitter address
the void of information during crises. Recent crises such as the tornadoes
in Joplin Missouri and Hurricane Sandy reveal that many people experiencing
and observing crises build networks and access information regularly
via social media. Interestingly, Brian Stelter, a New York Times reporter,
happened to be near Joplin, Missouri, when the town was destroyed by a
massive tornado. The reporter had no access to traditional forms of media
coverage. Using his smart phone, he was able to post photos and brief statements
using Instagram and Twitter. These posts were viewed by thousands
of people wanting information about the devastation in Joplin.
The resilience displayed by the New York Times reporter in Joplin is a
central feature of news diffusion research. For example, Spence, Lachlan
and Westerman (2009) studied the preparation by local radio stations to
continue broadcasting in the wake of a serious crisis such as a tornado
or flood. They found that the majority of stations surveyed had plans for
remaining resilient and continuing to broadcast during natural disasters.
Two classic studies in crisis news diffusion occurred when President
John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963 and when President Ronald
26 Part I The Conceptual Foundation
Reagan was wounded in an assassination attempt in 1981. Nine out of
10 people surveyed knew President Kennedy was shot within an hour of the
crisis (Greenberg, 1964). Nearly two decades later, the results were similar.
Those surveyed after the Reagan attack were aware as quickly and mentioned
interpersonal communication, television, and radio as their means
of first learning about the crisis (Bantz, Petronio, & Rarick, 1983). Today,
the speed of crisis news diffusion is much faster. We can receive news alerts
on our smart phones within minutes of a story having been confirmed by
a news source. We can also share the information much more quickly and
efficiently through social media. Thus, new media channels have revitalized
the study of crisis news diffusion. Beyond the role of the media in
framing, understanding, and diffusing information during organizational
crises, organizations must also respond and communicate during the crisis.
What follows are several prominent theories of crisis communication.
ORGANIZATIONAL THEORIES
OF CRISIS COMMUNICATION
For the past 20 years, communication researchers have developed theoretical
approaches for responding to organizational crises (see Table 2.3). This
research includes Corporate Apologia (Hearit, 2006), Image Repair Theory
(Benoit, 1995), Situational Crisis Communication Theory (Coombs &
Holladay, 2002), and Organizational Renewal (Ulmer, Sellnow, & Seeger,
2009). Corporate Apologia, Image Repair Theory, and Situational Crisis
Communication Theory identify strategies an organization can use to repair
its image and reputation after a crisis. Organizational Renewal focuses on
learning from the crisis, communicating ethically, considering both the
threat and the opportunities associated with the crisis, and creating a prospective
vision. We briefly examine each of these research traditions.
CORPORATE APOLOGIA
Research on Corporate Apologia was initially conceptualized as the
speech of self-defense (Ware & Linkugel, 1973). Hearit (2001) defines
an apologia as not exactly an apology but rather “a response to criticism
that seeks to present a compelling competing account of organizational
accusations” (p. 502). In this case, crises are created by an accusation of
wrongdoing. Hearit and Courtright (2004) explain that apologetic crises
“are the result of charges leveled by corporate actors (e.g., media or public
interest groups) who contend that an organization is guilty of wrongdoing”
(p. 210). Corporate Apologia provides a list of communication
Chapter 2 Understanding Crisis Communication Theory and Practice 27
Theory Characteristics
Corporate
Apologia
Emphasizes managing the threat created by a persuasive attack
against an organization
Focuses on an apology for wrongdoing
Features communication strategies for the apology
Image Repair
Theory
Emphasizes repairing the threat to the image of the accused
Focuses on accounting for organizational actions that caused the
crisis
Features communication strategies for managing the account
Situational
Crisis
Communication
Theory
Emphasizes lowering crisis attributions of responsibility for the crisis
Focuses on determining communication based on the type of crisis
and the organization’s reputational assets
Features flow-chart decision-making process for using crisis response
strategies to influence stakeholder perceptions or attributions of
responsibility
Organizational
Renewal Theory
Emphasizes opportunities to learn and grow from the crisis
Focuses on creating opportunities inherent to crisis events
Features broad leadership and organizational communication
guidelines, emphasizing strong positive values, an optimistic
forward-looking perspective, and learning to overcome the crisis
Table 2.3 Theories of Crisis Communication
strategies that the organization can use to respond to these accusations.
These communication strategies include “denial, counterattack, differentiation,
apology, and legal” (Hearit, 2006, p. 15). These strategies are
primarily defensive and are designed principally for an organization to
account for its actions after a crisis.
IMAGE REPAIR THEORY
Benoit (1995) developed a comprehensive theory of image repair.
Image refers to how the organization is perceived by its stakeholders and
publics. Similar to Corporate Apologia, Benoit (1997) explains that “the
key to understanding image repair strategies is to consider the nature of
attacks or complaints that prompt such responses” (p. 178). He suggests that
two components of the attack are essential. First, the organization must be
“held responsible for an action” (Benoit, 1997, p. 178). Second, “that [action
must be] considered offensive” (Benoit, 1997, p. 178). Benoit’s (1995) theory
28 Part I The Conceptual Foundation
contains a list of 14 impression management strategies. Five major strategies
include denial, evasion of responsibility, reducing the offensiveness of
the event, corrective action, and mortification. Each strategy can be used
individually or in combination (Sellnow & Ulmer, 1995; Sellnow, Ulmer, &
Snider, 1998). Consistent with Corporate Apologia, Benoit’s image repair
strategies focus on how organizations respond to accusations or account for
their actions after being accused of a transgression. An effective response is
designed to repair the organization’s damaged image or reputation.
SITUATIONAL CRISIS COMMUNICATION THEORY
A third prominent theory on crisis communication is Situational
Crisis Communication Theory. Coombs developed this theory by linking
attribution theory and crisis response strategies (Coombs, 2012; Coombs
& Halladay, 2002). His theory “evaluates the reputational threat posed by
the crisis situation and then recommends crisis response strategies based
upon the reputational threat level” (p. 138). The crisis response strategies in
this approach are a synthesis of work on Corporate Apologia, Impression
Management, and Image Repair Theory. He developed the list by selecting
“those [strategies] that appeared on two or more lists developed by crisis
experts” (p. 139). He describes four major communication approaches,
including denial, diminishment, rebuilding, and bolstering. In all, he delineates
10 crisis response strategies. The crisis communication strategies are
then used according to the threat to the organization’s reputation based on
“crisis type, crisis history, and prior reputation” (Coombs, 2012, p. 141).
Coombs (2012) explains that crisis type can be defined by three categories:
“victim crisis cluster, accidental crisis cluster, and preventable crisis
cluster” (p. 142). The victim cluster involves crises such as natural disasters,
rumors, workplace violence, and malevolence. Accidental crises involve
challenges, technical error accidents, and technical error product harm.
Preventable crises include human error, accidents, human error product
harm, and organizational misdeeds. Beyond crisis type, crisis response
strategies should also be selected according to the organization’s crisis history
and prior reputation.
Crisis history and prior reputation are important because organizations
that have recurring crises or poor reputations are not likely to have
their messages accepted by stakeholders. Coombs’s (2012) theory is based
on the idea that, after a crisis, stakeholders “assign responsibility for negative
unexpected events” (p. 138). Depending on the crisis type, crisis history,
and prior reputation, Coombs provides crisis response recommendations to
address the attributions of responsibility toward the organization.
Chapter 2 Understanding Crisis Communication Theory and Practice 29
DISCOURSE OF RENEWAL THEORY
As you have seen in the previous three theories, much of the research
on crisis communication focuses on managing the threat to the image or
reputation of the organization during a crisis. We argue there is also potential
for positive discourse following a crisis that emphasizes the opportunities
inherent to crises. Reputation and image are important organizational
concepts, but they do not always play a central role in resolving organizational
crises. The upcoming cases in this book provide many examples in
which rebuilding, learning, and opportunity are more important than reputation
or image. For this reason, we argue that crises also carry the potential
for opportunity. To illustrate this idea, we developed a theory we call
the Discourse of Renewal that emphasizes learning growth and opportunity
following crises of all types. We see four theoretical objectives central to
the Discourse of Renewal: organizational learning, ethical communication,
a prospective rather than retrospective vision, and sound organizational
rhetoric. We discuss this theory in much more depth in the final chapter of
the book. However, what follows is a brief description of each of the theoretical
components of our theory.
Organizational Learning
We believe that an organization that emerges successfully from a crisis
must learn from the event. Chapter 9 provides an in-depth understanding
of how organizations and communities can learn through failures, including
crises. It is also important that the organization illustrates to stakeholders
how its learning will help ensure that it will not experience a similar
crisis in the future.
Ethical Communication
A second key factor in creating a renewing response is communicating
ethically before, during, and after the crisis. Organizations that have not
prepared adequately for crisis or are unethical in their business practices
are going to have to account for those actions at some time. In fact, unethical
actions are often the cause of a crisis. One of the key factors of a crisis
is that it reveals the ethical values of the organization. Crises do not build
character; they expose the character of the organization. If an organization
is unethical before a crisis, those values are likely to be identified during
the crisis. Organizations that institute strong, positive value positions, such
as openness, honesty, responsibility, accountability, and trustworthiness,
with key organizational stakeholders before a crisis happens are best able
30 Part I The Conceptual Foundation
to create renewal following the crisis. Chapter 11 provides an in-depth
examination of the importance of ethical communication and the opportunities
associated with this crisis communication.
Prospective Versus Retrospective Vision
A third feature of a renewing response is communication focused on
the future rather than the past. Theories that emphasize image or reputation
emphasize a retrospective vision focused on who is responsible.
Organizations that want to create a renewing response are more prospective
and emphasize focusing on the future, not on the past. They learn
from their mistakes, infuse their communication with bold optimism,
and stress rebuilding rather than issues of blame or fault. Chapter 12
provides a detailed examination of Organizational Renewal Theory and
the importance of developing a prospective vision to communicate about
crisis.
Effective Organizational Rhetoric
Managing a crisis most often involves communicating with stakeholders
to construct and maintain perceptions of reality. Establishing renewal
involves leaders motivating stakeholders to stay with the organization
through the crisis, as well as rebuilding the organization better than it was
before. We advocate that leaders who hope to inspire others to embrace
their views of crisis as an opportunity must establish themselves as models
of optimism in and commitment to communicating ethically and responsibly.
Effective organizational rhetoric then involves leadership with vision
and a strong, positive reputation to effectively frame the crisis for stakeholders
and persuade them to move beyond the event. The final chapter of
this book examines communication strategies for developing sound organizational
rhetoric during a crisis.
CRISIS COMMUNICATION THEORIES
THAT DESCRIBE, EXPLAIN, AND PRESCRIBE
As you can see, there is considerable research from a communication
perspective on how to manage and communicate about crises and disasters.
In general, theories can describe communication, explain the
effectiveness or ineffectiveness of communication, and prescribe how we
should communicate. The media theories described in this chapter serve
to describe and explain the role of media in framing, focusing, and setting
the agenda in crisis communication. The communication theories
Chapter 2 Understanding Crisis Communication Theory and Practice 31
of Corporate Apologia and Image Repair Theory describe common
responses to organizational crises and can be used to explain the effectiveness
or ineffectiveness of those responses. The Situational Crisis
Communication Theory describes, explains, and prescribes communication
strategies to protect the reputation of organizations managing crises.
Consistent with Situational Crisis Communication Theory, the Discourse
of Renewal describes, explains, and prescribes effective responses to crisis.
However, a central difference is the diminished role of threat to the reputation
of the organization in the Discourse of Renewal. In many examples
of renewal, issues of blame, culpability, image, or reputation never arise as
dominant narratives following these types of crisis responses. What makes
renewal responses so effective is they mobilize the support of stakeholders
and give these groups a vision to follow to overcome the crisis. A crisis
response that emphasizes threat to the reputation of an organization typically
lacks these qualities and often has the potential to extend the life cycle
of the crisis. These organizations often suffer from what we call a threat
bias in crisis communication.
UNDERSTANDING AND DEFINING THE
THREAT BIAS IN CRISIS COMMUNICATION
We believe that an organization that is willing to view a crisis from a balanced
perspective including both threat and opportunity has a much
greater potential for recovering from a crisis. Despite this potential, we
observe a persistent bias toward viewing crises solely from the perspective
of threat in both theory and practice. As we mentioned at the outset of this
chapter, threat is an important part of defining and understanding a crisis.
However, we believe that researchers and practitioners often overemphasize
and concentrate too much on the threat to an organization’s reputation
or image to respond effectively. What follows is a discussion of threat bias
in defining effective crisis communication.
To avoid the threat bias exemplified in current crisis communication
research, we suggest that crisis communicators mindfully define and examine
crisis events from a more inclusive perspective. Nathan (2000a) explains
the inclusive perspective we recommend:
[I]n crisis the threat dimensions are usually seen most quickly
and are then acted upon, while the potential for opportunity lies
dormant. When a crisis is anticipated or when it occurs, the manager
should be able to see both threat and opportunity features
before deciding how to proceed. (p. 4)
32 Part I The Conceptual Foundation
Nathan (2000b) goes on to explain that our understanding of crisis and
our crisis communication choices are inextricably linked. In fact, he suggests
that focusing solely on the role of threat in crisis “promotes threat response
that may, in turn, magnify and even intensify the state of [the] crisis” (Nathan,
2000b, p. 12). We argue that full consideration of both the potential threat
and opportunity associated with crisis is a more appropriate and effective
way to think about and communicate about crises. For this reason, we argue
for mindfully reconsidering our definitions of crisis to include the perceived
threat as well as the potential for opportunity emerging from the crisis.
Crises, by their nature, are threats to the survival of organizations.
Certainly, no organization should hope for a crisis simply to experience the
opportunities described by the theory of renewal. Rather, crises are inherent
and inevitable elements of the organizational experience. Those organizations
that see crises solely as threats to their public images are likely to
respond in defensive and potentially manipulative manners. This defensive
posture, at best, offers one benefit—survival. We contend that a combined
emphasis on the threat and opportunity of crises fosters the simultaneous
benefits of survival and growth. This growth manifests itself in the organization’s
willingness to respond with rhetorical sensitivity, make ethical
decisions, learn from the crisis, and focus on the future. As we have argued
throughout this chapter, these elements exemplify a balanced approach to
crisis. Applying these elements can produce an opportunity for renewal
that far exceeds basic survival.
SUMMARY
In this book, we hope to convince you that effective crisis management is a
natural and essential part of the organizing process. We believe that effective
crisis planning and communication can enable organizational leaders to
better cope with the surprise, threat, and short response time that are a part
of all crises. Although there are many types of intentional and unintentional
organizational crises, there are consistent strategies that can help an organization
turn a crisis situation into an opportunity for improvement. All crises
involve effective communication. Resisting the threat bias and understanding
the skills needed to communicate effectively is the focus of the next
section of this book. Understand that the lessons described in the upcoming
chapters are based on well-established research and practice in the multidisciplinary
field of research in crisis communication. Furthermore, the next
section takes us from conceptually understanding crises and crisis communication
theory and moves us toward improving our crisis communication
skills. Good luck with this next section of the book.
Chapter 2 Understanding Crisis Communication Theory and Practice 33
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The Lessons and Practical
Application
Chapter 3: Lessons on Effective Crisis Communication
Chapter 4: Applying the Lessons to Produce Effective Crisis
Communication
Chapter 5: Lessons on Managing Crisis Uncertainty Effectively
Chapter 6: Applying the Lessons for Managing Crisis Uncertainty
Effectively
Chapter 7: Lessons on Effective Crisis Leadership
Chapter 8: Applying the Lessons for Developing Effective Crisis
Leadership
P A R T I I

39
3 Lessons on Effective
Crisis Communication
In the first two chapters, we defined crisis communication and
discussed the key theories of crisis communication. This chapter
builds on these ideas by discussing how to effectively communicate
during a crisis. Over the past 20 years, a considerable amount
of crisis communication research has been conducted. Some of
the more recent research focuses on strategies to help organizations
effectively respond to a crisis. This chapter defines key approaches
to producing effective crisis communication. We believe that an effective
response to a crisis can turn what could be a disaster for an organization
into an opportunity to move beyond the event and to grow, prosper, and
renew.
This chapter contains 10 lessons for effective crisis communication.
These lessons should give any crisis communicator the key elements of an
effective crisis response. The lessons, culled from numerous case studies and
research on crisis communication, address a multitude of issues. Some of
the lessons—such as determining your goals, for example—can be accomplished
quite quickly and easily. Other lessons, such as managing stakeholder
relationships, can be much more complex and time-consuming. You
may even be surprised by some of the advice we provide in this chapter.
For instance, we discuss seriously considering the use of clear and accurate
communication in your initial crisis response. In addition, we provide some
advice about overassuring stakeholders. These lessons may appear somewhat
counterintuitive. Nevertheless, research has consistently revealed these
strategies to be effective means for managing crises.
DETERMINING YOUR GOALS
One of the first things a crisis communicator needs to determine following
a crisis is the goal of the crisis response. Goals are often broad value statements
that can help guide decision making for the organization. One goal
40 Part II The Lessons and Practical Application
of crisis communication can be to reduce the impact of the crisis on those
affected. Another goal of a crisis communicator may be to keep the organization’s
image intact or maintain the customer base. The CDC recently
adopted the goals of “be first, be right, be credible” for their crisis communication
(Reynolds, 2002). These broad goals provide clear objectives
for how the CDC would like to communicate during a crisis. In essence,
the CDC’s objective during a crisis is to establish contact with stakeholders
quickly and credibly. Determining goals is a key step in preparing for
and responding to crisis. This strategy can also reduce uncertainty for the
organization because, once goals are defined, the organization is better
able to consciously think about what strategies it can use to accomplish its
objectives.
Some of an organization’s crisis communication goals may actually
contradict one another. For instance, public health departments typically
have a key goal of informing the public about health crises. However, at
times, they are not able to meet this goal due to individual right-to-privacy
laws that prohibit such communication. Determining, ranking, and identifying
potential obstacles to goals of crisis communication before a crisis is
a key step in effective crisis communication. We hope that when organizations
prepare for crises, they consider their
crisis communication goals. In addition,
we believe that they should collaborate
with other groups, work out potential goal
conflicts, and establish partnerships.
PARTNERING WITH CRISIS AUDIENCES
We believe that, once goals for a crisis response are established, the second
essential part for crisis communicators is developing a mind-set about the
role of stakeholders in crisis communication. A critical part of effective crisis
communication is determined by the relationships organizations have
with their stakeholders. Organizations should work before a crisis to cultivate
strong partnerships with stakeholders.
We define partnerships as follows:
Partnerships are equal communication relationships with groups
or organizations that have an impact on an organization. Partnerships
are established through honest and open dialogue about
important issues for each group or organization. Partners may
be advocates for the organization or they may be groups that are
antagonistic toward the organization.
LESSON 1
Determine your goals for crisis communication.
Chapter 3 Lessons on Effective Crisis Communication 41
We believe that effective crisis communication starts long before a crisis
hits and should be part of every organization’s business and strategic
plans. Establishing and maintaining equal relationships and partnerships
with groups and organizations is critical
to effective crisis communication. We do
not advocate manipulating stakeholders in
a way that gets them to do what you want.
Rather, we believe organizations should
create a dialogue with stakeholders about
important issues and work out equitable
solutions. This can be a time-consuming process, but it is essential to crisis
preparedness and, eventually, your crisis response.
We advise organizations, such as public health departments, to partner
with local media when preparing for public health crises. As we mentioned
earlier, public health departments are charged with providing important
health information to the communities they serve. The media are often the
outlet for this communication. However, individual right-to-privacy laws
often preclude public health departments from being completely transparent
in their communication. This limitation can lead to frustration on the part
of the media. Through open and honest discussions, public health departments
can explain their positions on privacy laws, and the media can express
expectations for public access to information. Our experience suggests that,
through these discussions, expectations can be set and uncertainty reduced
about how public health departments will communicate about important
health issues and how the media prefer to receive that information.
Research suggests that the public or an organization’s stakeholders
can even help an organization move beyond a crisis. For instance, during a
3-week period in October 2002, 10 people were shot and three others were
critically injured by gunfire in public places, like restaurants and gas stations,
in Washington, DC, and Maryland. The media dubbed the killer or killers as
the “beltway sniper” or “DC sniper.” In response, the Montgomery County
police chief Charles Moose actively used both the local media and the public
to look for and identify the snipers. This collaboration among the different
stakeholders enabled the police to widen the search for the snipers and also
gave the public a role in the search. By including the media and the public
as partners in the crisis, the police were
able to capture the snipers after receiving
two separate tips based on reported sightings
of a suspect’s vehicle. In this case, the
media and a vigilant public were treated as
partners by law enforcement in ending the
LESSON 2
Before a crisis, develop true, equal
partnerships with organizations and groups
that are important to the organization.
LESSON 3
Acknowledge your stakeholders, including the
media, as partners when managing a crisis.
42 Part II The Lessons and Practical Application
terror in Washington, DC, and Maryland. (For more information about this
situation and its resolution, see “Beltway sniper,” n.d.)
UNDERSTANDING THE
DIVERSITY OF YOUR AUDIENCES
Effective crisis communicators tend to consider the diversity of the audiences
they will be in contact with after a crisis rather than viewing them as one large,
homogenous public. In Chapter 2, we defined stakeholders as internal or
external groups that can have an impact on the organization. A list of possible
stakeholders can provide a map of communication partners, for instance:
? Employees
? Competitors
? Creditors
? Consumers
? Government Agencies
? The Community
? The Environment
? Stockholders
? The Media
This list could be even larger, depending on the organization and its
interests. To better manage a crisis and our time in preparing for a crisis,
we must determine which stakeholders the organization considers primary
and secondary.
PRIMARY AND SECONDARY
STAKEHOLDERS DEFINED
When considering the diverse nature of a single organization’s stakeholders,
an understanding of primary and secondary stakeholders is essential.
Heath (1997) explains that this identification of stakeholders must include
both “allies-supporters and opponents” (p. 28).
Primary stakeholders are those groups defined by an organization as
most important to its success.
Secondary stakeholders are key groups that do not play an active role in
the day-to-day activities of the organization but are still important to
its overall success.
Chapter 3 Lessons on Effective Crisis Communication 43
When using the stakeholders to define organizational audiences, we
then ask the following questions:
? How often do you communicate with these stakeholders?
? What groups or organizations view you as a stakeholder?
? How often do these groups communicate with you?
? Are you aware of and do you listen to the concerns of these groups?
? On which issues of importance to both primary and secondary
stakeholder groups do you agree and disagree?
We find that many organizations are aware of their stakeholders but
do not communicate with them, or if they do, they converse only on rare
occasions. When organizations need to communicate following a crisis,
they are often communicating with groups they do not know very well.
This lack of familiarity exists because the organization has not established
any prior relationships and has no base for the communication. If
an organization does not have a partnership with stakeholders prior to a
crisis, the communication following one can be quite awkward and often
ineffective. Effective crisis communicators listen to their stakeholders and
treat their concerns as legitimate. Hence, effective crisis communicators
know the expectations of their stakeholders and their information needs
following a crisis.
What is worse than not knowing your stakeholders is having a negative
relationship with them. One of the most important concerns for
organizations is establishing strong, positive stakeholder relationships.
At times, every organization is going to have stakeholders that are antagonistic
and maybe even aggressive. That being true, organizations need
to follow the classic advice: Keep your friends close and your enemies
closer.
Organizations need to work with stakeholders to narrow gaps between
stakeholder and organizational expectations. Every organization will need
help during a crisis, and generating goodwill with stakeholders prior to a
crisis will lessen stakeholder communication demands during and after the
crisis. Typically, organizations do not readily address stakeholders who are
adversaries. We believe that negotiating with antagonistic stakeholders over
time and listening to their concerns is the key to better understanding their
communication needs in the event of a crisis.
To communicate more effectively, organizations must determine the
types of communication relationships or partnerships they currently have
with primary stakeholders (see Table 3.1). Positive stakeholder relationships
44 Part II The Lessons and Practical Application
are defined as both the organization and
the stakeholder viewing each other as partners.
Neither party may agree on every
issue, but both listen to one another and
work to create agreements on issues over
which they disagree. Negative stakeholder
relationships develop because of poor communication between the organization
and its stakeholders. The organization and the stakeholders in
these groups are antagonistic toward one another. Ambivalent stakeholder
relationships are defined as the organization and stakeholders engineering
consent with one another. The relationship illustrates a lack of interest in
one another and suggests that one group is trying to control the other.
Nonexistent stakeholder relationships are defined by a lack of awareness
or acknowledgment of a particular stakeholder group. In this case, the
organization and its stakeholders are not even aware that they impact one
another.
COMMUNICATING WITH UNDERREPRESENTED
POPULATIONS DURING CRISES
Organizations must also consider the diversity and communication needs
of diverse groups of stakeholders in crisis communication. Particular audiences
may have specific communication needs or desires. Current research
Stakeholder
Relationship Example
Positive Symmetrical relationship in which both organization and
stakeholder understand, acknowledge, communicate, and
listen effectively to one another
Negative An antagonistic relationship between organization and
stakeholder; organization is not open to communicating
with or listening to the stakeholder group
Ambivalent No true partnership; organization and stakeholder each
work to engineer consent with the other group, but neither
group listens to the other
Nonexistent Organization not aware of stakeholder and does not
communicate with or acknowledge the stakeholder group
Possible Primary and Secondary Stakeholder
Table 3.1 Relationships or Partnerships
LESSON 4
Organizations need to develop strong,
positive primary and secondary stakeholder
relationships.
Chapter 3 Lessons on Effective Crisis Communication 45
suggests there are three options in developing crisis messages for underrepresented
populations (Dutta, 2007). These options include the following:
A culture-neutral approach
A culturally sensitive approach
A culture-centered approach
A culture-neutral approach takes the position that all stakeholder
groups act on and access crisis communication information in similar
manners. Crisis communication during Hurricane Katrina illustrates a
culture-neutral approach to crisis communication. Crisis communication
messages during the hurricane were constructed and presented without
thought or concern for the socioeconomic background or crisis communication
needs of African American and other underrepresented populations
in New Orleans. As a result, these groups were either not reached or were
neglected during the hurricane.
The culturally sensitive approach to communicating with underrepresented
populations suggests that crisis communication messages should be
adapted by cataloguing cultural characteristics of underrepresented groups
to meet their crisis communication needs. For instance, some groups
may want crisis information provided by members of their own cultural
group. Others may want information provided at certain locations, such as
churches or community gathering places. Still other groups may want crisis
messages to contain certain terms or be written at a particular literacy level.
The characteristics of each population can vary considerably; however,
the goal of the culturally sensitive crisis communicator is to determine the
characteristics of the population and develop messages to meet the needs
of each group.
The final approach, and one we most prefer, is the culture-centered
approach. The culture-centered approach takes the culturally sensitive
approach one step further by actually including underrepresented populations
in preparing for and communicating about crises. In this case, crisis
communicators would involve underrepresented stakeholders in determining
who would present their crisis messages and in what manner. The
culture-centered approach involves including underrepresented populations
in determining the appropriate crisis messages, the most effective
channels for information dissemination, and the most trusted people to
deliver crisis messages. This approach suggests developing partnerships
with underrepresented stakeholders prior to a crisis to ensure effective
communication with these groups following an event. To be successful in
46 Part II The Lessons and Practical Application
their crisis communications, every organization should develop relationships
with underrepresented populations in their communities and make
them part of their crisis communication planning. What follows is a discussion
about listening, which is a key part of developing relationships
with stakeholders.
A WORD ON PARTNERSHIPS AND LISTENING
Listening is critical to effective crisis communication. One of a crisis communicator’s
most common mistakes is attempting to engineer consent
from the public by emphasizing only the organization’s side of the story.
This strategy, known as spin, often leaves the public feeling it does not have
the full story, which creates resentment toward the organization. At worst,
the organization does not even address the public’s key concerns. When
this happens, the public may be frustrated because important questions
are not answered.
Listening to stakeholders is also a crucial aspect of postcrisis communication.
Effective communication is not a one-way process. We advocate
that, after a crisis, organizations not only provide information to stakeholders
but also schedule time to listen to their concerns and to answer
their questions. Listening in the form of public information sessions where
stakeholders have the opportunity to voice their concerns is critical to postcrisis
response and recovery efforts. Public information sessions include
opportunities for stakeholders to interact with key organizational representatives,
examine posters about the crisis and response and recovery efforts,
and collect additional information in the form of fact or Q & A sheets if
desired. Public information sessions are designed to provide stakeholders
with opportunities to voice any concerns they may have about the crisis. In
addition, the organization can hear stakeholder concerns firsthand. Once
concerns are voiced, the organization can work to narrow the gap between
what it is doing and what the public or stakeholders expect.
For some reason, listening sessions are one of the processes organizations
have the most difficulty adopting. In training sessions, we often
explain that organizations should keep their friendly stakeholders close
and their discontented stakeholders closer. However, many organizations
feel compelled to distance aggravated stakeholders and communicate with
and listen to only stakeholders with whom they are in agreement. This, in
our opinion, is an ineffective business practice. We have found that organizations
are better able to prepare and respond to crises when they have
coordinated with all stakeholder groups before and after the crisis. When
dealing with aggravated or discontented stakeholders, every effort should
Chapter 3 Lessons on Effective Crisis Communication 47
be made to address the issues as quickly as
possible. Organizations should make this
exercise a part of their crisis planning.
Once you have determined that listening
is a key factor in effective crisis
communication, the next step is to focus on determining which audiences
you should listen to and how to answer their questions.
WHAT INFORMATION DO
STAKEHOLDERS NEED FOLLOWING A CRISIS?
We offer four broad suggestions for communicating effectively following
a crisis: communicating early and often with stakeholders about the crisis,
identifying the cause, contacting everyone affected, and communicating
about current and future risks.
COMMUNICATE EARLY AND OFTEN WITH
BOTH INTERNAL AND EXTERNAL STAKEHOLDERS
One of the fundamentals that crisis communicators should know is that
they must make immediate contact with stakeholders and communicate about
the crisis. Although the severity of the problem may not be known, stakeholders
still need early and consistent communication about how the organization
is moving forward. One of the things Rudy Giuliani did very well following
9/11 was to provide consistent reports to New York residents and the world
about what was happening and how the cleanup was taking place. He did this
even when there was no fresh news or when he had no information to provide.
When holding a press conference on TV and asked to estimate the number of
casualties, he acknowledged uncertainty by explaining, “The number of casualties
is more than any of us can bear” (Pooley, 2001, para. 6).
Many organizations fail in communicating because they do not make
themselves available to stakeholders. Our advice to crisis communication
students and practitioners is to consistently provide information to stakeholders
following a crisis. When information is not available, just listening
to stakeholders and fielding questions is much more valuable than stonewalling
or being perceived as inaccessible.
IDENTIFYING THE CAUSE OF THE CRISIS
A critical factor in resolving any crisis is determining the cause. Once
the cause has been identified, some of the uncertainty is cleared up, and
corrective action can be taken. The primary problem here, however, is that
LESSON 5
Effective crisis communication involves
listening to your stakeholders.
48 Part II The Lessons and Practical Application
identifying the cause of the crisis often takes a great deal of time, as we
mentioned earlier. Many different independent and governmental groups
may work to identify the cause of a crisis, and they may often disagree
with or question the veracity of the other groups’ evidence. In addition,
immediately after a crisis, accurate and appropriate information may not be
available. During this time, the media and various other stakeholders often
speculate about who is responsible and how the organization will recover
from the crisis. Organizations can become defensive and closed to outside
agencies as they try to spin the story positively or to the organization’s favor,
which negatively affects their credibility.
CONTACTING EVERYONE AFFECTED BY THE CRISIS
At the onset of a crisis, organizations must be able to contact each individual
or group affected. When communicating with stakeholders following
a crisis, make sure to communicate with compassion, concern, and empathy.
This does not mean that the spokesperson should not be professional. However,
due to the dramatic nature of crisis and the impact that these events
have on people’s lives, it is important to make sure that people are addressed
with compassion for what they are going through, concern for their welfare,
and empathy. James Lee Witt (Witt & Morgan, 2002), former director of
FEMA, explains that communication skills are critical after a crisis:
You can empathize with their pain and embarrassment at being
helpless. You can make adjustments to the recovery process based
on their need for dignity. You can make sure they have shelter and
a hot meal. You can listen to their stories and acknowledge their
concerns. You can hug them and let them cry on your shoulder.
You can say to them as I do, we can’t bring back your memories,
but we can help you build new ones. (p. 147)
As you can see, compassion, concern, and empathy are key communication
strategies in moving beyond the crisis and generating opportunities
for renewal and optimism.
DETERMINING CURRENT AND FUTURE RISKS
To manage uncertainty, organizations must be aware of the current
risks they face and potential future risks. Organizations that are able to
consider potential risks in their environments are then able to prepare for
and reduce uncertainty about these events, should they occur. Stakeholders
will want to know whether they are at risk for similar crises in the future. In
Chapter 3 Lessons on Effective Crisis Communication 49
effective crisis communication cases, the organization is able to explain its
corrective action to stakeholders so that these groups feel confident that the
organization has made adequate corrections.
Within these four broad strategies for effective crisis communication,
there are also some important communication approaches that
need to be addressed. The first concentrates on the role of certainty in
crisis communication. For some time, certain and clear communication
has been the hallmark of effective crisis
communication. Although clear and certain
communication can be effective, we
believe it can also get an organization into
more trouble, can complicate the overall
response for the organization, and can
even be irresponsible.
IS CERTAIN COMMUNICATION
ALWAYS THE BEST APPROACH?
Much of the initial crisis communication research suggests that organizations
should provide clear and consistent messages to stakeholders as quickly as
possible after crises (Marconi, 1992; Schuetz, 1990; Seeger, 1986). Although
this can be good advice, we now know that when responding to some types
of crises this recommendation is not always practical or even advisable. Organizations
that communicate too quickly with too much certainty often must
later retract their public comments. Public statements recorded by the media
and noted by stakeholders can subsequently be used against an organization.
We believe that, in their initial public statements, organizations can interject
some level of ambiguity or uncertainty that will enable them to both communicate
with their public and emphasize the level of uncertainty they are experiencing
at the time—in effect, a more accurate reflection of the situation.
Peter Sandman (2004), a risk and crisis communication consultant,
examined some successful and unsuccessful responses to the 2004 outbreak
of avian flu in Asia, which was a devastating crisis for poultry farmers. During
the crisis, various government and public health organizations were
asked to comment on whether the avian flu could mutate into and become
as infectious as ordinary human flu. Sandman explains that Bob Dietz, a
WHO spokesperson, communicated effectively by acknowledging the
uncertainty of the crisis when he confirmed that a Vietnamese woman’s bird
flu virus contained no human influenza genes. Dietz explained, “The results
are encouraging, but unfortunately, they are still not the conclusive proof we
need to fully discount the possibility of human-to-human transmission of
LESSON 6
Communicate early about the crisis,
acknowledge uncertainty, and assure the
public that you will maintain contact with
them about current and future risk.
50 Part II The Lessons and Practical Application
the virus” (p. 46). Conversely, when asked
if the bird flu had spread to Thailand,
Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra
responded, “It’s not a big deal. If it’s bird flu,
it’s bird flu. We can handle it. . . . We have
been working very hard. . . . Please trust
the government. It did not make an announcement in the very beginning
because it did not want the public to panic” (p. 46). Sandman argues that the
language in the second example is too certain and borders on overreassuring
the public that there will not be a problem. Organizations must be able
to communicate what they know at the time. As a result, there will be times
when they must say, “We do not know anything yet; however, this is what
we are doing regarding our crisis investigation.” At times, because accurate
information is not always available, it is justifiable to say, “We do not know.”
BE CAREFUL OF OVERREASSURING
YOUR STAKEHOLDERS
Making sure the organization does not overreassure audiences about the
risk or impact of a crisis is consistent with discussions about communicating
uncertainty and certainty about a crisis. A common misconception about crisis
communication is that when a crisis hits, the public will panic and respond
with mass hysteria. Research on crisis, at this point, suggests that this is generally
not the case (e.g., Quarantelli, 1988). In
fact, the opposite is often true. Most of the
examples in the literature suggest that people
behave extremely well during crisis. No
doubt, people will take protective actions for
themselves, but for the most part, they act in
a rational manner. Barbara Reynolds (2002), CDC spokesperson, explains that
“the condition most conducive to panic isn’t bad news; it is conflicting messages
from those in authority” (p. 24). In this case, when the public believes
that they cannot trust those in authority or that information is being hidden
from them, the level of perceived threat is likely to increase substantially.
TELL YOUR STAKEHOLDERS
HOW TO PROTECT THEMSELVES
The public most often looks for statements that will give it something to
ensure its safety. That being the case, organizations should not overreassure;
rather, they should focus on self-efficacy—showing people how to
protect themselves from the effects of the crisis.
LESSON 7
Avoid certain or absolute answers to the
public and media, until sufficient information
is available.
LESSON 8
Do not overreassure stakeholders about the
impact the crisis will have on them.
Chapter 3 Lessons on Effective Crisis Communication 51
Information communicated to stakeholders about how to protect
themselves—self-efficacy—should be useful and practical and should
suit their divergent needs. Barbara Reynolds (2002) suggests that crisis
communicators should give minimum, middle, and maximum responses.
For example, to protect oneself from impure drinking water, she suggests,
“(1) Use chlorine drops if safety is
uncertain, (2) boil water for 2 minutes,
or (3) buy bottled water. We recommend
boiling water” (p. 24). In this case, people
are given information and alternatives
about how to protect themselves.
We believe that self-efficacy messages should be valid, useful, and
instructive in actually protecting stakeholders from potential risk. Instructions
provided to the public by the DHS on using plastic and duct tape to
seal windows and doors for protection during a terrorist attack were not
very effective. However, in cases like the 1997 North Dakota floods, when
the public was actively involved in sandbagging dikes to keep homes in the
Red River Valley safe, including the public in a crisis response was not only
necessary but proved to be an effective and renewing approach for many
citizens of Fargo and Grand Forks, North Dakota, and Moorhead and East
Grand Forks, Minnesota (see Chapter 6 and Sellnow, Seeger, & Ulmer, 2002).
We suggest a counterintuitive approach to crisis communication:
Rather than immediately responding to questions concerning a crisis with
certainty to prevent the public from panicking, we advocate that, due to the
uncertainty of crisis, an organization’s communication should carry with it
a level of ambiguity or uncertainty. In this case, we advocate against using
absolute answers or overreassuring the public until adequate information
is available. In addition, once an organization communicates statements of
self-efficacy after a crisis, it is one step closer to using stakeholders as a
resource. However, even statements of self-efficacy should include levels of
ambiguity that represent the low, moderate, and high levels of concern of
organizational stakeholders.
REDUCING AND INTENSIFYING UNCERTAINTY BEFORE,
DURING, AND AFTER ORGANIZATIONAL CRISES
A SUMMARY OF RESEARCH AND PRACTICE IN CRISIS
COMMUNICATION AND GENERATING RENEWAL
Through extensive case study analysis and research, we have developed
some ways that organizations may intensify or reduce crisis ambiguity and
uncertainty. The communication strategies discussed in this chapter suggest
LESSON 9
The public needs useful and practical
statements of self-efficacy during a crisis.
52 Part II The Lessons and Practical Application
a communication process approach to preparing for and communicating
during and after a crisis. Effective precrisis communication practices include
establishing strong positive leadership virtues and core values from which
to make crisis decisions. Exhibiting open and honest communication with
stakeholders before a crisis develops goodwill among these groups, which
can serve to reduce uncertainty at the onset of a crisis. Finally, organizations
that set forth a crisis plan, and in particular illustrate commitment to
developing a reservoir of goodwill and commitment to their stakeholders,
are more able to communicate effectively during a crisis. In this case, precrisis
effective communication strategies include the following:
Strong positive leadership values and goals
Open and honest communication with stakeholders
A commitment to stakeholders and developing a reservoir of goodwill
Conversely, before a crisis, organizations can take part in activities that
we predict will actually intensify the levels of ambiguity and uncertainty at
the onset of a crisis. First, if there are poor communication relationships
with stakeholders within or outside the organization, ambiguity and uncertainty
are likely to be intensified after a crisis. Organizations should pay
particular attention to superior–subordinate communication and the relationships
with external stakeholders as well. Second, organizations that distance
aggravated stakeholders and their needs are more likely to experience
heightened ambiguity and uncertainty following a crisis. Third, organizations
that communicate to engineer consent from their internal or external
stakeholders rather than listening to the needs of their stakeholders are
likely to experience heightened ambiguity or uncertainty during a crisis.
Finally, organizations that do not take part in any simulations or crisis planning
are more likely to communicate ineffectively during a crisis. In this
case, predictors of ineffective precrisis communication include:
Poor communication relationships with stakeholders
Distance from aggravated stakeholders
Failure to listen to stakeholder needs
Failure to plan for a crisis
During a crisis, there are key communication strategies that are recognized
as being useful to reducing the affects of crisis-induced uncertainty
and ambiguity. For instance, having a mission statement and core values to
Chapter 3 Lessons on Effective Crisis Communication 53
inform your crisis decision making is instrumental to reducing uncertainty.
Having established positive stakeholder relationships to lean on during a
crisis can help reduce uncertainty and improve communication as well.
Organizations that have conducted risk assessments and taken provisions
to manage those risks are less likely to experience crisis uncertainty. James
Lee Witt (Witt & Morgan, 2002) explains “communication when it’s working
can help you know when a crisis is coming sometimes early enough
to prevent it” (p. 46). Organizations that provide continual and consistent
updates on the crisis recovery process are able to reduce uncertainty and
ambiguity for their key stakeholders. Finally, organizations that communicate
openly and honestly have a better ability to reduce crisis-induced
uncertainty more effectively. Crisis communication strategies that create
effective communication practices include the following:
Using core values and crisis communication goals developed precrisis
to guide your response
Providing consistent updates on the recovery process
Communicating openly and honestly
Organizations that stonewall or say “no comment” are likely to intensify
ambiguity or uncertainty during a crisis. Not having a crisis plan or
strong value positions in place is also likely to increase uncertainty. Not
knowing who to call or what to say is central to increased uncertainty and
ambiguity during a crisis. Communication that serves to minimize the crisis
or overreassure stakeholders that the impact of the crisis will be small
often serves instead to augment crisis uncertainty. Finally, communication
with certainty about complex issues surrounding a crisis has the ability to
create more uncertainty during a crisis. Crisis communication strategies
that minimize crisis communication effectiveness following a crisis include:
Saying “no comment”
Not knowing whom to call or having established values to base your
response on
Overreassuring about the impact of the crisis
Communicating with certainty about the crisis
Finally, postcrisis communication is not effective when an organization
tries to spin the crisis in its favor to reduce responsibility. In this case,
an organization may try to obscure blame, diminish its role in the crisis, or
54 Part II The Lessons and Practical Application
complicate the evidence surrounding responsibility for the crisis. Beyond
being unethical, these communication tactics are unwise, heighten crisis
uncertainty, and delay crisis recovery. In this case, ineffective postcrisis
communication involves:
Spinning responsibility for the crisis
Obscuring blame
Conversely, organizations that emphasize learning from the crisis and
ethical communication through freedom of access to information and open
and honest communication and that provide a prospective vision for recovery
are more likely to be able to reduce uncertainty postcrisis and generate
a more effective renewing response. Postcrisis communication designed to
reduce uncertainty and ambiguity involves the following:
Learning from the crisis
Communicating ethically and openly about responsibility
Providing a prospective vision for recovery
This section suggests effective and ineffective communication strategies
before, during, and after a crisis. The decisions an organization’s leadership
makes will have a profound impact on the effectiveness of the crisis
response and the amount of uncertainty stakeholders experience. Making
good choices about how to prepare for, manage, and resolve a crisis can do
much to help an organization recover from a crisis and create opportunities
for future growth. What follows is a discussion about the potential opportunities
associated with crises.
SOCIAL MEDIA AND
EFFECTIVE CRISIS COMMUNICATION
Social media, such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, instant messaging, and
blogging, are essential tools for effective crisis communication. Sherman
(2010) explains that monitoring and using social media can be beneficial to
crisis communicators. She explains how social media can be used:
Monitor what is being said about your company
Anticipate potential crises
Communicate to stakeholders during a crisis
Chapter 3 Lessons on Effective Crisis Communication 55
Organizations can use Internet tools to track tweets and discussions of
their organization’s names through free sites like Google Trends, TweetBeep,
and Social Mention. In Chapter 4, we examine the case of Domino’s Pizza,
which emphasizes the important role of using Internet tools to anticipate
crises. In this case, two employees had made a prank YouTube video that
depicted unsanitary food handling practices. Domino’s Pizza was unaware
of the crisis because they were not monitoring social media. Organizations
are also able to see problems brewing long in advance if they monitor this
media and take action to correct problems when they see negative comments
or complaints before they become larger problems. Organizations
that monitor social media are better prepared to anticipate potential crises
and are better able to stay connected with stakeholders that prefer this
mode of communication.
Sherman (2010) suggests the following advice for preventing small
issues from becoming crises:
Acknowledge the issue, and apologize for the mistake
Publicly explain that the issue will be fixed immediately and that everyone
will be notified when the issue is resolved
Privately message people who had tweeted about the problem, and
assure them that the problem is being resolved
Publicly address those who cannot be reached privately by referencing
them with the @ sign and their Twitter name with a personal
explanation
Not every instance may demand a response such as this. In addition,
we do not recommend admitting fault when you have not made an error.
However, in those times that you have made a mistake, it is best to solve the
problem as quickly as possible and notify the frustrated stakeholders when
the problem is resolved. In this case, social media provide useful channels
to address potential issues before they become problems. However, without
close monitoring of these channels, organizations are likely to miss the
opportunity to address potential problems in advance.
During a crisis, social media can be used to provide consistent updates
and information to crisis stakeholders. Blogs, tweets, instant messages,
and Facebook pages can be used to keep people up to date about the crisis
and can also be used to collect information about solutions that may
rectify the crisis. In the previously discussed Domino’s case, the company
initially responded to the hoax with traditional media releases that did
56 Part II The Lessons and Practical Application
not reduce the intensity or impact of the crisis. It was not until Domino’s
responded to the hoax via YouTube and created a Twitter account to communicate
about the crisis that the crisis moved toward resolution. This
example again illustrates the necessity for organizations to take social
media seriously in their crisis communications.
Social media should be considered as part of any crisis communication
response. However, sound crisis communication theory should be used to
focus the content of the messages being delivered through social media.
In other words, incorporate the lessons previously described in this chapter
and the theories discussed in Chapter 2. For instance, Stracener (2012)
interviewed six leading experts in social media and crisis response from
public and private industries. His research findings found that these experts
were not yet using theory to develop the content of their social media messages.
Rather, they were emphasizing getting hits on their websites and
retweets over the content of the messages being used on social media. If
social media is going to be effective in crisis communication, there needs
to be a closer connection between the theory and practice of crisis communication.
Doing so can create unexpected opportunities for effective
crisis communication. Sherman (2010) explains “every criticism now has
the potential to become an opportunity to connect more closely with customers.
. . . When a crisis does occur, social media can offer monitoring
and communication solutions to disseminate information at a more rapid
rate than most traditional media” (para. 27). Clearly, social media combined
with strategies for effective crisis communication have the potential
to lessen the impact or even prevent a crisis from happening. What follows
are some additional positive results that can be achieved from effective crisis
communication.
THE POWER OF POSITIVE THINKING
Knowing how to frame events is one of the most important strategies an
organization can employ to move beyond a crisis. We have found that
when an organization is able to think about the positive potential rather
than the negative aspects of a crisis, it is better able to move beyond
the event. Crises do offer opportunities for renewal and future growth.
Many organizations frame crises in terms of alleviating responsibility
and shifting the blame to other organizations. They also frame a crisis in
terms of it being a terrible tragedy for the organization and its members.
Organizations that are able to frame crises in more optimistic terms are
better able to move beyond them. Thinking about the potential positive
Chapter 3 Lessons on Effective Crisis Communication 57
aspects of a crisis focuses an organization on moving beyond the event
and provides a positive direction toward which organizational members
can work. Meyers and Holusha (1986) discuss seven potential positive
results that can come from a crisis:
1. Heroes are born.
2. Change is accelerated.
3. Latent problems are faced.
4. People are changed.
5. New strategies evolve.
6. Early warning systems develop.
7. New competitive advantages appear.
Meyers and Holusha (1986) suggest that leaders who manage crises
effectively can be viewed as heroes. Clearly, Rudolph Giuliani, New York
City mayor during the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, was viewed as
a hero because of his effective response to the crisis. Change can be accelerated
following a crisis, because money is typically made available, and people
can clearly see the need for change. Latent problems are faced because
these are typically the ones that created the crisis in the first place. People
can be changed, because they now see the impact their faulty belief structures
had on the organization and its effectiveness. New strategies evolve,
because the organization must develop new approaches to doing business
in order to move beyond the crisis. Early warning systems develop so that
the organization will be better able to foresee and manage a potential future
crisis. Last, new competitive advantages can appear after a crisis, because
the entire nature of business may change. For instance, after 9/11, the airline
industry became much different. Where large airlines dominated the market
before 9/11, small niche market airlines, such as Southwest Airlines, Jet
Blue, and Song, are now having the greatest success. Only time will tell how
long this competitive advantage will remain. Effective crisis communication,
then, involves being positive and thinking
about the potential positive aspects of crisis
while dealing with the event. When thinking
positively, organizations have the ability
to frame the event in a positive way for
stakeholders.
LESSON 10
Effective crisis communicators acknowledge
that positive factors can arise from
organizational crises.
58 Part II The Lessons and Practical Application
SUMMARY
This chapter examined effective crisis communication based on best practices
in the field of crisis communication. We examined the role of listening
in effective crisis communication, the need to understand the variety of
audiences that an organization will face in a crisis and what these audiences
want to hear, the role of certainty in crisis communication, and the power
of positive thinking and its effect on moving beyond a crisis.
The next chapter illustrates how leaders can enact and employ the
lessons from this chapter. Good luck with the case studies in the next
chapter.
Lesson 1: Determine your goals for crisis communication.
Lesson 2: Before a crisis, develop true equal partnerships with organizations
and groups that are important to the organization.
Lesson 3: Acknowledge your stakeholders, including the media, as partners
when managing a crisis.
Lesson 4: Organizations need to develop strong, positive primary and
secondary stakeholder relationships.
Lesson 5: Effective crisis communication involves listening to your stakeholders.
Lesson 6: Communicate early about the crisis, acknowledge uncertainty,
and assure the public that you will maintain contact with
them about current and future risk.
Lesson 7: Avoid certain or absolute answers to the public and media
until sufficient information is available.
Lesson 8: Do not overreassure stakeholders about the impact the crisis
will have on them.
Lesson 9: The public needs useful and practical statements of self-efficacy
during a crisis.
Lesson 10: Effective crisis communicators acknowledge that positive factors
can arise from organizational crises.
Lessons on Communicating
Effectively in Crisis Situations
Chapter 3 Lessons on Effective Crisis Communication 59
REFERENCES
Beltway sniper attacks. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.answers.com
Dutta, M. J. (2007). Communicating about culture and health: Theorizing culturecentered
and cultural sensitivity approaches. Communication Theory, 17,
304–328.
Heath, R. L. (1997). Strategic issues management: Organizations and public policy
challenges. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Marconi, J. (1992). Crisis marketing: When bad things happen to good companies.
Chicago, IL: Probus.
Meyers, G. C., & Holusha, J. (1986). When it hits the fan: Managing the nine crises of
business. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.
Pooley, E. (2001). Rudy Giuliani. Time. Retrieved from http://www.time.com/time/
subscriber/personoftheyear/archive/stories/2001.html
Quarantelli, E. I. (1988). Disaster crisis management: A summary of research findings.
Journal of Management Studies, 25, 273–385.
Reynolds, B. (2002). Crisis and emergency risk communication. Atlanta, GA: Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention.
Sandman, P. (2004). Crisis communication: Avian flu exercise: What are they doing?
Retrieved from http://www.psandman.com
Schuetz, J. (1990). Corporate advocacy as argumentation. In R. Trapp & J. Schuetz
(Eds.), Perspectives on argumentation (pp. 272–284). Prospect Heights, IL:
Waveland.
Seeger, M. W. (1986). The Challenger tragedy and search for legitimacy. Central
States Speech Journal, 37, 147–157.
Sellnow, T. L., Seeger, M. W., & Ulmer, R. R. (2002). Chaos theory, informational
needs, and natural disasters. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 30,
269–292.
Sherman, A. (2010). Using social media for crisis communication. Retrieved from
http://www.iabc.com/cwb/archive/2010/0210/Sherman.htm
Stracener, M. (2012). Social media and public health: Are we using theory to guide
practice? Doctoral Dissertation, University of Arkansas Medical Sciences,
Little Rock.
Witt, J. L., & Morgan, G. (2002). Stronger in broken places: Nine lessons for turning
crisis into triumph. New York, NY: Times Books.
60
Applying the Lessons to
Produce Effective Crisis
Communication
4
After examining the 10 lessons for effective crisis communication,
it is time to work on building your effective crisis communication
skills. The following cases are designed to help the
reader identify and discuss each of the key lessons described
and discussed in the previous chapter. Following each case
the reader is asked to make a determination about whether
the crisis communicators were effective or ineffective. This chapter contains
seven real-life cases that examine lessons on effective crisis communication.
The first case provides a detailed account of BP and the United States Coast
Guard’s communication following BP’s 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
The second case, examines Aaron Feuerstein’s crisis communication following
a 1995 fire at his textile manufacturing plant in Methuen, Massachusetts.
The third case, discusses a food-borne illness outbreak at Odwalla Inc., a
beverage company known for its health conscious products. The fourth case
describes the communication following the terrorist attack at Oklahoma City.
The fifth case examines Greensburg Kansas’ response to when a tornado
destroyed their town in 2007. The sixth case examines a crisis that played out
of social media when Domino’s Pizza was blindsided by a hoax online by two
of its employees. Good luck with working through these cases while developing
your crisis communication skills and experience at the same time!
EXAMPLE 4.1. THE LARGEST ENVIRONMENTAL CRISIS
IN UNITED STATES HISTORY: BP AND THE UNITED
STATES COAST GUARD RESPOND
On April 20, 2010, at approximately 10:00 PM CDT there was an explosion
on the mobile offshore drilling unit Deepwater Horizon located in the Gulf of
Mexico. The semisubmersible oil rig was leased and operated by BP Exploration
Chapter 4 Applying the Lessons to Produce Effective Crisis Communication 61
and Production. The explosion caused a fire on the oil rig. Shortly after the
initial fire, a second explosion capsized the oil rig. The Deepwater Horizon
settled 1500 feet northwest of the well site. The explosion resulted in the deaths
of 11 crewmembers; 115 workers were safely rescued. The Deepwater Horizon
was severely damaged from the explosions, fire, and resulting collapse into
the Gulf of Mexico. Oil began to immediately gush into the gulf. Three weeks
after the explosion the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
(NOAA) estimated 210,000 to 2,520,000 gallons of oil was released into the
gulf every day. Several weeks after the crisis began, CNN put a video camera
at the bottom of the gulf to show the amount of oil entering the water and
televised it 24 hours a day. Ultimately it would take 87 days to cap the oil rig.
The response to the environmental crisis was complex due to the scope
of the crisis, the coordination necessary among stakeholders and regulatory
agencies, the difficulties and complexities associated in capping the oil rig,
and the global attention that the environmental crisis attracted. The crisis
communication was coordinated when the United States Coast Guard, the
regulatory authority, and the Bureau of Energy Management formed a partnership
with BP, the responsible party to respond to the crisis. The United
States Coast Guard and BP were supported by 15 federal agencies including
the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of the Interior, the
Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and
Health, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to name a few. A Unified
Area Command (UAC) managed the entire response. The UAC was comprised
of four sectors. Each sector reported to the UAC. A critical part of
the unified command structure is Public Information Officers (PIOs). PIOs
are charged with gathering
and disseminating information
to stakeholders during a
crisis. They respond to media
requests, craft messages for
stakeholders, and coordinate
communication among various
agencies in the unified
command structure. It is a
complex communication job
that is essential to an effective
response and recovery operation
during any type of crisis.
Effective crisis communication
skills are necessary for any
public information officer.
United States Coast Guard fire boats
battle fire on Deepwater Horizon oil rig
SOURCE: U.S. Coast Guard photo.
62 Part II The Lessons and Practical Application
Pyle (2011) interviewed several PIOs from the United States Coast
Guard and BP involved in the response and recovery operations during the
Deepwater Horizon crisis. The PIOs had keen insight into the communication
that took place during the crisis. The PIOs reported that they wished
they had developed a unified communication plan or approach before the
crisis or very early on during the event. However, the PIOs reported many
goals or objectives in their crisis communication. Some PIOs explained that
their goal was to get information out quickly, others tried to correct misinformation,
while others suggested their goal was transparency. Other PIOs
considered staying out in front of the crisis their primary goal.
Although many of the PIOs were brought into the crisis from many
parts of the country and the world to support the massive communication
needs during the crisis, they reported establishing relationships with
stakeholders as critical to their response. They explained that working on
functioning and developing collaboration within the ICS was critical to the
unified command (Pyle, 2011). PIOs explained that the media, local communities,
elected officials, the seafood industry, and frontline responders
were all critical stakeholders during the crisis. To engage these stakeholders,
they held open houses, created opportunities for stakeholders to come
to the incident command center for tours and to meet with subject matter
experts to discuss wide-ranging topics related to the crisis.
A primary stakeholder for the PIOs was the media. The global media
attention for this crisis was intense. PIOs suggested that the media was
important to their crisis communication because they were the primary way
to get messages out to their stakeholders. However, they also discussed challenges
in meeting the constant onslaught of media requests, the often aggressive
questioning and demands for access, along with the divergent types of
information requests they needed to respond to. They reported doing their
absolute best to meet the needs of the media during the crisis. Although
not perfect, PIOs provided unprecedented access to the crisis site and to
key decision makers in the crisis. They reported being as accessible as possible,
transparent, and did their best to correct misinformation in the media.
However, the waves of media requests, the dynamic nature of the crisis, and
the considerable amount of media made perfection difficult.
The PIOs reported providing as much information as possible to media
and stakeholders about the crisis. In cases when they did not know the
answer, they explained that they did not know. Some went further by working
to try to find out the answer at a later time. However, the amount of questions
and requests and changing nature of the crisis complicated the communication
process. Several PIOs expressed that they should have countered
media accounts that they felt were incorrect or were sensational. A large portion
felt that their listening skills were essential to the crisis communication
Chapter 4 Applying the Lessons to Produce Effective Crisis Communication 63
process. They explained that rather than speculating what information people
needed they tried to listen and respond to the actual informational needs
of their stakeholders. At times, this meant providing the information they
had on hand at the time rather than speculating in their response. This was
particularly true when discussing with response and recovery workers about
any concerns they had about their health and safety during the crisis. The
PIOs reported doing their best to meet the needs of their stakeholders by
having Subject Matter Experts (SME) and health professionals answer questions
for stakeholders in a clear and informative manner. This information
was mostly conducted face-to-face. Other information about the crisis was
most often provided in media releases, interviews, and through the website,
http://restorethegulf.gov. The PIOs explained that they wanted to be more
proactive in their communication. By being proactive they could have provided
more information about the cleanup process and discussed in more
depth the engineering feats that were ultimately developed to cap the oil rig.
YOU MAKE THE CALL
After examining this case, it is time to determine how the PIOs
involved in the BP oil spill communicated in the wake of the plant fire. First,
take a moment to refresh in your mind the lessons established on effective
crisis communication in Chapter 3. Second, note that these lessons serve
as touchstones and discussion points for what we believe are key aspects
of any crisis response. As you answer the questions that follow, consider
whether the PIOs were effective or ineffective in their crisis communication.
We have rephrased the lessons into questions so that you are better
able to address the key issues in the case.
Lesson 1: Determine your goals for crisis communication.
? What were the reported primary goals for PIOs in their crisis
communication?
Lesson 2: Before a crisis, develop true equal partnerships with organizations
and groups that are important to the organization.
? Had the PIOs developed partnerships with stakeholders
prior to or during the crisis?
Lessons on Producing Effective
Crisis Communication
(Continued)
64 Part II The Lessons and Practical Application
Lesson 3: Acknowledge your stakeholders, including the media, as partners
when managing a crisis.
? Did the PIOs acknowledge stakeholders as partners in managing
the crisis?
Lesson 4: Organizations need to develop strong, positive primary and
secondary stakeholder relationships.
? Did the PIOs work toward positive relationships with primary
and secondary stakeholders during the oil spill?
Lesson 5: Effective crisis communication involves listening to your
stakeholders.
? Did the PIOs listen to or understand the needs of their
stakeholders?
Lesson 6: Communicate early about the crisis, acknowledge uncertainty,
and assure the public that you will maintain contact with
them about current and future risk.
? Did the PIOs communicate regularly with stakeholders
about the crisis?
Lesson 7: Avoid certain or absolute answers to the public and media
until sufficient information is available.
? Did the PIOs communicate certain or absolute answers
about the crisis?
Lesson 8: Do not overreassure stakeholders about the impact the crisis
will have on them.
? Did the PIOs overreassure stakeholders about the impact
of the crisis?
Lesson 9: The public needs useful and practical statements of self-efficacy
during a crisis.
? Did the PIOs provide statements of self-efficacy following
the crisis?
Lesson 10: Effective crisis communicators acknowledge that positive factors
can arise from organizational crises.
? Did the PIOs acknowledge positive factors that resulted
during the crisis?
(Continued)
Chapter 4 Applying the Lessons to Produce Effective Crisis Communication 65
SUMMARY
The BP oil spill was the largest response and recovery operation to
an environmental disaster in United States history. The United States
Coast Guard and BP coordinated the crisis communication for the event.
This unusual and unprecedented relationship created a unique response
and recovery operation that necessitated effective communication and
coordination throughout the crisis. The PIOs who responded to the
crisis experienced high demands for information, an often hostile and
demanding communication context, and answers that were highly scientific
and uncertain. The PIOs reported high levels of exhaustion during
the crisis and expressed that future PIOs should monitor their rest and
stress levels when engaging in crisis communication over an extended
period of time.
EXAMPLE 4.2. A PLANT FIRE AT MALDEN MILLS
Malden Mills is a textile manufacturing
plant located in Methuen,
Massachusetts. The company has
operated in the Merrimack Valley
for over a century and is one of
the few textile mills still located
in New England, because many
of the other mills have left the
area because of high wages and
unions. However, Malden Mills
has remained steadfast in its commitment
to the community and
pays some of the highest wages
in the industry, providing much
of the economic base for the area
because it employs roughly 3,000
people. At the time of the fire, the
company was privately owned by
Aaron Feuerstein and had previously
been owned by his father
and his grandfather before that.
The organization had been in
the Feuerstein family for close to
100 years.
Aaron Feuerstein in front of
Malden Mills
SOURCE: © Rick Friedman/Corbis.
66 Part II The Lessons and Practical Application
CRISIS PREPARATION AND PLANNING
The Feuerstein family had focused on developing strong relationships
with their employees and customers. Feuerstein describes his
leadership values as “sensitivity to the human equation” (Ulmer, 2001,
p. 599). Paul Coorey, president of the local union, described Feuerstein
as “fair and compassionate” and explained that he felt Feuerstein believed
“that if you pay people a fair amount of money, and give them good benefits
to take care of their families, they will produce for you” (Ulmer,
2001, p. 599).
Feuerstein illustrated his belief in treating workers fairly during the
1980s, when the company filed for bankruptcy. At the time, Malden Mills
was selling fur and in the process of developing Polartec. Feuerstein went
to the union to request layoffs until the company could return to profitability.
In addition, Feuerstein promised that he would rehire those he laid
off when the company returned to profitability. Many employees took that
promise seriously and did not even look for other work. Feuerstein kept
his promises and hired back all the workers whom he laid off during the
bankruptcy.
Beyond the workforce, Feuerstein also contributed to the community
in which he operated. He sponsored job training programs, English-asa-
second-language programs, and generous lines of credit to local businesses.
One owner of a local company explained Feuerstein’s character by
saying, “That’s the kind of guy Aaron is. . . . If he’s got half a loaf of bread,
he is going to share it around” (Ulmer, 2001, p. 598). When a local synagogue
caught fire, Feuerstein and his brother stepped forward and contributed
$2 million to the rebuilding efforts. Over the years, Feuerstein
consistently worked to establish strong relationships with his workers and
the community.
COURAGEOUS COMMUNICATION
IN THE WAKE OF A DISASTER
On December 11, 1995, the evening of Feuerstein’s 70th birthday, his
plant erupted into flames, burning for several days. Feuerstein immediately
notified workers that he was going to rebuild the plant and keep it in
Methuen and that he would pay workers full salaries and health benefits for
30 days while the plant was being rebuilt. He extended this benefit in total
for 60 days and extended health benefits for 90 days or until the plant was
rebuilt.
Chapter 4 Applying the Lessons to Produce Effective Crisis Communication 67
Within a day, the Boston Globe announced that “with one of his buildings
still burning behind him, the 69-year-old owner of Malden Mills . . .
spoke the words everyone in the Merrimack Valley wanted to hear” (Milne
& Aucoin, 1995, p. B1). Feuerstein declared that “we are going to continue
to contribute in Lawrence. . . . We had the opportunity to run to the south
many years ago. We didn’t do it then and we’re not going to do it now”
(Milne & Aucoin, 1995, p. B1).
Three days after the fire, Feuerstein held a meeting at a local high
school. At this time, he declared that “at least for the next 30 days—the
time might be longer—all hourly employees will be paid their full salaries”
(Milne, 1995, p. B50). One month after the crisis, Feuerstein met with
workers again. At this time he announced,
I am happy to announce to you that we will once again—for at
least 30 days more—pay all of our employees. And why am I
doing it? I consider the employees standing in front of me here
the most valuable asset that Malden Mills has. I don’t consider
them as some companies do as an expense that can be cut. What
I am doing today will come back tenfold and it will make Malden
Mills the best company in the industry. (Calo, 1996)
Over the remainder of the crisis, Feuerstein consistently met with
workers and paid salaries and benefits. Two months after the crisis, 70% of
workers were back on the job. At that time, Feuerstein agreed to pay salaries
and benefits for the remaining 800 workers for another 30 days. At the end
of this time, he paid health insurance for an additional 90 days for those still
not back at the company and promised jobs for those unemployed, similar
to his actions in the 1980s.
YOU MAKE THE CALL
After examining this case, it is time to determine how Aaron Feuerstein
communicated in the wake of the plant fire. First, take a moment to refresh
in your mind the lessons established on effective crisis communication in
Chapter 3. Second, note that these lessons serve as touchstones and discussion
points for what we believe are key aspects of any crisis response. As you
answer the questions that follow, consider whether Aaron Feuerstein was
effective or ineffective in his crisis communication. We have rephrased the
lessons into questions so that you are better able to address the key issues
in the case.
68 Part II The Lessons and Practical Application
Lesson 1: Determine your goals for crisis communication.
? What were Aaron Feuerstein’s primary goals in his crisis
communication?
Lesson 2: Before a crisis, develop true equal partnerships with organizations
and groups that are important to the organization.
? How did Aaron Feuerstein develop partnerships with stakeholders
prior to the crisis?
Lesson 3: Acknowledge your stakeholders, including the media, as partners
when managing a crisis.
? In what ways did Aaron Feuerstein acknowledge his stakeholders
as partners in managing the crisis?
Lesson 4: Organizations need to develop strong, positive primary and
secondary stakeholder relationships.
? In what ways did Aaron Feuerstein work toward positive
relationships with primary and secondary stakeholders following
the fire?
Lesson 5: Effective crisis communication involves listening to your
stakeholders.
? What evidence is there that Aaron Feuerstein listened to or
understood the needs of his stakeholders?
Lesson 6: Communicate early about the crisis, acknowledge uncertainty,
and assure the public that you will maintain contact with
them about current and future risk.
? How and how often did Aaron Feuerstein communicate to
stakeholders about the crisis?
Lesson 7: Avoid certain or absolute answers to the public and media
until sufficient information is available.
? Did Aaron Feuerstein communicate certain or absolute
answers about the cause of the crisis?
Lesson 8: Do not overreassure stakeholders about the impact the crisis
will have on them.
? Is there evidence that Aaron Feuerstein overreassured
stakeholders about the impact of the crisis?
Lessons on Producing Effective
Crisis Communication
Chapter 4 Applying the Lessons to Produce Effective Crisis Communication 69
SUMMARY
Aaron Feuerstein was universally praised for his compassionate
response to the 1995 plant fire at Malden Mills. President Clinton commended
Mr. Feuerstein’s crisis communication in his State of the Union
Address. In addition, Malden Mills received donations from around
the world for several years after the fire. At the time of the crisis, Aaron
Feuerstein appeared to be less concerned about the cause of the crisis or
responsibility and more concerned with those most impacted by the crisis:
his employees and the community. After the fire, Feuerstein communicated
immediately and worked to move beyond the crisis. He gave his
workers and the community hope and faith that the company would overcome
this crisis. In addition, he was able to solidify and further develop
the stakeholder relationships he had worked so hard to establish before
the fire.
EXAMPLE 4.3. LONG-TERM COMPLEXITIES
IN THE TAINTED ODWALLA APPLE JUICE CRISIS
Odwalla, a producer of juice and other products intended for health-conscious
consumers, began a long and complicated process of crisis recovery on October
30, 1996. On that date, the company was notified of a link between its unpasteurized
apple juice and an outbreak of E. coli. Odwalla voluntarily began a
recall immediately on learning of the problem and willingly expanded its recall
to include 12 other juices. Sadly, despite these efforts, the outbreak eventually
took the life of a 16-month-old girl and seriously sickened 60 other children.
In response to the crisis, Odwalla made substantial changes, pledging to make
consumer safety foremost in its production processes. Many observers lauded
this immediate response. In fact, Odwalla retained 80% of its accounts in the
wake of the crisis (“Odwalla, Inc.,” 1997).
Lesson 9: The public needs useful and practical statements of self-efficacy
during a crisis.
? How did Aaron Feuerstein provide statements of self-efficacy
following the crisis?
Lesson 10: Effective crisis communicators acknowledge that positive factors
can arise from organizational crises.
? In what ways did Aaron Feuerstein acknowledge positive
factors that could arise as a result of the plant fire?
70 Part II The Lessons and Practical Application
CHALLENGES FOR MULTIPLE STAKEHOLDERS
Odwalla’s crisis response, which we detail below, had a profound
impact on a variety of stakeholders (Reierson, Sellnow, & Ulmer, 2009).
Prior to the crisis, producers assumed that the acid in juice products
would naturally destroy bacteria such as E. coli without pasteurization. The
Odwalla outbreak inspired major changes in this way of thinking. New pasteurization
techniques requiring additional equipment became the norm
in the industry. Not all producers could afford such equipment. Odwalla’s
investors also shared in the loss mightily during the company’s long and
costly recovery. In addition, the recall and subsequent investigation led
to layoffs—causing financial hardship for many employees. Keep these
stakeholders in mind as you read the following description of Odwalla’s
response to its E. coli crisis.
ODWALLA’S CRISIS RESPONSE
From the start, Odwalla displayed a clear and impressive commitment
to its customers. In addition to voluntarily recalling products and shutting
down operations, Odwalla opened new lines of communication with its
customers. The company launched a website dedicated to the crisis within
24 hours and created two 1-800 telephone numbers for customers and suppliers
to call. Odwalla’s message to consumers was clear, consistent, and
compassionate. The company shared its regret for the incident and offered
refunds to those who had recently purchased its products. Odwalla also
offered to pay medical costs for illnesses resulting from their contaminated
juice (Martinelli & Briggs, 1998).
Odwalla’s chairperson at the time
of the crisis, Greg Steltenpohl,
visited family members of sickened
children and publicly
acknowledged the pain and
suffering the crisis had caused
(Thomsen & Rawson, 1998).
When the lone death caused by
the crisis occurred, the company
issued a press release offering
condolences to her family.
Within 2 months of the crisis,
Odwalla announced a revolutionary
change in the production
The new pasteurization process at
Odwalla
SOURCE: Photo courtesy of The Creamery at
Pineland Farms.
Chapter 4 Applying the Lessons to Produce Effective Crisis Communication 71
of fresh juice products. The company introduced flash pasteurization as a
technique it insisted would destroy E. coli bacteria while maintaining much
of the flavor and nutritional value that was present in its unpasteurized
products (Martinelli & Briggs, 1998). Odwalla has not experienced another
major recall since adopting flash pasteurization in 1996.
IMPACT ON STAKEHOLDERS
As mentioned at the outset of this case study, Odwalla was able to
maintain the majority of its accounts after the crisis. The Wall Street Journal
quoted one public relations and crisis specialist who proclaimed that
Odwalla’s “core principles have brought them back to probably one of the
quickest recoveries in history” (Moore, 1998, para. 15). This recovery was
not without cost for some of Odwalla’s stakeholders. Small operators in the
juice industry, investors, and some Odwalla employees all suffered during
and after Odwalla’s crisis response.
At the time of the crisis, Odwalla was a relatively large producer in the
fresh juice industry. Consequently, the company had the financial wherewithal
to retool its facility with flash pasteurization equipment. Not all
producers could afford this advancement. Once Odwalla announced it was
using flash pasteurization, some grocery store chains such as Safeway were
no longer willing to accept juice from others unless they too adopted flash
pasteurization (Martinelli & Briggs, 1998). Small operators who did undertake
flash pasteurization were forced to raise their prices, thereby diminishing
their competitiveness (De Lisser, 1998).
Odwalla’s investors were also hurt by the crisis. Odwalla spent money
aggressively during its recovery despite plummeting profits. In addition,
Odwalla was fined more than a million dollars for the crisis (“Odwalla
pleads,” 1998). As Reierson et al. (2009) observe, “although Odwalla’s
actions might have been good business practice in the long run, immediately
following the crisis investors were left with little to show for their
original investment” (p. 122).
Odwalla’s employees also suffered during the crisis. Sixty Odwalla
employees were laid off in the aftermath. Although consumers were
compensated as a result of the crisis, little was done to support Odwalla’s
employees during the crisis recovery. Several members of Odwalla’s board
of directors were also replaced after the crisis.
Odwalla’s crisis response was decisive and effective in returning the
company to profitability in the long run. This response, however, was not
without cost to at least three sets of stakeholders: small operators, investors,
and employees.
72 Part II The Lessons and Practical Application
YOU MAKE THE CALL
After examining this case, it is time to determine whether Odwalla
communicated effectively with the stakeholders involved in the crisis. First,
take a moment to refresh in your mind the lessons established in Chapter 3
for communicating effectively and ineffectively during crises. These lessons
should guide you in evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of Odwalla’s
crisis response. As you contemplate the questions that follow, consider
whether Odwalla was effective or ineffective in coping with the long-term
complexities of the crisis.
Lesson 1: Determine your goals for crisis communication.
? Did Odwalla exemplify clear goals in its crisis communication?
Lesson 2: Before a crisis, develop true equal partnerships with organizations
and groups that are important to the organization.
? In what ways did Odwalla develop partnerships with
stakeholders?
Lesson 3: Acknowledge your stakeholders, including the media, as partners
when managing a crisis.
? How did Odwalla acknowledge its stakeholders following
the crisis?
Lesson 4: Organizations need to develop strong, positive primary and
secondary stakeholder relationships.
? Is there evidence that Odwalla established relationships
with its stakeholders?
Lesson 5: Effective crisis communication involves listening to your
stakeholders.
? Is there evidence that Odwalla listened to its stakeholders?
Lesson 6: Communicate early about the crisis, acknowledge uncertainty,
and assure the public that you will maintain contact with
them about current and future risk.
? In what ways did Odwalla maintain contact with the
public?
Lessons on Producing Effective
Crisis Communication
Chapter 4 Applying the Lessons to Produce Effective Crisis Communication 73
Lesson 7: Avoid certain or absolute answers to the public and media
until sufficient information is available.
? Did Odwalla provide certain or absolute answers about the
cause of the crisis?
Lesson 8: Do not overreassure stakeholders about the impact the crisis
will have on them.
? Did Odwalla overreassure about the impact of the crisis?
Lesson 9: The public needs useful and practical statements of self-efficacy
during a crisis.
? In what way did Odwalla provide statements of self-efficacy
following the crisis?
Lesson 10: Effective crisis communicators acknowledge that positive factors
can arise from organizational crises.
? Was there evidence that positive factors could arise from
this crisis?
SUMMARY
Odwalla’s recovery from its E. coli crisis was celebrated as an exemplar
of excellence in crisis communication. Indeed, Odwalla communicated
early and often with its consumers, showing remorse for the crisis
and offering financial compensation. A closer look at the crisis, however,
reveals lingering harm to small producers in the industry. Investors unable
to stay with Odwalla for the long term also suffered significant financial
losses. Similarly, some employees lost their jobs, at least temporarily, causing
financial stress. This case provides clear evidence of the need for organizations
to consider all stakeholders for the long term when developing a
crisis response.
EXAMPLE 4.4. THE OKLAHOMA CITY BOMBING
The Oklahoma City bombing, the first major terrorist event in a generation
and one of the largest ever to take place on U.S. soil, was a shocking
crisis for a number of reasons. It happened in the heartland, in a community
many saw as isolated from any large-scale threats. The bombing
was devastating to the community, severely damaging many downtown
74 Part II The Lessons and Practical Application
buildings and creating widespread harm. Eventually, the bombing was
found to have claimed 168 lives, including several children attending day
care in the Murrah Building. Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols were
convicted of planning the bombing as a way to avenge a government siege
and subsequent fire at the Branch Davidian complex in Waco, Texas.
One of the key players in managing the response to the Oklahoma
City bombing was Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating. Governor Keating,
a former Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agent, was first elected in
1994. After the April 19, 1995, bombing, Keating personally led the statewide
response. He was widely recognized for the effective way he handled
the crisis and for his communication activities. Keating later described the
event in specific terms:
You will recall that [the] massive terror bomb was detonated
at 9:02 a.m. on April 19, 1995, in front of the Alfred P. Murrah
Federal Office Building in the heart of our community. It killed
168 people, injured hundreds more, and severely damaged many
dozens of buildings. The rescue and recovery efforts that followed,
The Oklahoma City memorial
SOURCE: Photo courtesy of Paula Stout-Burke.
Chapter 4 Applying the Lessons to Produce Effective Crisis Communication 75
along with the criminal investigation, were the most massive of
their kind in American history. These efforts threw together,
literally overnight, more separate agencies from the local, state,
and federal governments than had ever worked cooperatively on
a single task. The outcome could have been chaotic—it has been
before when far fewer agencies tried to coordinate their efforts
on much more discrete and manageable tasks. But the outcome
in Oklahoma City was not chaos. Later, observers would coin
the label “The Oklahoma Standard” to refer to the way our city,
state, and nation came together in response to this despicable
act. (Keating, 2001, n.p.)
Keating has used the Oklahoma City bombing as an example to
help generate lessons for effective crisis management. Specifically, he has
described four strategies he recommends to other government leaders
(Keating, 2001):
1. Train and equip your first responders, because they are the front
line in meeting the terrorist threat.
2. Search for ways to support teamwork before an incident and emphasize
that teamwork after.
3. Trust the experts to do what they know best.
4. Tell the truth, and be candid with the people we are working to protect
and serve.
Regarding training first responders, Keating and many other observers
point out that local first responders will be the first on the scene. It will be
some time, perhaps days, before federal or other state agencies can provide
significant support. Effective crisis response requires that these local first
responders have the necessary skills and resources. In addition, teamwork
is essential. Cooperative relationships among team members should be
established long before any crisis event occurs. This includes drawing on
experts who have the technical expertise to help manage an event. Team
members should know one another’s expertise, and there should be established
procedures for coordinating and communicating. As a former FBI
official, Keating’s background in law enforcement helped him comprehend
the situation and communicate effectively. He had personal experience
dealing with many of the first-responder groups and was able to facilitate
their cooperation. Last, and most important for our purposes, Keating
76 Part II The Lessons and Practical Application
(2001) emphasized that the Oklahoma City bombings included many complex
communication demands.
Because the Murrah Building was located in downtown Oklahoma
City for all to see, we immediately stumbled into the right answer
to the eternal question, “How much do we tell the public?” That
answer is simple—we tell them everything that does not need to
be safeguarded for valid reasons of security. (n.p.)
Keating (2001) described his response as follows:
Steady, 24-hour broadcasts and news dispatches came from
Oklahoma City in the first days after the 1995 bombing. Our
policy was to conduct regular media briefings on everything
from body counts to alerts involving the composite drawings of
the principal suspects in the bombing, and the results were in
virtually all cases positive. Certainly many aspects of the criminal
investigation were not disclosed in those early days. The
Oklahoma City Fire Department and the Office of the Chief
Medical Examiner carefully controlled release of information
concerning the dead to ensure that families were fully notified
before victim identities were made public. We did not allow open
media access to the interior site itself for reasons of safety and
efficiency. But in almost every other instance, our decision was in
favor of openness and candor, and the results are very clear. I continue
to receive letters, more than six years later, from Americans
who have a permanently positive impression of how the bombing
was handled. (n.p.)
Keating’s open and accessible approach to the public helped ensure
public cooperation and support and helped reduce the anxiety people
were feeling. Through press conferences and public meetings, Keating created
the impression that he was open, accessible, concerned, and shared
the loss that people were feeling. He also helped convey the impression
that authorities were in charge of the situation and that order was being
reestablished. As he demonstrated, when leaders communicate empathy
and concern, they help the community deal with the emotional aspect of
the crisis. Their presence helps create a sense of order.
Governor Keating also had to address a complex set of primary and
secondary stakeholders. Primary stakeholders included first-responder
groups, families and friends of victims, and the immediate Oklahoma
Chapter 4 Applying the Lessons to Produce Effective Crisis Communication 77
City community. Secondary stakeholders included the entire country.
Oklahoma City is a very close community, and almost everyone knew
someone affected by the bombing. Paradoxically, while the closeness of the
community made the crisis worse, it also gave the community additional
strength to weather the crisis.
Keating worked hard to make sure first responders and other emergency
workers had the necessary resources to deal with the crisis. This
included cutting through bureaucratic red tape and making personal
appeals to agencies for help. He even stepped in and took responsibilities
from some individuals who were clearly overwhelmed by the events. His
leadership was both instrumental—taking steps to help make response and
recovery more efficient and effective—and symbolic, helping influence
public perceptions in constructive ways.
YOU MAKE THE CALL
After examining this case, it is time to determine whether Governor
Keating communicated effectively with the many stakeholders involved in
the crisis. First, take a moment to refresh in your mind the lessons established
in Chapter 3 on communicating effectively and ineffectively during crises.
These lessons should guide you in evaluating the strengths and weaknesses
of Governor Keating’s crisis response. As you contemplate the questions that
follow, consider whether Governor Keating was effective or ineffective in
coping with the added constraints he faced during his crisis response.
Lesson 1: Determine your goals for crisis communication.
? What were the primary goals Governor Keating pursued in
his communication?
Lesson 2: Before a crisis, develop true equal partnerships with organizations
and groups that are important to the organization.
? What kinds of partnerships were important to a successful
response to the Oklahoma City bombings?
Lessons on Producing Effective
Crisis Communication
(Continued)
78 Part II The Lessons and Practical Application
Lesson 3: Acknowledge your stakeholders, including the media, as partners
when managing a crisis.
? Did Governor Keating use the media in partnership? If so,
how?
Lesson 4: Organizations need to develop strong, positive primary and
secondary stakeholder relationships.
? Who were the primary and secondary stakeholders that
Governor Keating needed to address?
Lesson 5: Effective crisis communication involves listening to your
stakeholders.
? How did Keating collect information about the crisis?
Lesson 6: Communicate early about the crisis, acknowledge uncertainty,
and assure the public that you will maintain contact with
them about current and future risk.
? What did Governor Keating do to reduce the uncertainty
about the bombing?
Lesson 7: Avoid certain or absolute answers to the public and media
until sufficient information is available.
? The Oklahoma City bombing was a very confusing and
surprising situation. What were some of the unanswered
questions?
Lesson 8: Do not overreassure stakeholders about the impact the crisis
will have them.
? Did Keating overreassure about the crisis?
Lesson 9: The public needs useful and practical statements of selfefficacy
during a crisis.
? What kind of advice could Governor Keating have offered
to the public?
Lesson 10: Effective crisis communicators acknowledge that positive factors
can arise from organizational crises.
? What kinds of positive outcomes came out of these bombings,
and how could these be used to help reduce the harm?
(Continued)
SUMMARY
The Oklahoma City bombing was a devastating crisis for Oklahoma
City and the United States. Governor Frank Keating’s communication
helped reduce and contain the harm caused by the crisis by facilitating
Chapter 4 Applying the Lessons to Produce Effective Crisis Communication 79
coordination and cooperation among first responders. Throughout the
uncertainty and stress of the crisis, Governor Keating utilized many of the
best practices discussed in Chapter 3. He practiced open and honest communication
with stakeholders, and his leadership and expressions of empathy
and concern also helped reduce the psychological impact of the disaster.
EXAMPLE 4.5. RURAL RENEWAL AFTER
A TORNADO IN GREENSBURG, KANSAS
On May 4, 2007, the roughly
1,500 residents of Greensburg,
Kansas, were struck by an EF5
tornado, which killed 11 people
and demolished 95% of the
buildings in the city. Greensburg
is located roughly 100 miles
south of Wichita in southcentral
Kansas. The tornado
was one of the largest and most
violent ever recorded. Estimates
suggest the tornado was 1.7
miles wide and produced winds
of over 200 miles per hour.
Survivors were left without
housing, running water, or electricity. The tornado literally swept away the
homes, schools, and churches in Greensburg. Before the tornado, the city was
known for its strong sense of community and for housing the largest handdug
well, which served as a tourist attraction for those passing through the
town. However, like many rural towns, Greensburg was slowly losing population
because locals left for larger cities and children went to college never
to come back. After the devastating tornado, residents of Greensburg were
beginning to consider a new identity for their resilient Midwestern town.
INITIAL FRAMING OF THE CRISIS
Following the devastating tornado, there was a real sense of loss. Citizens
were stunned by the impact of the tornado and were uncertain about what
would happen to their community. However, almost immediately, key leaders
in the community saw the potential to frame the disaster positively for
its citizens. For instance, Greensburg City Administrator Steve Hewitt lost
his home and everything he owned. However, he also felt the “the tornado
had a silver lining, for it made this town and some 1,400 people regroup
A view of the devastation in Greensburg,
Kansas, following the tornado
SOURCE: Greg Henshall/FEMA/Wikimedia.
80 Part II The Lessons and Practical Application
and reinvent itself” (Nguyen & Morris, 2009, para. 2). He explained further
that “it forced people to make a change. It forced people to say, You know
what—we have an opportunity unlike any other community gets” (Nguyen
& Morris, 2009, para. 3). In this case, Steve Hewitt began to see a tabula rasa
from which to recreate and reinvent the town of Greensburg.
Less than 2 days after the tornado, as the wreckage was being excavated
from local buildings, School Superintendent Darren Hedrick provided a
similar description to Steve Hewitt’s of how Greensburg could capitalize
on the effect of the disaster. He explained, “Towns are about people, they
are not about buildings. And it’s a huge opportunity to rebuild—not just
rebuild it the way it was but maybe rebuild it a little bit better than it was”
(Morris, 2007, para. 4).
These initial thoughts and communication by leaders began to instigate
conversations by citizens through community forums held periodically to
discuss the recovery process, including any problems or frustrations that
people may be experiencing. Because most people were living in FEMA
trailers and were anxious to move into more permanent housing, developing
a plan for moving forward was very important. However, through
community forums, people began to talk about the disaster as a way to
reinvigorate the town and solve the problem of its declining population.
These people hoped to “reverse the trend. To not lose the kids, but to bring
our kids back. To invest back in the community so that after they graduate
they can have new jobs and new opportunities” (Nguyen & Morris, 2009,
para. 4). In doing so, “the tornado was something that bonded people,
which . . . is a natural element of shared adversity, and the community was
able to tap into that in a big way” (Phelps, 2009, para. 21).
The Greensburg city council met regularly to discuss what businesses
would continue to do business in Greensburg and when they would be
reopening. This group also led many of the community forums and listened
to the concerns and frustrations about the uncertain future that
current residents faced. However, through city council meetings and community
forums, a vision of creating a green city that could be a model for
the entire world of energy conservation began to emerge. Danny Wallach,
who headed a nonprofit group leading the push for environmental sustainability
in Greensburg, began rallying residents to consider making
Greensburg an example of what an energy- and environmentally sound
community could be. He explained, “I mean, it literally struck me, green—
Greensburg—and at the time, I wasn’t aware of just how perfect the timing
in the national green movement was” (Morris, 2007, para. 14). Steve Hewitt
said that Greensburg could come back stronger than ever. “Before the tornado,
Greensburg was shedding 2% of its population every year. Those
Chapter 4 Applying the Lessons to Produce Effective Crisis Communication 81
who left for college rarely returned to stay. It was a death by a thousand
cuts” (Morris, 2007, para. 22). The leadership of the community began to
see the potential and opportunity that the crisis created. Ultimately, these
early visions and discussions led to the Greensburg City Council resolving
that all new city buildings should meet the very highest environmental
standard—LEED platinum” (Morris, 2007, para. 23).
CONSEQUENCES OF A BOLD ENVIRONMENTAL
VISION FOLLOWING THE TORNADO
Steve Hewitt was thinking big after the disaster. He focused on creating
“office space for new businesses, a high school and an art center designed
to be LEED platinum” (Morris, 2007, para. 23). He explained that building
a green community would not be easy. “Maybe it’s a little bit crazy. There
are only 14 platinum buildings in the country. When it’s all said and done,
I’d like 4 or 5 here in Greensburg” (Morris, 2007, para. 25). When word
got out about the vision Greensburg had created, several unintended outcomes
developed. The Discovery Channel began filming a television series
called Greensburg Eco-Town and ultimately created a television series called
Greensburg: A Story of Community Rebuilding, which chronicled the entire
renewal process.
By 2009, Greensburg was well on its way to becoming “a green community
of the future . . . making Greensburg a national model for environmentally
conscious living” (Nguyen & Morris, 2009, para. 5).
? Greensburg developed a series of eco-homes to educate people
about energy-efficient construction. The eco-homes feature ground
source heating and cooling, solar hot water, and even vegetable gardens
on the roofs. They are about 70% more energy efficient than
the average house and have been tested for safety in the event of
future tornadoes (Nguyen & Morris, 2009).
? Greensburg developed buildings with solid concrete, using more
natural light, and installing better insulation and state-of-the-art
windows.
? The community developed solar and wind technologies to harness
power and geothermal heat.
? The town’s John Deere dealership created a state-of-the-art facility
that is energy efficient by employing oil and heat to cool its floors
and wind turbines to power the building. The owner believes he will
save $25,000 a year with these improvements (Nguyen & Morris,
2009).
82 Part II The Lessons and Practical Application
COMMUNITY RESPONSE
It appears that Greensburg’s approach to interpret the crisis as an opportunity
to reinvigorate the town has been effective. School superintendent
Hedrick explains, “A lot of towns are dying a slow death. We had a fork put
in us pretty hard. We have to find a way to resurrect and we hope we’re making
good decisions to do that” (Morris, 2007). Fifteen-year-old Levi Schmidt
described the recovery this way: “Before the tornado, I was not going to come
back. I was going to go to college, and who knows where. This community
was dying. Now I’m definitely coming back, and I know a good majority of
my friends are” (Morris, 2007, para. 34). This certainly does not mean that
everyone stayed following the tornado but does suggest that Greensburg is
able, for the time being, to stem the tide of its decline in population. For more
information on this case, take a look at the Greensburg, Kansas, website:
www.greensburgks.org. The new slogan on the home page of the town’s website
reads Greensburg: Better, Stronger, Greener! (Nguyen & Morris, 2009).
YOU MAKE THE CALL
After examining this case, it is time to determine whether the leadership
of Greensburg, Kansas, communicated effectively with the many
stakeholders involved in the crisis. First, take a moment to refresh in your
mind the lessons established in Chapter 3 on communicating effectively
and ineffectively during crises. These lessons should guide you in evaluating
the strengths and weaknesses of Greensburg’s crisis response. As you
contemplate the questions that follow, consider whether the leadership of
Greensburg was effective or ineffective in coping with the added constraints
it faced during its crisis response.
Lesson 1: Determine your goals for crisis communication.
? In what ways did Greensburg leaders illustrate clear goals
in their crisis communication?
Lesson 2: Before a crisis, develop true equal partnerships with organizations
and groups that are important to the organization.
? Did relationships established before the tornado aid in
Greensburg’s response?
Lessons on Producing Effective
Crisis Communication
Chapter 4 Applying the Lessons to Produce Effective Crisis Communication 83
SUMMARY
The 2007 tornado in Greensburg, Kansas, caught everyone by surprise.
The leadership in Greensburg quickly considered the potential opportunities
associated with the disaster and framed it this way for citizens. This new
Lesson 3: Acknowledge your stakeholders, including the media, as partners
when managing a crisis.
? In what ways did Greensburg leaders include stakeholders
in their renewal efforts?
Lesson 4: Organizations need to develop strong, positive primary and
secondary stakeholder relationships.
? In what ways did Greensburg leaders establish new
stakeholder relationships that helped them create the
new vision for their town?
Lesson 5: Effective crisis communication involves listening to your
stakeholders.
? Did the leadership of Greensburg include residents in decision
making about the new vision for the town?
Lesson 6: Communicate early about the crisis, acknowledge uncertainty,
and assure the public that you will maintain contact with
them about current and future risk.
? How and how often did Greensburg leadership communicate
with the public about the crisis?
Lesson 7: Avoid certain or absolute answers to the public and media
until sufficient information is available.
? Did Greensburg leaders communicate with excessive certainty
about the crisis?
Lesson 8: Do not overreassure stakeholders about the impact the crisis
will have on them.
? Did Greensburg leaders overreassure about the potential
for renewal following the crisis?
Lesson 9: The public needs useful and practical statements of self-efficacy
during a crisis.
? Did Greensburg leaders communicate statements of selfefficacy
following the crisis?
Lesson 10: Effective crisis communicators acknowledge that positive factors
can arise from organizational crises.
? In what ways did leaders in Greensburg community acknowledge
that positive factors could arise as a result of the crisis?
84 Part II The Lessons and Practical Application
prospective vision focused on making Greensburg a model of environmentally
sensitive building and housing and set a plan for moving Greensburg
forward. Greensburg engaged environmentally savvy stakeholders to help
it create its vision and support its relief efforts. Through effective communication,
Greensburg, Kansas, was able to effectively respond to a dramatic
and tragic crisis.
EXAMPLE 4.6. A COSTLY YOUTUBE
HOAX FOR DOMINO’S PIZZA
The simple combination of a video camera, two unsupervised restaurant
employees with vulgar senses of humor, and access to the video sharing
website YouTube created a cascade of problems for Domino’s Pizza, Inc. In
April of 2009, two Domino’s employees, Kristy Hammonds and Michael
Setzer, both in their 30s, posted a grotesque video to YouTube. The two
created the video in the kitchen of a Domino’s franchise located in Conover,
North Carolina. In the video, Hammonds narrates as Setzer is seen violating
standard health codes by intentionally contacting food with several of
his orifices. Although the video was truly disgusting and juvenile, it piqued
the interest of the online community. The video, seen by nearly a million
viewers before it was taken down, created a public relations and financial
crisis for Domino’s (Clifford, 2009).
UNUSUAL CHALLENGES FOR DOMINO’S
The Domino’s YouTube crisis created two unusual challenges. First, the
crisis was created by a hoax. Second, the perpetrators used a social media
outlet to publicize their mischief. We will discuss each of these challenges
individually.
Hoaxes, by their nature, create contradicting demands for organizations.
Hoaxes begin with an accusation against an organization. In this case,
the hoaxers, Setzer and Hammonds, falsely claimed to have served the food
that had been contaminated by Setzer. Even if an organization suspects that
the claims are false, as was the case with the Domino’s hoax, the organization
must take every precaution against the threat at hand and display a
capacity for dealing with similar threats that may occur in the future. Thus,
organizations must simultaneously
? argue they have a plan in place, either preestablished or spontaneously
generated, that can mitigate or manage any crisis emerging
from the threat; and
Chapter 4 Applying the Lessons to Produce Effective Crisis Communication 85
? scrutinize available evidence in order to recognize and refute false
claims at the earliest point possible (Sellnow, Littlefield, Vidoloff, &
Webb, 2010, p. 142).
For Domino’s, the primary objectives were to emphasize its commitment
to food safety and hiring reputable staff, while discrediting the claims
brought against the organization in the YouTube video.
Domino’s second challenge was caused by the popularity and accessibility
of YouTube. Awareness of the hoax video spread in a virtually
exponential manner. Within hours, thousands saw the video. Within 2
days, that number climbed to a million. Even after YouTube agreed to
remove the video from its site, the video was posted and made accessible
by bloggers at a variety of alternative sites. For Domino’s, the challenge
was to gain control of a story that proliferated extensively overnight and
did so completely independent of the standard media sources, such as
television and newspapers.
Screenshot of the Domino’s Pizza YouTube hoax video
DOMINO’S CRISIS RESPONSE
This case accentuates the need for organizations to monitor social media
to detect potential crisis situations. Domino’s was ineffective in such monitoring.
In fact, Domino’s did not detect the video on its own. Rather, a blogger
alerted the company to the condemning video. Domino’s initially failed to
grasp the urgency of the situation. The company first responded with standard
press releases denying that the company had served contaminated food.
86 Part II The Lessons and Practical Application
Unfortunately, this routine response failed to account for the fact that the crisis
emerged on a social media site. Consequently, many who viewed the hoax
video never saw Domino’s initial response. The company did not provide a
formal statement from Domino’s USA President Patrick Doyle until 48 hours
after realizing the video was on YouTube. During this lapse of time, bloggers
speculated openly about Domino’s credibility and capacity for managing the
crisis (Levinsohn & Gibson, 2009).
Domino’s spokesperson Tim McIntyre expressed his dismay as the crisis
unfolded in a conversation with the New York Times. “We got blindsided
by two idiots with a video camera and an awful idea,” McIntyre said
(Clifford, 2009, p. 1B). “Even people who’ve been with us as loyal customers
for 10, 15, 20 years, people are second-guessing their relationship with
Domino’s, and that’s not fair,” he lamented (Clifford, 2009, p. 1B).
With their reputation reeling, Domino’s did what it had never done
before—address a crisis situation via a social media site. Dressed in a shirt
with an open collar, Doyle read a 2-minute crisis response seated in front of
a single camera. The statement was straightforward and apologetic. Doyle
began by saying, “We sincerely apologize for this incident. We thank members
of the online community who quickly alerted us and allowed us to take
immediate action. Although the individuals in question claim it’s a hoax,
we are taking this incredibly seriously.” Doyle also indicated that the facility
in Conover had been temporarily closed and thoroughly disinfected. After
claiming that customer trust is “sacred” to Domino’s, Doyle vowed to reexamine
the company’s hiring practices to “make sure people like this don’t
make it into our stores.” Doyle ended the video by saying he was “sickened”
by the damage this incident had done to the Domino’s brand and the harm
it had done to the reputation of the company’s 125,000 employees worldwide
(Domino’s president, n.d.).
News of Doyle’s YouTube response spread quickly. His message was
viewed extensively, and many of the websites that had criticized Domino’s
for its slow and routine response offered critiques of the video—some favorable,
some unfavorable. Unlike Domino’s initial effort, the YouTube apology
garnered the much-needed attention that had been missing. Business
Week heralded the Domino’s response as a lesson for all major companies,
saying, “If there’s a lesson here, experts say, it’s that companies must have
an active presence on the web—to monitor their brands continuously, perhaps
enlisting loyal customers to help deal immediately with any damage”
(Levinsohn & Gibson, 2009, p. 15). Another lesson from this case concerns
the communication approach that organizations select for their crisis
communication. Clearly, using standard press releases through traditional
media venues did not reach the audience of the hoax video. Not until Doyle
Chapter 4 Applying the Lessons to Produce Effective Crisis Communication 87
Lesson 1: Determine your goals for crisis communication.
? Did Domino’s exemplify clear goals in its crisis communication?
Lesson 2: Before a crisis, develop true equal partnerships with organizations
and groups that are important to the organization.
? In what ways did Domino’s develop partnerships with
stakeholders?
Lesson 3: Acknowledge your stakeholders, including the media, as partners
when managing a crisis.
? How did Domino’s acknowledge its stakeholders following
the crisis?
Lesson 4: Organizations need to develop strong, positive primary and
secondary stakeholder relationships.
? Is there evidence that Domino’s established relationships
with its stakeholders?
Lesson 5: Effective crisis communication involves listening to your
stakeholders.
? Is there evidence that Domino’s listened to its stakeholders?
Lessons on Producing Effective
Crisis Communication
communicated through the same medium selected by the hoaxers was he
able to reach his relevant audience.
YOU MAKE THE CALL
After examining this case, it is time to determine whether Domino’s
communicated effectively with the stakeholders involved in the crisis. First,
take a moment to refresh in your mind the lessons established in Chapter 3
for communicating effectively and ineffectively during crises. These lessons
should guide you in evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of Domino’s crisis
response. As you contemplate the questions that follow, consider whether
Domino’s was effective or ineffective in coping with the added constraints of
the hoax and the use of social media it faced during its crisis response.
(Continued)
88 Part II The Lessons and Practical Application
Lesson 6: Communicate early about the crisis, acknowledge uncertainty,
and assure the public that you will maintain contact with
them about current and future risk.
? In what ways did Domino’s maintain contact with the public?
Lesson 7: Avoid certain or absolute answers to the public and media
until sufficient information is available.
? Did Domino’s provide certain or absolute answers about
the cause of the crisis?
Lesson 8: Do not overreassure stakeholders about the impact the crisis
will have on them.
? Did Domino’s overreassure about the impact of the crisis?
Lesson 9: The public needs useful and practical statements of selfefficacy
during a crisis.
? In what way did Domino’s provide statements of self-efficacy
following the crisis?
Lesson 10: Effective crisis communicators acknowledge that positive factors
can arise from organizational crises.
? Was there evidence that positive factors could arise from
this crisis?
SUMMARY
The Domino’s case offers valuable lessons for responding to hoaxes. First,
hoaxes can cause notable damage to an organization’s financial well-being. The
YouTube incident caused extensive damage to Domino’s brand and to consumer
confidence. Second, responding to hoaxes is complex. Organizations
must, at once, discredit the hoaxers while establishing that the company takes
all such threats seriously. At times, this type of crisis places an organization in a
seemingly contradictory position. Third, the Domino’s case clearly exemplifies
the increasing importance of alternative media such as YouTube in preventing
and managing crises. Organizations would be wise to study the Domino’s case
and consider their own levels of preparedness for such an attack.
REFERENCES
Calo, B. (Producer). (1996, August 25). Labor of love. Dateline NBC [Television
broadcast]. Universal City, CA: National Broadcasting Company.
Clifford, S. (2009, April 6). Video prank at Domino’s taints brand. New York Times, p. 1B.
(Continued)
Chapter 4 Applying the Lessons to Produce Effective Crisis Communication 89
De Lisser, E. (1998, September 22). FDA is putting the squeeze on makers of fresh
juice: New warning labels are sparking safety concerns among customers. The
Wall Street Journal, p. 1.
Domino’s president responds to prank video. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www
.youtube.com/watch?v=dem6eA7-A2I
Keating, F. (2001, August). Catastrophic terrorism—Local response to a national
threat. Journal of Homeland Security. Retrieved February 28, 2006, from
http://www.homelandsecurity.org/journal/
Levinsohn, B., & Gibson, E. (2009, May 4). An unwelcome delivery. Business Week,
4129, 15.
Martinelli, K., & Briggs, W. (1998). Integrating public relations and legal responses
during a crisis: The case of Odwalla, Inc. Public Relations Review, 24, 443–460.
Milne, J. (1995, December 15). Mill owner says he’ll pay workers for a month. The
Boston Globe, p. B50.
Milne, J., & Aucoin, D. (1995, December 13). In flicker of flames, mill owner vows
to rebuild. The Boston Globe, p. B1.
Moore, B. L. (1998, August 19). Time may be right to take bite of Odwalla. The Wall
Street Journal, p. CA1.
Morris, F. (2007). Kansas town’s green dreams could save its future. NPR.com.
Retrieved from http://www.npr.com
Nguyen, B., & Morris, J. (2009). After tornado, town rebuilds by going green. CNN
.com. Retrieved from http://cnn.com
Odwalla pleads guilty, to pay $1.5 million in tainted-juice case. (1998, July 24). The
Wall Street Journal, p. 1.
Odwalla, Inc. crisis management. (1997, August 22). The Wall Street Journal, p. A6.
Phelps, M. (2009). Building a model green community in Greensburg, KS. Mother
Earth News. Retrieved from http://www.motherearthnews.com/Nature
-Community/Greensburg-Kansas-Daniel-Wallach.aspx
Pyle, A. (2011). Effective Crisis Communication: Lessons learned from the
Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. Master’s Paper. University of Arkansas at Little
Rock, Little Rock, AR.
Reierson, J. L., Sellnow, T. L., & Ulmer, R. R. (2009). Complexities of crisis
renewal over time: Learning from the case of tainted Odwalla apple juice.
Communication Studies, 60, 114–129.
Sellnow, T. L., Littlefield, R. S., Vidoloff, K. G., & Webb, E. M. (2010). The interacting
arguments of risk communication in response to terrorist hoaxes.
Argumentation and Advocacy, 45, 139–154.
Thomsen, S., & Rawson, B. (1998). Purifying a tainted corporate image: Odwalla’s
response to an E. coli poisoning. Public Relations Quarterly, 43, 35–46.
Ulmer, R. R. (2001). Effective crisis management through established stakeholder
relationships: Malden Mills as a case study. Management Communication
Quarterly, 14, 590–615.
90
Lessons on Managing Crisis
Uncertainty Effectively
5
Every crisis carries with it some level of uncertainty. Following
a crisis, questions often surface about how to communicate
during the uncertainty of a crisis. Whether the crisis
is a natural disaster, a food-borne illness outbreak, or
a plant explosion, a crisis communicator has to manage
uncertainty. Consider that the cases in the last chapter, BP
and the United States Coast Guard; Malden Mills; Odwalla; the terrorist
attack in Oklahoma City; the tornado in Greensburg, Kansas; and Dominos,
all experienced high levels of uncertainty during their crises. Uncertainty
makes communicating complex because the crisis communicators
must speak publicly without always having clear or accurate information.
This chapter, then, provides some highly specialized approaches
that go beyond effective crisis communication to meet the needs of high
uncertainty crises. Our goal in this chapter is to provide some constructive
advice about how to communicate in the presence of uncertainty.
We identify 10 lessons for effectively managing the uncertainty of crisis.
These lessons serve as guideposts for both students and practitioners of
crisis communication.
To provide a quick overview of the chapter, we begin by providing a
definition of uncertainty and discussing its link to our initial definition
of crisis. The first four lessons characterize uncertainty as a potential
challenge for crisis communicators, who can expect some frustration
when initially communicating following a crisis. The next six lessons
focus on proven communication strategies for changing uncertainty
from a challenge to an opportunity. We conclude with a discussion of
communication strategies that we believe either intensify or reduce the
inherent uncertainty of crisis events. After reading this chapter, you
should be better able to transform the constraints of uncertainty into
opportunities.
Chapter 5 Lessons on Managing Crisis Uncertainty Effectively 91
DEFINING UNCERTAINTY
Uncertainty is the inability to determine the present or predict the future.
Kramer (2004) suggests, “We may experience uncertainty due to lack of
information, due to the complexity of the information, or due to questions
about the quality of the information” (pp. 8–9).
We live in a world constrained by uncertainty. Uncertainty is a common
experience regardless of your position in life, your job, or your age.
For students, there is uncertainty about their next semester courses, their
grades, and their futures. Organizations also experience uncertainty. They
must plan for market upturns and downturns and try to predict, in a fickle
market, what products or services their customers will purchase.
Crisis-induced uncertainty is quite different from the type of uncertainty
people and organizations experience on a daily basis. To better understand
the scope of crisis uncertainty, we illustrate its role through our definition of
crisis discussed in Chapter 1. We defined crisis as an unexpected, nonroutine
event that threatens the ultimate goals of the organization. Uncertainty
is related to each of the elements of this definition and exemplifies the communication
demands during crisis. Taleb (2010) explains that crises often
create epistemological and ontological uncertainty. He defines epistemological
uncertainty as the lack of knowledge we have following a crisis. Because
crisis events are so new, complex, and subject to change, there is often little
knowledge available about how to manage them. For this reason, crises often
create gaps in knowledge for extended periods of time that constrain decision
making and understanding. Ontological uncertainty refers to the type of
uncertainty in which the future has little or no relationship to the past. Crisis
events are often described as creating a new normal for all impacted by the
event. This new normal is highly uncertain, because people’s beliefs about
how the world operates change dramatically. Consider the new normal we
experienced following 9/11 regarding airport security. As a society, we knew
there would be changes; in the time that has passed since 9/11 there has
been—and still is—considerable debate, discussion, and uncertainty about
what this new normal will ultimately look like.
UNEXPECTED CRISES AND UNCERTAINTY
Crises happen when least expected, are shocking, and create a great deal of
uncertainty for everyone concerned. To better understand the unexpected
nature of crises, consider the Malden Mills case from the last chapter. In
the middle of the night, Malden Mills erupted into flames for no apparent
92 Part II The Lessons and Practical Application
reason. The explosion and fire startled citizens of the community, as many
wondered what would happen to their jobs. Some company executives
first learned of the blaze as they walked through an airport and saw CNN’s
live report of the fire on terminal television monitors. Aaron Feuerstein,
Malden Mills’s CEO, was at his 70th birthday
party when he received a call about the
fire. Clearly, crises are unexpected and can
raise many different uncertainties.
Learning from a television report that
your property is on fire is obviously a surreal
and unexpected experience. In this case, for Malden Mills’s executives,
there was great uncertainty about the extent of the damage, whether or not
people were hurt, and how the fire started.
NONROUTINE CRISIS EVENTS AND UNCERTAINTY
Crises are dramatic and chaotic events. One goal after a crisis is to get
the organization back into operation. Organizational leaders have several
options when responding to a crisis: They can respond with routine procedures,
such as firing the person responsible for the crisis, minimizing the
scope of the crisis, or shifting the blame. Alternatively, they can respond
with unique solutions that directly rectify the crisis. Although routine
solutions can be effective, they rarely rectify systematic problems in the
organization. In the last chapter we examined the BP oil spill and the high
levels of uncertainty the crisis created for Public Information Officers and
the public. However, one of the largest oil spills in United States history
before the BP oil spill was by Exxon in Alaska. Exxon’s CEO Lawrence Rawl
responded to the 1987 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound by
saying, while one of its ships gushed oil into the water, that the spill was not
severe and that Exxon had a good record of cleaning up much worse spills
(Small, 1991). However, Rawl did not take into account that the currents
in the sound were stronger than any Exxon had handled before, and the
dispersants that Exxon had used in other cleanups were not going to be
as effective in this cleanup effort. Exxon failed, in part, because it did not
address the uncertainty and novelty of the situation. Conversely, Rawl used
routine solutions—minimizing the crisis and firing the intoxicated Valdez
captain—to handle a nonroutine crisis event. As a result, Exxon received
justified criticism for failing to effectively manage the spill.
Exxon would have done better had it examined the oil spill quickly
and developed original solutions to protect the wildlife and environment.
Exxon had been pressed for years by environmental groups to adapt its
LESSON 1
Organization members must accept that a crisis
can start quickly and unexpectedly.
Chapter 5 Lessons on Managing Crisis Uncertainty Effectively 93
cleanup efforts to meet the unique needs
of Alaska and Prince William Sound.
However, the company decided to go with
the routine solutions they had developed
companywide.
THREAT PERCEPTION AND UNCERTAINTY
A key characteristic of crisis is the threat to the organization’s ultimate
goals. Remember, in the first chapter, we argued that organizations should
not focus solely on the threat associated with crises and should also consider
the opportunities inherent to these events. Threat and uncertainty
are linked because there is doubt about whether organizational goals will
be met as a result of the crisis. In addition, there is uncertainty about the
level of threat the organization is experiencing. If you remember the definition
of crisis provided in Chapter 1, you recall that we discussed perceived
threat. The fact that threat is perceptual contributes to the overall uncertainty
of the event: Some people in the organization may view a situation as
a potential crisis, and others may not. The computer code problem, Y2K,
which was expected to disable many computers prior to the new millennium,
was not viewed by many organizations as a potential crisis when it
was first identified. The threat was not taken seriously until it was certain
that the code problem could have an impact on banking, organizational
record keeping, and even personal computers.
Organizations must be able to manage uncertainty associated with a
crisis threat. Addressing this uncertainty involves developing consensus
with stakeholders about potential threats.
As a result, communication about potential
threats helps reduce uncertainty about
potential risks in the organization.
SHORT RESPONSE TIME AND UNCERTAINTY
Once an organization has experienced a crisis, it must communicate to its
stakeholders. This process is inherently uncertain because the organization
typically does not have accurate or readily available information to provide
to these groups. In addition, the organization may not know what is appropriate
to communicate about the crisis. At times, this is due to a lack of basic
crisis preparation. However, at other times, the event is so dramatic and ill
defined that it shocks the organization so severely that little information
is available. This is particularly true in the initial moments after a crisis.
LESSON 2
Organizations should not respond to crises
with routine solutions.
LESSON 3
Threat is perceptual.
94 Part II The Lessons and Practical Application
When Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City, first spoke after
the terrorist attacks in September of 2001, he was only able to acknowledge
and confirm what the whole world had seen on television—that the World
Trade Center towers had fallen. He had no other information to provide at
the time. As a result, he did not speculate or predict what would happen
next. All he could do was discuss what he had witnessed and answer any
questions the media had for him.
One of the key tenets of crisis communication is that, following the
onset of a crisis, the organization should make a statement to stakeholders
in order to reduce the stakeholders’ uncertainty and to avoid any appearance
of not wanting to answer questions or stonewalling. There are many
questions that need answering following a crisis, which is one reason the
media are so attracted to these events. Often, in the presence of tremendous
uncertainty created by a crisis, the affected organization is left to answer the
following questions:
? What happened?
? Who is responsible?
? Why did it happen?
? Who is affected?
? What should we do?
? Who can we trust?
? What should we say?
? How should we say it?
Although this is not an exhaustive list, these are questions that every
crisis communicator should be prepared to answer. In the context of the
uncertainty following a crisis, it is important to reiterate that, immediately
following the event, there may not be answers for many of these questions.
Crisis communicators must be able to have a clear and consistent
message and present this message quickly and regularly following a crisis
event. If the organization is not prepared to provide definitive answers and
explanations related to the crisis, the spokesperson must be able to provide
information, such as the organization’s latest safety records, its measures
for collecting information about the crisis, and a timeline for how it is
going to handle the crisis in the future. Good advice for crisis communicators
is to tell people what you know, what you do not know, and what
you are going to do to find answers to the still unanswered questions about
the crisis.
Chapter 5 Lessons on Managing Crisis Uncertainty Effectively 95
As discussed, the surprising, nonroutine,
and threatening nature of crisis creates
tremendous uncertainty for crisis communicators.
However, the short response time
associated with crisis creates even greater
uncertainty because crisis communicators
must communicate about events with
little, no, or competing information about how the crisis happened, who is
affected, and whether the event was managed effectively.
THE IMPACT OF CRISIS-INDUCED
UNCERTAINTY ON STAKEHOLDERS
The next six lessons focus on how crisis communicators can turn uncertainty
from a challenge into an opportunity when communicating with
stakeholders. As we have discussed, because a crisis is sudden and unforeseen,
uncertainty about what to say and how to make sense of the situation
is a key communication challenge. Furthermore, crises often create public
debates about responsibility, cause, and the impact on stakeholders. This
next section focuses on the public debates that arise following a crisis and
how they should be resolved ethically and responsibly. Before we go any
further, here is our definition of stakeholders:
Stakeholders are any groups of people internal or external to an
organization who have a stake in the actions of the organization,
such as employees, customers, creditors, government regulatory
agencies, the media, competitors, or community members.
Stakeholders are very vocal following a crisis because they seek information
and ask questions about the crisis. They want to know who is
responsible, why the crisis happened, and how they can protect themselves,
along with many of the other questions we presented earlier in this chapter.
Stakeholders typically want clear and quick answers to these questions to
protect themselves and make sense of the crisis. However, this is a difficult
standard to meet. The question of who is responsible, for instance, can take
weeks and sometimes years to answer. Typically, the greatest uncertainty
involves determining who is at fault. Organizations and their lawyers often
fight endlessly trying to determine responsibility.
In addition to determining fault, examples of the uncertainty in crises
are plentiful. Consider the meltdown that took place on April 26, 1986, at
the former Soviet Union’s Chernobyl nuclear power plant. The meltdown,
LESSON 4
Crisis communicators must communicate early
and often following a crisis, regardless of
whether they have critical information about
the crisis.
96 Part II The Lessons and Practical Application
instigated by several explosions damaging the nuclear reactor, is described
as the worst-ever nuclear accident. Following the crisis, there was great
uncertainty regarding who was impacted and to what extent. For instance,
pregnant mothers and their unborn children became critical stakeholders
as birth defects heightened significantly in the years following the meltdown.
In addition, there were varying estimates on the incidence of cancer
by those who may have been exposed to the radiation. In this case, the ultimate
impact of the crisis on stakeholders was uncertain, complex, and open
to public debate and argument.
Determining the extent of the damage of a crisis can be complicated
and open to debate. Researchers are still contesting whether Exxon has
fully cleaned up its 1989 oil spill or whether the oil is still having a negative
impact on the sound’s ecosystem. Sixteen years after the spill, both the
U.S. government and Exxon commissioned scientists who conducted studies
and debated whether the ecosystem was still contaminated or whether
the food supply had become safe (Guterman, 2004). Twenty years after a
1984 toxic gas leak at a Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India,
Amnesty International reported that Indian residents continued to experience
health problems associated with the event. Union Carbide, which
was purchased by Dow Chemical after the crisis, argued that the site had
been cleaned and there were no lasting effects from the explosion. The two
groups continue to disagree about what caused the gas leak, the impact the
leak had on Indian residents, and how to compensate those impacted by
the crisis (Sharma, 2005). As you can see, even 15 to 20 years after a crisis,
uncertainty is still an important variable (for information about the current
status in Bhopal, see “International Campaign,” n.d.).
As was illustrated in the foregoing examples, public arguments will be
made by many stakeholders concerning who is responsible, what people
should do, who is affected, and how the victims should be compensated.
Uncertainty and confusion can be increased when stakeholders disagree
about important questions surrounding the crisis.
Adding to the complexity are regulatory and safety decisions that
need to be made regarding the crisis. For instance, when a chemical plant
explodes, there are many competing claims regarding air safety, the cleanliness
of the water supply, and the relative levels of harm associated with
each potential hazard. When there are conflicting claims, the organization,
independent contractors, and government regulators, such as the
health departments, may conduct their own tests. It is not uncommon for
each group to arrive at divergent answers, which in turn often heighten
the uncertainty associated with the crisis. Such heightened uncertainty
and disagreements about important questions regarding the crisis can
Chapter 5 Lessons on Managing Crisis Uncertainty Effectively 97
create multiple interpretations about the same event or what we refer to
as communication ambiguity.
MANAGING COMMUNICATION
AMBIGUITY ETHICALLY DURING CRISIS
Organizations and stakeholders may not be able to fully ascertain clear
answers to key questions about the crisis until an investigation is completed.
As we just discussed, investigations and disagreements about the crisis can
proceed for decades. In the meantime, the uncertainty surrounding the
crisis is likely to make communication about causation and responsibility
ambiguous. Weick (1995) defines ambiguity as “an ongoing stream that
supports several different interpretations at the same time” (pp. 91–92).
Similarly to Weick (1995), we define communication ambiguity as
multiple interpretations of a crisis event. In the simplest terms, due to the
uncertainty of crisis, there is not a clear-cut, precise answer to every important
question following a crisis. As a result, each stakeholder group, including
customers, workers, and the impacted public, may hold and express
differing viewpoints of the event.
As a result, the inherent uncertainty related to any crisis allows for multiple
interpretations. Organizations then can select an interpretation of a
crisis that reflects more favorably on their actions than competing interpretations.
Moreover, it would also be possible for organizations to increase
the degree of ambiguity of a crisis in an effort to produce competing perspectives
on the event. We believe that intentionally heightening the level
of ambiguity in a crisis is unethical and irresponsible for any crisis communicator.
However, we acknowledge that ambiguity is inherent to any crisis
situation. So, in order to assess the ethicality of ambiguity in crisis situations,
we maintain that
? ambiguity is ethical when it contributes to the complete understanding
of an issue by posing alternative views that are based on complete
and unbiased data that aim to inform, and
? ambiguity is unethical if it poses alternative interpretations using
biased or incomplete information that aims to deceive.
In this case, how one interprets and communicates critical information
about a crisis can serve to reduce, maintain, or increase the level
of ambiguity inherent to that situation. A now classic case of capitalizing
unethically on the inherent uncertainty of crisis and intentionally
heightening its ambiguity took place in 1994 when Dr. David Kessler
98 Part II The Lessons and Practical Application
(Ulmer & Sellnow, 1997) contended publicly that nicotine was an addictive
drug. This announcement created a crisis for the tobacco industry.
The tobacco industry’s response, by the presidents or chairmen (all were
male) of the seven largest tobacco companies, was to interject as much
ambiguity into the situation as possible.
They described Kessler as an extremist,
downplayed and lied about the known
addictiveness of nicotine, and used
biased research to support their contentions
(see Ulmer & Sellnow, 1997). The
tobacco industry’s goal was to create and
add as much uncertainty to the debate as possible. By increasing the
uncertainty about the addictiveness of nicotine, they hoped to complicate
the issue enough to escape blame.
CONSISTENT QUESTIONS OF AMBIGUITY
After investigating and studying communication ambiguity in crisis situations,
we believe you should prepare for three areas of ambiguity where
multiple interpretations often arise after an organizational crisis: questions
of evidence, questions of intent, and questions of responsibility (Ulmer &
Sellnow, 2000) (see Table 5.1).
Questions of evidence refer to ambiguity created as a result of complex
legal battles or scientific debates concerning crisis evidence. For instance,
when women began coming forward with complaints regarding their Dow
Corning silicone breast implants, the company downplayed these complaints
with their own evidence that even a punctured implant would not
cause notable distress to a woman’s body. In this case, the general public was
left with the question of whom to believe.
LESSON 5
Organizations should not purposely heighten
the ambiguity of a crisis to deceive or distract
the public.
Ambiguity Example Common Public Questions
Evidence Whose scientific evidence should the public believe?
Intent Did the organization knowingly commit the crisis?
Responsibility Did the crisis originate within or outside of the
organization?
Consistent Questions of Ambiguity in Organizational
Table 5.1 Crisis
Chapter 5 Lessons on Managing Crisis Uncertainty Effectively 99
Questions of evidence focus on how
complexity breeds uncertainty and ambiguity
because of the multiple interpretations
available in the data collection process following
the crisis. Because science can be
subjective regarding how data are collected and interpreted, the results are
often debated. We assert that those debates create uncertainty and ambiguity
for a public trying to make sense of the crisis. A consistent debate, then,
in crisis situations is one between stakeholders who view crisis evidence
differently.
Questions of intent refer to whether a crisis was an accident or
whether an organization knowingly put its workers or the public in
danger. It may seem ridiculous that an organization would knowingly
put itself in a crisis; however, history suggests that the reality of the
matter is quite different. For instance, Ford Motor Company sold the
Pinto (1971–1980), a car that they knew had life-threatening defects, to
an unsuspecting public. The rationale for their decision was that paying
settlements to individuals or families whose loved ones were injured or
killed in the vehicle would cost the company less than a recall or redesign
(Larsen, 1998). Questions of intent refer to whether an organization
knew about potential problems and failed to correct them before
a crisis or whether the crisis happened as an accident in an otherwise
socially responsible system.
Whether an organization intended to cause a crisis is a critical aspect
of moving beyond the crisis. There is a clear difference between an organization
having an accident and an organization knowingly causing or
allowing a crisis to occur. If the crisis was an accident, the public and the
organization’s stakeholders are much more likely to forgive the organization
and potentially even help it reestablish itself. However, when an
organization has been knowingly unethical or irresponsible in its business
practices, the public is much less
likely to forgive and forget. Many people
still refuse to buy Exxon gasoline or support
an organization that has destructively
and knowingly abused its business
responsibilities.
Questions of responsibility refer to the level and placement of blame
that should be attributed to the organization for a crisis. Should responsibility
rest within or outside the organization? In 1993, Jack in the Box,
a fast-food chain, experienced a food-borne illness outbreak in the form
of E. coli bacteria. During this crisis, three children died and hundreds of
LESSON 6
Be prepared to defend your interpretation of the
evidence surrounding a crisis.
LESSON 7
Without good intentions prior to a crisis,
recovery is difficult or impossible.
100 Part II The Lessons and Practical Application
Jack in the Box customers were infected (see the discussion in Ulmer &
Sellnow, 2000). When asked about the crisis, Jack in the Box spokespersons
insisted that meat-testing procedures at the United States Department
of Agriculture (USDA) were much more responsible for the crisis
than were Jack in the Box restaurants. In this case, Jack in the Box was
placing blame for the crisis outside the purview of its organization. However,
after an internal communication audit, Jack in the Box found that
it had not acted on a state health department memo instructing the restaurant
to increase grill temperatures in order to kill the E. coli bacteria
in hamburger.
Whether the organization or an outside agency is responsible for the
crisis is a constant and recurring type of ambiguity that contributes to the
uncertainty of a crisis. One of the key communication strategies for organizations
following a crisis is to deny responsibility for the event. However,
shifting the blame to another organization is most often a more effective
strategy. Clearly, it is more effective to say, “We are not responsible, but
we know who is” rather than just saying,
“We did not do it.” In this case, a debate
often results in which organizations cast
accusations at one another, trying to place
blame on the other party for the crisis.
This heightens the uncertainty about who
is responsible for the event.
Communication ambiguity is a key factor in understanding uncertainty
associated with crisis events. We have focused on three types of communication
ambiguity—evidence, intent, and responsibility—that arise after a
crisis and often create more uncertainty because of the complex nature of
the crisis and the multiple ways of understanding the event. Although crises
are inherently complicated, there are times when communication can be
open and honest and still somewhat ambiguous. This is discussed in depth
in the next chapter.
To recap, communication ambiguity is a central factor in managing any
type of crisis. Due to the inherent uncertainty of crises, there will be multiple
interpretations and arguments made about the severity of the crisis,
how the crisis was caused, who is affected, and whether the organization
is responsible for the event (see Table 5.2). The lessons in this section suggest
that crisis communicators should be ready and willing to defend their
interpretation of a crisis; to practice good, honest, ethical conduct before
and after a crisis develops; and to make sure they build a case for why they
are not responsible for the crisis if indeed they are not.
LESSON 8
If you believe you are not responsible for a
crisis, you need to build a case for who is
responsible and why.
Chapter 5 Lessons on Managing Crisis Uncertainty Effectively 101
TRAINING, SIMULATIONS, AND UNCERTAINTY
One of the conditions of crisis is that the established organizational structure
collapses following the event. When an organizational structure collapses,
people are further traumatized by the lack of resources to help them
make sense of the situation. For instance, after an airline crash, air patterns
are disrupted making it difficult to predict when flights will take off and
land. Similarly, after a toxic release in the air or water, evacuations often
disrupt families and their day-to-day functioning. Obviously, large-scale
crises like 9/11 create a further collapsing of communication and other
established structures, increasing the difficulty of collecting helpful information
about the event.
Weick (1993) argues that the breakdown in established organizational
structures is a key issue in the failure to respond appropriately to crisis situations.
He argues that crises “thrust people into unfamiliar roles, leave some
key roles unfilled, make the task more ambiguous, discredit the role system,
and make all of these changes in a context in which small events can combine
into something monstrous” (p. 638). In this case, structures are not as rigid
or invulnerable as many organizations would like to think. The demands of
crisis on an organization and its stakeholders can bring established structures
to their knees (see Table 5.2 once again). Organizations need to train
and prepare for the uncertainty, threat, and communication demands before
a crisis hits. Organizations often do tabletop exercises and mock simulations
to prepare for the uncertainty and destruction of crisis. Many people
have seen televised accounts of New York City and other metropolitan areas
training and preparing for future terrorist attacks and other crises. These
simulations may include a dirty bomb placed in a sports stadium or a chemical
release in a subway. These simulations help federal agencies understand
Key Issues in Uncertainty Organization Stakeholder
Unanswered questions Who, what, why, how Who, what, why, how
Need for Information High High
Ambiguity High Confusion surrounding
evidence, intent, locus
Personal Beliefs Collapsed Collapsed
Table 5.2 Crisis and Uncertainty
102 Part II The Lessons and Practical Application
how well they are able to coordinate and
communicate in a crisis. As we discuss further
in the next chapter, establishing strong
stakeholder relationships can help prevent
breakdowns in established structures.
BELIEF STRUCTURES AND UNCERTAINTY
During a crisis, the public as well as the organization experience high levels
of uncertainty. Due to uncertainty during and following a crisis, stakeholders
often experience what Weick (1993) refers to as cosmology episodes,
wherein uncertainty creates a disorienting experience in which beliefs and
sensemaking structures are severely hampered. These belief structures are
severely impacted by the epistemic uncertainty we discussed at the beginning
of this chapter. For example, following the 1997 North Dakota floods,
many people experienced shock and terror as the high-cresting Red River
washed away their homes. They described themselves as being traumatized
by the crisis (see the discussion in Sellnow, Seeger, & Ulmer, 2002).
Others mentioned that the only time they had experienced something so
disturbing was in Vietnam. When people are suffering from collapses in
their belief structures or are going through very traumatic times, effective
communication can become increasingly complicated.
Along with the high uncertainty and threat associated with a crisis,
organizations also experience collapses in their belief structures. Crises are
often so disturbing that they change the way we think about the world. This
type of uncertainty relates to the ontological uncertainty we discussed at
the outset of this chapter. Just think how things have changed since 9/11.
The airlines’ beliefs about cockpit, passenger, and baggage safety have
changed forever. Vicki Freimuth, director of the CDC during 9/11 and the
anthrax letters crisis, explained that the CDC had to change its beliefs about
the world twice, once after 9/11 and once after they failed to communicate
effectively about the 2001 anthrax contaminations. These two events, she
suggests, forced the “CDC [to] permanently alter its strategy for communicating
publicly during crises” (Sellnow, Seeger, & Ulmer, 2005, p. 178).
These cases are illustrative of the dramatic shifts in beliefs organizations
must manage while handling a crisis.
Crisis situations, then, create interesting and unconventional contexts
in which both organizations and stakeholders need critical information to
reduce their uncertainty. As a result, both organizations and stakeholders
search for information. However, they rarely speak to one another. The organization
in crisis often stonewalls and explains that if it had any information
LESSON 9
Organizations need to prepare for uncertainty
through simulations and training.
Chapter 5 Lessons on Managing Crisis Uncertainty Effectively 103
that information would be shared publicly.
On the other hand, the organization’s stakeholders
often are left wondering if they will
receive the necessary information to protect
themselves and to find out what happened.
Related to this vacuum of communication is the media, which often
speculate on questions concerning the crisis, as information is not readily
available and company spokespersons are not often available for comment.
SUMMARY
Communicating in the midst or the wake of a crisis is unlike communicating
during any other time. Effective communication can become very
difficult. During crisis situations, there are tremendous constraints on an
organization to communicate effectively, yet the organization’s stakeholders
need critical information in order to make informed decisions. These
constraints may include lack of knowledge about the severity of the problem,
difficulty in identifying those affected by the crisis, and unavailability
of accurate and appropriate information. In addition, decisions have to be
made under stressful conditions—all this while the image and credibility of
the organization are at risk. Our next chapter examines how organizations
can overcome these difficulties and communicate effectively and appropriately
in crisis situations.
LESSON 10
Crises challenge the way organizations think
about and conduct their business.
Lesson 1: Organization members must accept that a crisis can start
quickly and unexpectedly.
Lesson 2: Organizations should not respond to crises with routine
solutions.
Lesson 3: Threat is perceptual.
Lesson 4: Crisis communicators must communicate early and often following
a crisis regardless of whether they have critical information
about the crisis.
Lesson 5: Organizations should not purposely heighten the ambiguity of
a crisis to deceive or distract the public.
Lessons on Uncertainty and
Crisis Communication
(Continued)
104 Part II The Lessons and Practical Application
Lesson 6: Be prepared to defend your interpretation of the evidence surrounding
a crisis.
Lesson 7: Without good intentions prior to a crisis, recovery is difficult or
impossible.
Lesson 8: If you believe you are not responsible for a crisis, you need to
build a case for who is responsible and why.
Lesson 9: Organizations need to prepare for uncertainty through simulations
and training.
Lesson 10: Crises challenge the way organizations think about and conduct
their business.
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Guterman, L. (2004). Slippery science. Chronicle of Higher Education, 51(5), A12–
A17.
International campaign for justice in Bhopal. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www
.bhopal.net
Kramer, M. W. (2004). Managing uncertainty in organizational com munication.
Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Larsen, S. (1998). Safety last. Mother Jones. Retrieved from http://www.motherjones
.com
Sellnow, T. L., Seeger, M. W., & Ulmer, R. R. (2002). Chaos theory, informational needs,
and natural disasters. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 30, 269–292.
Sellnow, T. L., Seeger, M. W., & Ulmer, R. R. (2005). Constructing the “new normal”
through post crisis discourse. In D. O’Hair, R. L. Heath, & G. R. Ledlow (Eds.),
Community preparedness and response to terrorism: Communication and the
media (Vol. 3, pp. 167–189). Westport, CT: Praeger.
Sharma, D. (2005). Bhopal: 20 years on. Lancet, 365, 111–113.
Small, W. (1991). Exxon Valdez: How to spend billions and still get a black eye.
Public Relations Review, 17, 9–26.
Taleb, N. N. (2010). The black swan: The impact of the highly improbable (2nd ed.).
New York, NY: Random House.
Ulmer, R. R., & Sellnow, T. L. (1997). Strategic ambiguity and the ethic of significant
choice in the tobacco industry’s crisis communication. Communication
Studies, 48, 215–233.
Ulmer, R. R., & Sellnow, T. L. (2000). Consistent questions of ambiguity in organizational
crisis communication: Jack in the Box as a case study. Journal of
Business Ethics, 25, 143–155.
Weick, K. E. (1993). The collapse of sensemaking in organizations: The Mann
Gulch disaster. Administrative Science Quarterly, 38, 628–652.
Weick, K. E. (1995). Sensemaking in organizations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
(Continued)
105
6 Applying the Lessons for
Managing Crisis Uncertainty
Effectively
Managing crisis-induced uncertainty is one of the most
important skills of an effective crisis communicator. It is
a highly specialized skill that allows crisis communicators
to be ethical and responsible in their communication
practices yet still provide accurate information to
stakeholders. Every crisis has some level of uncertainty
and as a result the effective crisis communicator must respond appropriately.
After reading the last chapter you now understand the key elements
of managing uncertainty through effective crisis communication. However,
as you will see in the following cases, the practice of managing uncertainty
takes considerable practice and experience. The following five cases examine
managing crisis uncertainty during an environmental disaster, a natural
disaster, a terrorist attack, an international food-borne illness crisis, and a
corporate meltdown. Each case provides examples of key elements of crisis
uncertainty. Good luck with working through these cases while developing
your crisis communication skills and experience at the same time.
EXAMPLE 6.1. TENNESSEE VALLEY AUTHORITY
AND THE KINGSTON ASH SLIDE
The Emory River would never meander along the same peaceful path
after the morning of December 22, 2008. The river flowed near the Kingston
Fossil Plant, located near Knoxville, Tennessee. The plant, operated
by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), burns coal to generate
“10 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity a year” to serve “670,000 homes”
(Tennessee Valley Authority, n.d., para. 2). In doing so, the plant creates
tons of fly ash, a coal-combustion waste product. The ash, combined
with water to form sludge, is stored in enormous containment ponds.
106 Part II The Lessons and Practical Application
The ponds, surrounded by earthen walls built by TVA, hold the ash
until a portion of it can be dried and recycled into building products.
On this rainy December morning, ash began to ooze from a wall of one
of the ponds. The leak weakened the wall until it crumbled, discharging
“5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash into the river and into a nearby
community, destroying several houses and forcing families to leave the
area” (“Welcome to a new year,” 2010, para. 6).
MISSED OPPORTUNITIES IN
CRISIS PREPARATION AND PLANNING
Simply put, TVA failed to accept the uncertainty related to storing the
volume of fly ash contained in the Kingston facility. In his testimony before
Congress, TVA Chief Executive Officer, Tom Kilgore (2009), admitted that
the crisis was the result of “long-evolving conditions” that the organization
failed to recognize or consider as it heaped more and more ash into the fragile
pond (para. 12). Kilgore acknowledged TVA overlooked “the existence of
an unusual bottom layer of ash and silt, the high water content of the wet ash,
the increasing height of ash, and the construction of the sloping dikes over
the wet ash” (para. 12). Perhaps the most puzzling lapse was TVA’s failure to
respond to a preliminary report 2 months before the spill that “described a
wet spot on one retaining wall that might be associated with a leak” (National
Aeronautics and Space Administration, n.d., para. 5). By their nature, leaks
Removing ash from the Emory River near the
TVA Kingston Fossil Plant
SOURCE: AP Photo/Wade Payne.
Chapter 6 Applying the Lessons for Managing Crisis Uncertainty Effectively 107
in earthen containment systems are a sign that the moisture is eroding the
integrity of the structure. Still, TVA continued to add ash to the Kingston
pond without question.
TENNESSEE VALLEY AUTHORITY’S
RESPONSE TO AN UNCERTAIN CRISIS
To its credit, TVA accepted blame for the spill, obtained emergency
permission to begin dredging the Emory River—portions of which literally
disappeared under the thick layer of ash—and conducted an extensive
internal investigation into the organization’s failures.
Some criticized the timing of the dredging process undertaken by TVA.
For example, Gregory Button, an anthropologist on faculty at the University
of Tennessee, told the Knoxville News Sentinel, a major newspaper in
the region, that, although the cleanup was launched relatively soon after the
spill, he was “worried about the haste in cleaning up the waste” (“Vines,”
2009, para. 9). Button and others were concerned that no independent
party was allowed to assess the dredging plan before it was launched. Button
insisted that including hearings with a third party about the cleanup
would be to “TVA’s advantage” because “it will haunt TVA if it doesn’t work
out” (para. 10).
Despite criticism, the dredging continued through 2009 and into 2010.
Cleanup of the land impacted by the spill began after the Emory River was
cleared of ash. The Knoxville News Sentinel emphasized the notoriety of
the spill that was “called one of the worst environmental disasters in the
nation by the federal Environmental Protection Agency,” and has a projected
cleanup cost that is “expected to exceed $1.2 billion, not including
lawsuits filed against TVA” (“Welcome to a new year,” 2010, para. 7).
TVA’s internal investigation into the organization’s failures leading up
to the crisis was extensive. In addition to conducting its own review, the
TVA board of directors commissioned the law firm of McKenna Long
& Aldridge (MLA) to look at any “management, controls, and standards
issues that may have contributed to the event and to make recommendations
on culture and organizational effectiveness” (Kilgore, 2009, para.
10). The law firm identified six primary failures in TVA’s “systems, controls,
standards, and culture” (Ide & Blanco, 2009, p. 2) in place at the
Kingston plant:
? “Lack of Clarity and Accountability for Ultimate Responsibility.”
Multiple group involvement in decision making and frequent reorganization
created a “lack of accountability” (p. 3).
108 Part II The Lessons and Practical Application
? “Lack of Standardization, Training and Metrics.” TVA had “no standard
procedures” in place for managing ash ponds (p. 4). Separate
manuals existed for each facility, and in many cases the manuals
were not updated.
? “Siloed Responsibilities and Poor Communication.” TVA had four
separate divisions sharing responsibilities for maintaining ash retention
facilities. Communication among these divisions was “strained
and in some instances, nonexistent” (p. 4). The report noted one
example where engineers failed to instruct workers to suspend work
on the pond due to excessive moisture. When the engineers were
asked why they failed to provide this instruction, they responded,
“no one had asked” (p. 4).
? “Lack of Checks and Balances.” TVA failed to create a quality assurance
or quality control plan. Thus, employees failed to perform routine
inspections “to ensure that the pond was constructed pursuant
to the engineered specifications” (p. 4). The report found “the lack of
a Quality Assurance/Quality Control [plan] created an environment
where employees felt empowered to ignore engineers and ‘build it
better’ than the drawings” (p. 4).
? “Lack of Prevention Priority and Resources.” TVA facilities failed to
provide the necessary upkeep on the walls of their retention ponds.
The report indicated that this failure was due to a lack of prioritization
of preventive activities, such as mowing the earthen walls and
removing tree growth that could weaken them. Overall, TVA’s funding
“was inadequate for routine maintenance, creating a situation
in which adequate inspections were impossible because the sides
of the dikes were overgrown and maintenance needs compounded
over time” (p. 5).
? “Reactive Instead of Proactive.” When seeps or leaks were found in
the dike’s walls, they were patched without “investigating the cause
of incidents beyond the specific physical occurrences” (p. 5). As
similar warning signs were seen, “no effort was made to leverage
the lessons learned across” the fleet of similar ponds managed by
TVA (p. 5).
This extensive list of failures provides a clear overview of how TVA
failed to respond to warning signs and actually heighted uncertainty by its
internal communication or lack thereof.
In his testimony before Congress, Tom Kilgore acknowledged the
findings of the MLA report and pledged to create a more safety-conscious
Chapter 6 Applying the Lessons for Managing Crisis Uncertainty Effectively 109
culture and to improve internal communication. To improve the organization’s
culture, Kilgore (2009) vowed to act on “several lessons learned
about the challenges facing us” (para. 29). He summarized these lessons
as follows:
? Storage facilities and structures should not be built in areas where
stability cannot be assured and verified.
? Aggressive, rigorous inspections and structural analysis of all coalcombustion
product storage have been initiated and will be kept
current.
? Management will visibly demonstrate and emphasize the need for
self-assessments to promote objective and fact-based reporting,
inspections, and auditing.
? Safety-related risks must be given the highest priority to identify,
minimize, and eliminate risks.
? Engineering design philosophy, design, and construction of ash
management facilities must be standardized.
? The handling, storage, and disposal operations for coal-combustion
products must be standardized.
Each of these strategies was designed to overcome the organization’s
failure to respond proactively and accurately to the warning signs the company
failed to heed.
Kilgore (2009) also recognized that poor communication, unclear
accountability, and a lack of follow-through contributed notably to the crisis.
As such, he promised to make the following changes at TVA (para. 30):
? Clear accountabilities
? Strong governance
? Robust self-assessment
? Independent reviews for quality and compliance
? A culture of personal responsibility and problem solving
Through these substantial changes, Kilgore (2009) hoped to use the
Kingston crisis as a “wake-up call for TVA” and to “rebuild the public’s
trust” (para. 5).
As the cleanup and organizational changes continue, some residents
worry about the long-term impact of the spill. For example, lingering
uncertainty about possible contamination of the ground water supply, loss
110 Part II The Lessons and Practical Application
of property values in the entire region, and fears that, as the spilled ash
begins to dry, airborne pollutants will place residents at risk remain largely
unaddressed by the current TVA crisis response plan. Consequently, area
residents have organized to bring a lawsuit against TVA. Oak Ridge attorney,
Michael Ritter, said “the figure of $165 million is just the tip of the
iceberg” (Huotari, 2009, para. 2). The lawsuit alleges “that the spill hurt
family incomes, destroyed property or property values, created potential
future medical expenses, probably hurt property sales for years, and
caused severe mental anguish and a loss of ‘the right to enjoy life’” (para.
13). Rather than addressing these concerns directly, TVA largely ignored
them in its response plan. Although lawsuits are common in crises such as
the Kingston ash slide, at least one plaintiff insists he would not have sued
if TVA had addressed his concerns. At a press conference announcing the
lawsuit, this plaintiff said bluntly, “had the TVA done what the TVA should,
we wouldn’t be here” (para. 23).
YOU MAKE THE CALL
After examining this case, it is time to determine how the TVA handled
the uncertainty we discussed in Chapter 5. First, take a moment to refresh
in your mind the lessons established on managing uncertainty. Second,
note that these lessons serve as touchstones and discussion points for what
we believe are key aspects of any crisis response. As you answer the questions
that follow, consider whether the TVA was effective or ineffective in
its managing of uncertainty surrounding the crisis. We have rephrased the
lessons into questions so that you are better able to address the key issues
in the case.
Lesson 1: Organizational members must accept that a crisis can start
quickly and unexpectedly.
? Did the Kingston ash slide happen quickly? Was it unexpected?
Lesson 2: Organizations should not respond to crises with routine solutions.
? Did TVA respond to the crisis in a routine manner? Did
their response address the problems with their organizational
culture?
Lessons on Managing Crisis Uncertainty
Chapter 6 Applying the Lessons for Managing Crisis Uncertainty Effectively 111
SUMMARY
The Kingston ash slide is a clear example of the peril an organization
can create by failing to accept uncertainty in crisis planning and response.
TVA did not have an organizational structure or culture that was prepared
Lesson 3: Threat is perceptual.
? In what way was the threat associated with this crisis perceptual?
How did perceptions differ among stakeholders?
Lesson 4: Crisis communicators must communicate early and often following
a crisis regardless of whether they have critical information
about the crisis.
? Did Tom Kilgore communicate early and often about the
crisis? Was he effective or ineffective?
Lesson 5: Organizations should not purposely heighten the ambiguity of
a crisis to deceive or distract the public.
? Were there issues that were uncertain or ambiguous for
stakeholders after the crisis?
? Did TVA contribute to the uncertainty surrounding the crisis?
Lesson 6: Be prepared to defend your interpretation of the evidence surrounding
a crisis.
? Did TVA defend its interpretation of evidence surrounding
the crisis? Was TVA effective or ineffective?
Lesson 7: Without good intentions prior to a crisis, recovery is difficult or
impossible.
? Did TVA have good intentions with stakeholders prior to
the Kingston ash slide?
Lesson 8: If you believe you are not responsible for a crisis, you need to
build a case for who is responsible and why.
? Did TVA build a case for why it was or was not responsible
for the crisis? Was TVA effective or ineffective?
Lesson 9: Organizations need to prepare for uncertainty through simulations
and training.
? Did TVA prepare adequately for the risk of a major ash spill?
Lesson 10: Crises challenge the way organizations think about their
business.
? Should this crisis have changed TVA’s management style?
If so, how?
112 Part II The Lessons and Practical Application
to respond to warning signs. The efficiency of the recovery process was
hampered by TVA’s need to undergo extensive innovations in its organizational
communication patterns and its organizational culture regarding
safety. Warning signs were either missed altogether or observed and
not shared among relevant parties in the organization. Although TVA
responded to these deficiencies in earnest, its cleanup plan fails to address
the uncertainty residents feel about the long-term danger of toxins in the
fly ash and dwindling property values. As of 2010, the public and environmentalists
had not forgotten this crisis.
What follows is a discussion of the 1997 Red River Valley Floods. Consider
the lessons on effective communication in Chapter 5 when reading
this case.
EXAMPLE 6.2. 1997 RED RIVER VALLEY FLOODS
In 1997, the cities of Fargo and Grand Forks, North Dakota, and Moorhead
and East Grand Forks, Minnesota, worked to manage one of the
most costly and damaging floods in recent history. The Red River Valley,
located along the border of North Dakota and Minnesota, had a record
snowfall during the winter of 1996–1997. The valley is actually an ancient
lake bed that has a tendency to return to its ancient state during the spring.
Following the heavy winter snowfall, the spring thaw unleashed incredible
amounts of water into the north-flowing Red River. Although the cities
had planned for flooding that year, the National Weather Service’s (NWS)
flood predictions were considerably
lower than what the region
experienced (Sellnow, Seeger, &
Ulmer, 2002). This discrepancy
between the predictions and what
was experienced created great
uncertainty for North Dakota and
Minnesota residents. Complicating
the matter was the confidence
placed in the NWS’s highly variable
crest levels communicated
to the public. This information
was crucial for community members,
because they used these
announcements to sandbag areas
and construct levees.
A view of the Red River in
Grand Forks
SOURCE: Ken Gardner, U.S. Army Corps of
Engineers/Wikimedia.
Chapter 6 Applying the Lessons for Managing Crisis Uncertainty Effectively 113
PREDICTING FLOODWATERS IN THE RED RIVER VALLEY
Faced with record snowfalls and the prospect of significant flooding,
residents of Minnesota and North Dakota looked for information about
area flood levels. Conventional water measurements and Red River predictions
were based on the NWS’s series of gauges that provided specific water
depth measurements. Historically, these quantitative measurements were
effective in predicting water levels for normal spring flooding. However,
the complexity of the overall system was dramatically different because of
an unprecedented runoff. In this case, the runoff interacted with roadbeds,
bridges, and even levees to make predictions of river crest levels difficult.
There were several factors that negatively influenced the NWS’s ability to
predict the levels of the floodwaters (Sellnow, Seeger, & Ulmer, 2002):
During the winter, snow measured 30 inches in area fields—more than
twice the normal levels.
Floating ice damaged the gauges in the river.
Heavy rain and fluctuating temperatures made it difficult to keep pace
with the fluctuating water levels. (pp. 275–278)
Each of these factors affected the NWS’s ability to use their gauges
effectively. The snowfields created a dramatic amount of water runoff into
the Red River. Floating ice routinely damaged the river gauges, leading
to incorrect crest level readings being announced to the public. In addition,
heavy rain and fluctuating temperatures created shifts in water levels.
Clearly, each of these factors made communicating about the flood difficult,
particularly because the NWS could not be certain at any time that
their gauges were accurately reading the levels of the river. In addition,
there were many factors that could change readings from day to day.
COMMUNICATING TO THE PUBLIC ABOUT CREST LEVELS
While the cities in North Dakota and Minnesota were uncertain about
the level of floodwaters, the NWS had a difficult time communicating flood
information because of the complexity of the crisis. Here are some of the
key communication issues during the flooding (Sellnow, Seeger, & Ulmer,
2002, pp. 276–280):
? Early in the flood, residents of Fargo were advised to prepare for
flood crests as high as 38 feet. Before the flood, 38 feet was thought
to be generous.
114 Part II The Lessons and Practical Application
? On April 10, 1997, the NWS increased its predicted crests to between
39 and 39.5 feet.
? Two days later, on April 12, 1997, this prediction was changed. The
new prediction was 37.5 feet. Residents were frustrated by the erratic
2-foot difference in the predictions.
? The gauges were blamed for the faulty readings. The malfunctions
were blamed on floating ice and extreme temperatures.
The NWS changed its predictions many times during the crisis.
However, each prediction failed to take into account the amount of variance.
The NWS routinely gave specific and precise measurements to
the public and then had to go back and correct earlier predictions. This
inconsistency became a source of frustration for citizens sandbagging
and building dikes. The constant corrections, coupled with the public’s
lack of confidence in the gauges, actually created more uncertainty in an
already complex situation.
Ultimately, the water reached levels that had not been seen for more
than 100 years. The city of Grand Forks saw its permanent dikes overwhelmed
by the floodwater. The population of 50,000 was evacuated
because nearly every part of the city was flooded. The financial impact was
estimated at “$5 billion, making it one of the most expensive floods in U.S.
history” (Sellnow & Seeger, 2001, p. 156).
UNDERSTANDING THE NATIONAL WEATHER
SERVICE’S RESPONSE TO THE RED RIVER VALLEY FLOODS
Several lessons were learned from the NWS’s response to the 1997 Red
River Valley Floods. Most of them focus on the role of communication during
complex crises, such as natural disasters. Some of the key issues are as
follows:
? The NWS admitted that “forecasters could have stressed the uncertainties
of their predictions in stronger terms” (“No evidence,” 1997,
p. C1).
? Both the NWS’s and community leaders’ crest level communications
were excessively overconfident.
? The region’s flood preparation was hampered by both measurement
procedures and communication failures.
? Meteorologists deemphasized the uncertainties of their science in
their communication to the public.
Chapter 6 Applying the Lessons for Managing Crisis Uncertainty Effectively 115
? Both the NWS’s and meteorologists’ communication did not take
into account the variability and uncertainty caused by other factors,
such as snowpack and temperature fluctuation (Sellnow, Seeger, &
Ulmer, 2002, pp. 275–287).
These lessons suggest that communication about the facts surrounding
a crisis can be difficult. This case provides an example of the role of uncertainty
during natural disasters and some of the pitfalls related to managing
that uncertainty. Even with quantitative measurement, effective crisis communicators
would be wise to incorporate some of the natural uncertainty of
the crisis into their communication.
YOU MAKE THE CALL
After examining this case, it is time to determine whether the NWS
dealt effectively with the type of uncertainty we described in Chapter 5.
First, take a moment to refresh in your mind the lessons established on
managing uncertainty. These lessons should help you identify the strengths
and weaknesses of NWS’s crisis response. As you answer the questions that
follow, consider whether the NWS was effective or ineffective in addressing
the crisis from beginning to end. We have rephrased the lessons into questions
so that you are better able to address the key issues in the case.
Lesson 1: Organization members must accept that a crisis can start
quickly and unexpectedly.
? In what ways was the 1997 Red River Valley flood a surprise?
Was it unexpected?
Lesson 2: Organizations should not respond to crises with routine
solutions.
? Were the responses to the flood routine?
Lesson 3: Threat is perceptual.
? In what ways was the threat associated with the flood perceptual?
How did perceptions differ among stakeholders?
Lessons on Managing Crisis Uncertainty
(Continued)
116 Part II The Lessons and Practical Application
Lesson 4: Crisis communicators must communicate early and often following
a crisis regardless of whether they have critical information
about the crisis.
? Did the NWS communicate early and often about the flood?
Lesson 5: Organizations should not purposely heighten the ambiguity of
a crisis to deceive or distract the public.
? Were there issues that were uncertain or ambiguous for the
public after the crisis?
? Did the NWS heighten the ambiguity surrounding the crisis?
Lesson 6: Be prepared to defend your interpretation of the evidence surrounding
a crisis.
? Did the NWS defend its interpretation of the flood levels?
Lesson 7: Without good intentions prior to a crisis, recovery is difficult or
impossible.
? Had the NWS developed strong relationships with the public
prior to the flood?
Lesson 8: If you believe you are not responsible for a crisis, you need to
build a case for who is responsible and why.
? Was there a need to build a case regarding responsibility
during this crisis?
Lesson 9: Organizations need to prepare for uncertainty through simulations
and training.
? Was there any evidence that any of the involved organizations
prepared for the crisis through simulations and
training?
Lesson 10: Crises challenge the way organizations think about and conduct
their business.
? Did the 1997 Red River Valley floods challenge the way the
NWS communicated crisis information to the public?
(Continued)
SUMMARY
The 1997 Red River Valley floods illustrate the role of uncertainty and
unpredictability in crisis communication. Due to the complexity of natural
disasters, it is difficult if not impossible to predict the impact of these events
on a community. The NWS failed to take into account the variance of the
Chapter 6 Applying the Lessons for Managing Crisis Uncertainty Effectively 117
flood levels in its communication. As a result, its certain communication
did not take into account the unpredictability of the flood or the potential
inaccuracy of the flood gauges. Therefore, the public was confused and
frustrated by the inaccuracies communicated by the NWS during a stressful
and threatening event.
EXAMPLE 6.3. THE CASE OF 9/11
The 9/11 attacks have changed the world in fundamental ways. Basic
understandings of what constitutes normal have been altered. Before
9/11, security in airports, for example, was usually minimal. Most
travelers resented the intrusions of security checks. Now, air travelers
go through multiple levels of security
checks before boarding, and most take
comfort in the added security. Before 9/11,
most people thought a terrorist attack on
American soil was highly unlikely. Today, a
great deal of effort goes into preparing for
the possibility of a major terrorist attack.
While 9/11 presents a number of important
lessons for effective crisis communication,
one of the most important issues concerns
uncertainty.
Initially, the cause and the scope of
the attack were unclear. In fact, initial news
reports indicated that the event involved
a small plane and that it was an accident.
People in the immediate area, even those in
the World Trade Center, were unaware that
a plane was involved. Even when the second
plane hit the second tower, most people still
thought it was an accident. NBC’s Today Show
host, Matt Lauer, even speculated on the air
that these crashes were caused by some failure
in the air traffic control system.
Among the uncertainties were questions of who had died, how many
had died, and who was responsible for the attacks. There was also a great
deal of uncertainty about the possibility of additional attacks, whether
air travel was safe, what people should do, and what the attacks meant.
Information about missing family members and friends was not available,
and many people resorted to handing out flyers or posting notices
The twin towers where
CF’s world headquarters
were located
SOURCE: Jeffmock/
Wikimedia.
118 Part II The Lessons and Practical Application
requesting information about
their missing loved ones. It
became clear over time that
many of the missing had died
in the attacks.
One study of the 9/11
attacks reported that the
information most wanted by
the public related to the cause
of the disaster, additional
threats, the levels of damage,
and the events’ implications.
The same study found that
the average person spent over
8 hours on that day searching
for information about the
disasters by watching television
news reports, listening to the radio, searching the Internet, or talking
to friends and family. Many people wanted to be with friends and family
as they watched the news reports (Seeger, Venette, Ulmer, & Sellnow,
2002).
Even when it became clear that the 9/11 crisis was an act of terrorism,
it was still unclear who was responsible. In fact, it was still unclear a
day after the event when President George Bush first spoke to the nation.
The president simply called the attackers evil terrorists. An additional factor
contributing to the uncertainty and lack of information was that many
cellular telephone towers and broadcast antennas for Lower Manhattan
had been located on the top of the World Trade Center. The loss of these
towers rendered cell phones and much of the radio communication in the
area useless.
One of the important figures in this crisis was New York City Mayor
Rudolph Giuliani. Although the attacks occurred with little or no warning
and created very high levels of uncertainty and confusion, the city of
New York was not entirely unprepared. “As shocking as this crash was,”
Mayor Giuliani later explained, “we had planned for just such a catastrophe.
My administration had built a state-of-the-art command center
for the emergencies that inevitably befall a city like New York” (Giuliani
& Kurson, 2002, p. 4). New York City first responders, fire, police, and
emergency personnel practiced for crises frequently and had experience
dealing with many crises, such as West Nile virus outbreaks and power
blackouts.
Rudy Giuliani maintaining
communication with the public
following 9/11
SOURCE: R. D. Ward/Department of Defense/
Wikimedia.
Chapter 6 Applying the Lessons for Managing Crisis Uncertainty Effectively 119
Upon hearing of the first plane crash, Mayor Giuliani immediately
traveled to see the site. “I needed to see with my own eyes the disaster
site and our rescue operation and get a sense of what we would be dealing
with in the months to come” (Giuliani & Kurson, 2002, p. 22). He
also held frequent news conferences from close to the World Trade Center
site, sometimes speaking to the press several times a day. In fact, his
first appearance in the media occurred during a walking news conference
while debris was still falling from the collapsed towers. Often, he had
little or no new information other than reports of how many bodies had
been recovered and how the recovery effort was proceeding. He would
report on how many people were working on recovery or how operations
were proceeding to remove debris. He was also very emotional, often very
angry, when he talked about the attacks. As time went on and more information
became available, he shared the emerging details with the public.
His reassuring tone and manner helped New Yorkers and the rest of the
country. In one of his first news conferences, he said, “Tomorrow New
York is going to be here. And we’re going to rebuild, and we’re going to be
stronger than we were before. . . . I want the people of New York to be an
example to the rest of the country, and the rest of the world, that terrorism
can’t stop us” (Giuliani, n.d.). He attended hundreds of funerals and spent
time with the families of victims. He coordinated the activities of emergency
responders and was involved in almost all aspects of the disaster,
from recovery to planning memorial services. Most of all, Mayor Giuliani
spoke to a wide variety of groups about the events, what they meant, and
how New York was going to recover.
In his book Leadership, Mayor Giuliani described the important role
of communicating strong values and beliefs, particularly following major
crises like the 9/11 attacks. Giuliani described how he had spoken plainly
and directly about values: “I tried to explain the enormity of what happened
and hold accountable those who were responsible” (Giuliani & Kurson,
2002, p. 186). In a speech before the United Nations, he said, “This was not
just an attack on the City of New York or on the United States of America.
It was an attack on the very idea of a free, inclusive, civil society. . . . Terrorism
is based on the persistent and deliberate violation of fundamental
human rights” (p. 184). This and other clear and direct statements of values
helped Mayor Giuliani rally support for New York as it struggled to recover.
He also described his communication style as “available and candid,” even
“blunt” (p. 188).
Mayor Giuliani is widely recognized as a very successful crisis leader.
Many people watching him on television took a great deal of comfort in
his straightforward statements. His attitudes and approaches came to
120 Part II The Lessons and Practical Application
Lesson 1: Organization members must accept that a crisis can start
quickly and unexpectedly.
? How did the unexpected nature of this crisis influence how
it was perceived?
Lesson 2: Organizations should not respond to crises with routine
solutions.
? Which of Mayor Giuliani’s responses would you characterize
as nonroutine? How did Mayor Giuliani’s responses
reflect the nonroutine nature of the situation?
Lesson 3: Threat is perceptual.
? How did the public perceive the threat of the 9/11 attacks?
Lesson 4: Crisis communicators must communicate early and often following
a crisis regardless of whether they have critical information
about it.
? How did Rudy Giuliani’s early presence and frequent news
conferences influence the way the crisis developed?
Lesson 5: Organizations should not purposely heighten the ambiguity of
a crisis to deceive or distract the public.
? Would you characterize Rudy Giuliani’s communication
about the 9/11 attacks as honest? If so, what was the
result of an honest response?
Lessons on Managing Crisis Uncertainty
symbolize the response of New York and most of America to this devastating
terrorist attack.
YOU MAKE THE CALL
After examining this case, it is time to determine whether Mayor
Rudy Giuliani dealt effectively with the type of uncertainty we described
in Chapter 5. First, take a moment to refresh in your mind the lessons
established on managing uncertainty. These lessons should help you identify
the strengths and weaknesses of Rudy Giuliani’s crisis response. As
you contemplate the questions that follow, consider whether the mayor
was effective or ineffective in addressing the crisis from beginning to end.
We have rephrased the lessons into questions so that you are better able to
address the key issues in the case.
Chapter 6 Applying the Lessons for Managing Crisis Uncertainty Effectively 121
SUMMARY
The events of 9/11 have changed basic understandings regarding the
threats of terrorist attacks. In many ways, 9/11 created a new sense of normal.
Most of U.S. society pulled together following the 9/11 events. In part,
this was because leaders like Mayor Giuliani spoke directly and often to the
public. Even though there was tremendous uncertainty about who caused
the crisis and what would happen next, Mayor Giuliani was able to manage
this uncertainty effectively.
EXAMPLE 6.4. KING CAR’S RESPONSE
TO THE 2008 MELAMINE CRISIS
In August 2008, the Asian food industry experienced a widespread crisis.
Chinese food companies were implicated with increasing the amount of
protein in their nondairy milk products by adding melamine to inflate their
Lesson 6: Be prepared to defend your interpretation of the evidence surrounding
a crisis.
? Rudy Giuliani spent a great deal of time talking about the
toughness and resilience of New Yorkers. He said that the
city would come back strong. Would you agree with this
characterization?
Lesson 7: Without good intentions prior to a crisis, recovery is difficult or
impossible.
? How did Mayor Giuliani use established American values to
help generate support for New York?
Lesson 8: If you believe you are not responsible for a crisis, you need to
build a case for who is responsible and why.
? How did Mayor Giuliani describe those who were to blame
for the 9/11 attacks? How did this help him rally support?
Lesson 9: Organizations need to prepare for uncertainty through simulations
and training.
? How did New York prepare for events such as 9/11?
Lesson 10: Crises challenge the way organizations think about and conduct
their business.
? How did the events of 9/11 change the way U.S. citizens
think about New York? Did Mayor Giuliani’s actions help
change the way you think about New York and New Yorkers?
122 Part II The Lessons and Practical Application
apparent protein contents. The crisis originally began in 2007 when dogs and
cats began to experience kidney failure after eating pet food that contained
high levels of melamine. The crisis expanded when nearly 300,000 infants
became ill and six died after consuming melamine-contaminated baby formula
produced by Chinese dairy product company Sanlu. At this time, there
was heightened uncertainty among companies worldwide regarding the
safety of Chinese food ingredients. Initially, the Chinese government was
slow to respond and denied any problems with their food products. This
created more uncertainty and doubt about the safety of products originating
from China. For instance, the USDA and the Food and Drug Administration
(FDA) subjected all imported food products from China to physical
examination before they could enter the United States.
REDUCING CRISIS UNCERTAINTY
King Car, a Taiwanese food company, responded immediately to the
melamine crisis, because it imported many Chinese-based ingredients for
its milk products. At the time of the crisis, the Taiwanese Department of
Health emphasized its strong food testing system in their initial communications
and tried to minimize concern and reassure the public about
its strong food safety regulations. However, there was considerable public
unrest and uncertainty about whether Taiwanese products were safe. On
Saturday, September 13, 2008, King Car called an emergency meeting and
decided to hold a media conference to discuss product safety (Ku, 2009). At
this time, Mr. Lee, the chairman of King Car, explained that the only way
to ensure public trust was to have King Car test its products for excessive
melamine levels in addition to the government testing to ensure their safety
(Chen, 2008; Ku, 2009). After testing of its products was complete, King
Car determined that in fact its milk products contained unacceptably high
levels of melamine even though the Taiwanese government tested these
products.
A GUIDING VISION FOR KING
CAR’S CRISIS COMMUNICATION
At the outset of the crisis, Chairman Lee set a guiding philosophy for
King Car’s response. He told his senior management there were no limits
on the budget for fixing the crisis (Wu, Hsieh, & Peng, 2008). Chairman Lee
explained that customer trust was of the utmost importance to King Car.
He noted that King Car had worked for 50 years to gain the trust of its customers
and that the company would do everything in its power to maintain
this trust throughout the crisis.
Chapter 6 Applying the Lessons for Managing Crisis Uncertainty Effectively 123
After learning through its own investigation that its products were contaminated,
King Car immediately sent these results to a second laboratory
to have the results quickly checked again. King Car could have taken the
word of the Taiwanese government, but it decided to take matters into its
own hands and test its products independently to ensure the safety of its
customers.
INITIAL CRISIS COMMUNICATION
When King Car’s second round of testing came back positive for
high levels of melamine, the company immediately engaged the public
with its information. First, King Car notified the Taiwanese Department
of Health about the contamination it had found independently of the
Taiwanese government tests. Second, the general manager for King Car
personally called media reporters to make them aware of the contamination
and to inform the public. In this case, the public was under the
impression that government tests were adequate and Taiwanese products
were safe. King Car wanted to apologize for the unsafe products and make
sure that the public had information about how to protect themselves. Lin
(2008) explains that King Car chose to publicize its contaminated products
before the Taiwanese government’s tests had identified high levels of
melamine. Without King Car’s own testing and quick communication, the
crisis would have most certainly been much worse. At this time, King Car
also informed all its retailers that King Car was recalling all its nondairy
milk powder.
THE RECALL
After King Car had determined
its product was not safe
for consumption, they communicated
to retailers across Taiwan
about a recall. Over time,
King Car had developed strong,
positive relationships with these
retailers that made communication
easier and more productive.
As a result, the company was able
to recall over 95% of its product
in 3 days. To help with the recall,
King Car provided unconditional
refunds to all its customers even
Taiwanese customers check King Car
products for a new safety stamp
SOURCE: AP Photo/Chen qianjun.
124 Part II The Lessons and Practical Application
without a receipt. As a result, within a week, almost 100% of its product was
recalled. King Car also announced that it would soon have safe products for
consumption with a different package and a certification of safety stamp on
it. The repackaging and certification enabled King Car to differentiate its
products from those that were not tested or certified. King Car also set up
toll-free service lines to answer any and all customer questions about the
recall and the safety of the products. The company also made product tests
public via its website so consumers could check to see if the products they
had purchased were safe (Young, Lo, Lee, & Chu, 2008). Finally, King Car
invited reporters to its plant to see the recalled products being destroyed.
The cost of the recall was estimated at over $3 million dollars. These actions
received widespread critical acclaim from the Taiwanese public, media, and
scholars (Lin, 2008).
CRITICAL ACCLAIM
King Car received widespread critical acclaim for its response to
the melamine crisis. In fact, King Car was able to quickly restore trust
with the public and its stakeholders as a result of its response. On the
other hand, companies like Nestle and United, which refused to admit
the use of contaminated ingredients until a month later, struggled for
public acceptance. A Taiwanese business magazine, Business Today,
explained that the melamine crisis upset everybody, yet King Car was
the only organization willing to apologize and fix the problem. Their
attitude makes them the model for other companies (Ku, 2009). Apple
Daily, a Taiwanese newspaper, explained King Car is probably the only
company that’s going to be forgiven by the public throughout this Chinese
poisoned-milk crisis (Ku, 2009).
YOU MAKE THE CALL
After examining this case, it is time to determine whether King Car
dealt effectively with the type of uncertainty we described in Chapter 5.
First, take a moment to refresh in your mind the lessons established on
managing uncertainty. These lessons should help you identify the strengths
and weaknesses of King Car’s crisis response. As you contemplate the
questions that follow, consider whether King Car was effective or ineffective
in addressing the crisis from beginning to end. We have rephrased the
lessons into questions so that you are better able to address the key issues
in the case.
Chapter 6 Applying the Lessons for Managing Crisis Uncertainty Effectively 125
Lesson 1: Organization members must accept that a crisis can start
quickly and unexpectedly.
? In what ways did King Car’s crisis start quickly and with
uncertainty?
Lesson 2: Organizations should not respond to crises with routine
solutions.
? Did King Car respond to the crisis in a routine manner? Was
their response effective?
Lesson 3: Threat is perceptual.
? In what ways was the threat associated with this crisis perceptual?
How did perceptions differ among stakeholders?
Lesson 4: Crisis communicators must communicate early and often following
a crisis regardless of whether they have critical information
about the crisis.
? Did King Car communicate early and often following the
crisis? Were they effective or ineffective?
Lesson 5: Organizations should not purposely heighten the ambiguity of
a crisis to deceive or distract the public.
? Were there issues that were uncertain or ambiguous for
stakeholders following the crisis? Did King Car heighten or
reduce the ambiguity surrounding the crisis?
Lesson 6: Be prepared to defend your interpretation of the evidence surrounding
a crisis.
? Did King Car defend its interpretation of evidence surrounding
the crisis? Was King Car effective or ineffective?
Lesson 7: Without good intentions prior to a crisis, recovery is difficult or
impossible.
? Had King Car developed good relationships with stakeholders
prior to the crisis?
Lesson 8: If you believe you are not responsible for a crisis, you need to
build a case for who is responsible and why.
? Did responsibility emerge as a key factor in King Car’s
response to the melamine crisis? Was King Car’s response
effective or ineffective?
Lessons on Managing Crisis Uncertainty
(Continued)
126 Part II The Lessons and Practical Application
SUMMARY
The King Car crisis is a classic case of how threat, surprise, short
response time, and uncertainty can impact decision making and communication
following a crisis. Under the stress and uncertainty of the crisis,
King Car made a critical mistake by shifting blame for the crisis outside the
organization when the company had not checked to make sure that it was
not responsible. King Car capitalized on the uncertainty of the situation in
the short term, but when an internal investigation revealed that the company’s
headquarters had received the new state standard, it quickly moved to
accepting responsibility and learning from the crisis.
EXAMPLE 6.5. ENRON
The Enron case has been widely publicized as an example of corporate
greed, excessive risk taking, and unethical business practices (Lyon, 2008;
Seeger & Ulmer, 2003). At the center of the case are Kenneth Lay, CEO and
founder of Enron; Jeffery Skilling, president; Andrew Fastow, chief financial
officer; and David Duncan, Enron’s chief auditor for Arthur Andersen,
the accounting firm that was required to check Enron’s accounting practices.
Much of Enron’s early success was attributable to deregulation of the
energy industry and free market commodity trading of natural gas and
electricity. Enron’s clout, success, aggressiveness, and business context of
little or no oversight allowed it to expand its commodity trading businesses
to weather derivatives, Internet bandwidth, and bankruptcy protection.
Enron was quickly changing the business of what commodities could
be traded and how they could be traded. While Enron manipulated energy
Lesson 9: Organizations need to prepare for uncertainty through simulations
and training.
? Is there evidence that King Car was prepared to respond
to the crisis?
Lesson 10: Crises challenge the way organizations think about and conduct
their business.
? In what ways did King Car and the food industry change
the way it conducts its business following the melamine
crisis?
(Continued)
Chapter 6 Applying the Lessons for Managing Crisis Uncertainty Effectively 127
rates, its profits, and its losses, few questioned
the implications of these complex
financial instruments and the inherent risk
associated with them. In fact, from 1996 to
2000 Enron was named by Fortune Magazine
as “America’s most innovative company”
(Stein, 2000). In addition, in 2000,
Enron was named by Fortune Magazine
as number 24 on the list of the “100 best
companies to work for” (“Best companies
list,” 2000). Yet by the end of 2001 Enron
would be surrounded by controversy in the
middle of one of the worst corporate crises
in history and on the verge of bankruptcy.
In 15 years, Enron grew to the 7th largest
company in the world with a staff of 21,000
in over 40 countries. Enron was also one of
the hottest stocks on Wall Street, hitting its
high in 2000 at $90 a share. By 2001, Enron’s
stock was worthless and had plummeted to
under $1 a share.
LEADERSHIP COMMUNICATION
To achieve success, Enron leaders failed in communicating appropriate
values to employees, failed to be informed about the organization’s business
practices, and failed to be open to signs of problems (Seeger & Ulmer, 2003).
Each of these leadership failures contributed to Enron’s eventual demise.
DIVERGENT CORPORATE VALUES
From the inception of the company, Enron was known as a highly competitive
company and had an entrepreneurial vision based on values that
emphasized innovation and creativity over traditional thinking and standard
business models. However, Enron had established a formal code of ethics
that described their values and key mission with respect to how they
would conduct business. Every employee was required to sign that they had
read the Rice Code and agreed to comply with it.
Over time, Enron moved from an entrepreneurial vision and approach to
business to higher and higher levels of excess, risk, and hubris. However, the
hidden values of these were kept largely out of view from stakeholders. Initially,
Kenneth Lay following
the Enron crisis
SOURCE: Dave Einsel/Getty
Images News/Getty Images.
128 Part II The Lessons and Practical Application
in its natural gas operation, Enron had used traditional and widely accepted
accounting practices to determine its earnings. Basically, they would subtract
the costs of selling the natural gas to customers from the revenues earned
from selling it. However, over time, Enron took on even more complicated,
risky, and ethically questionable accounting processes that ultimately served
to increase profits and hide any losses. These complex accounting processes
made accurate reporting of their quarterly earnings more difficult to explain,
more prone to error, and less reliable. Rather than the Rice Code being the
standards from which success or failure was measured at Enron, profitability
became the barometer for Enron’s success. This new value was illustrated as
Enron executives modeled conspicuous displays of power, excess, risk taking,
and wealth at the organization. Employees understood that profitability at any
cost was the dominant value position at Enron (Fox, 2003).
Respect: We treat others, as we would like to be treated ourselves. We do
not tolerate abusive or disrespectful treatment. Ruthlessness, callousness,
and arrogance don’t belong here.
Integrity: We work with customers and prospects openly, honestly, and sincerely.
When we say we will do something, we will do it; when we say we
cannot or will not do something, then we won’t do it.
Communication: We have an obligation to communicate. Here, we take
time to talk with one another . . . and to listen. We believe that information
is meant to move and that information moves people.
Excellence: We are satisfied with nothing less than the very best in everything
we do. We will continue to raise the bar for everyone. The great fun
here will be for all of us to discover just how good we really can be. (“Enron
statement,” 1996)
Rice Code of Ethics for Enron
RESPONSIBILITY TO BE INFORMED
Part of the Enron culture involved the organization being highly
decentralized. Employees were encouraged to be very independent
and worked with little supervision. The more money employees made
for Enron, the more independence and responsibility they were given.
Kenneth Lay developed this very decentralized organizational structure
(Seeger & Ulmer, 2003). When Jeffrey Skilling ultimately took the
Chapter 6 Applying the Lessons for Managing Crisis Uncertainty Effectively 129
company over from Kenneth Lay, he flattened the levels of supervision
at Enron from 13 to four. Skilling traded oversight and control for flexibility,
agility, and innovation. He felt that, with fewer levels of oversight,
employees could act more quickly with fewer meetings and reviews by
superiors. This radically decentralized structure made it difficult and
ultimately impossible to have direct knowledge of business operations,
particularly with employees who were generating profits for Enron. Over
time, Skilling took this lack of accountability to the extreme by approving
deals verbally without any paperwork or even taking notes. Without
any knowledge of business operations, Enron’s leaders could also declare
plausible deniability about their knowledge of any unethical business
practices. An SEC chief enforcement officer would later describe Enron’s
leadership behavior as willful blindness (Witt & Behr, 2002).
OPENNESS TO SIGNS OF PROBLEMS
Enron had created a culture of innovation, risk tolerance, and positivity
at all costs. Employees soon recognized that negative information was not
valued. The best example of squelching bad news was Sharron Watkins,
the now celebrated Enron whistle-blower, who worked for CFO Andrew
Fastow and wrote an anonymous letter to Kenneth Lay expressing her concerns
about Enron’s accounting practices and public financial statements.
Watkins eventually met with Kenneth Lay in person about her concerns.
After their meeting, Kenneth Lay hired an outside law firm to examine
some of Enron’s business transactions. The law firm concluded that some
restatement of earnings would be necessary. Even though Sharron Watkins’s
warning was useful and accurate, Enron tried to fire her (Fox, 2003; Morse
& Bower, 2003). Ultimately, Watkins resigned from Enron in 2002. The failure
to be open to signs of problems and Enron’s culture of no bad news created
self-censorship, denial, and often belligerence toward those who tried
to uncover problems at Enron. Skilling, for example, once called an analyst
an “asshole” for suggesting Enron’s financial statements were incomplete
(Cruver, 2002). At the height of the accusations against Enron and mounting
losses, Enron executives continued to deny problems and regularly promoted
buying Enron stock to their employees and stockholders.
Enron filed for bankruptcy on December 2, 2001, which was the largest
on record until WorldCom declared bankruptcy in 2002. Several pieces of
legislation, such as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, were put into place to protect
shareholders and stakeholders from being defrauded and to increase the
accountability of accounting firms to be objective and independent of their
clients. Enron’s collapse illustrates the importance of managing uncertainty
130 Part II The Lessons and Practical Application
effectively before, during, and after an organizational crisis. Organizational
leaders should place a premium on making sure that they do not willfully
accentuate ambiguity and uncertainty through their leadership communication.
Organizations should pay attention to their espoused values and
codes of ethics and make sure that the organization’s leadership models
those values. Enron had a strong code of ethics, but the countervalues of
greed, excess, and profitability overrode any of the values espoused there.
Finally, leaders need to be obligated to be open to bad news and signs of
problems. Leaders who fail to be open to warning signs of problems are
likely to increase uncertainty and ambiguity within an organization.
YOU MAKE THE CALL
After examining this case, it is time to determine whether Enron communicated
effectively with the stakeholders involved in the crisis. First, take
a moment to refresh in your mind the lessons established in Chapter 5 for
managing crisis uncertainty. These lessons should guide you in evaluating
the strengths and weaknesses of Enron’s crisis response.
Lesson 1: Organization members must accept that a crisis can start
quickly and unexpectedly.
? In what ways was the financial crisis at Enron a surprise?
Was it unexpected?
Lesson 2: Organizations should not respond to crises with routine
solutions.
? Were the responses to the crisis by Enron’s leaders routine?
Lesson 3: Threat is perceptual.
? In what ways was the threat associated with Enron’s financial
crisis perceptual? How did perceptions differ among
stakeholders?
Lesson 4: Crisis communicators must communicate early and often following
a crisis regardless of whether they have critical information
about the crisis.
? Did Enron or any of its stakeholders communicate early and
often about the financial crisis?
Lessons on Managing Crisis Uncertainty
Chapter 6 Applying the Lessons for Managing Crisis Uncertainty Effectively 131
Lesson 5: Organizations should not purposely heighten the ambiguity of
a crisis to deceive or distract the public.
? Were there issues that were uncertain or ambiguous for the
public during or after the crisis?
? Did Enron heighten the ambiguity surrounding the crisis?
Lesson 6: Be prepared to defend your interpretation of the evidence surrounding
a crisis.
? Did Enron ethically defend its interpretation of the financial
crisis?
Lesson 7: Without good intentions prior to a crisis, recovery is difficult or
impossible.
? Had Enron developed strong, ethical relationships with
their stakeholders prior to the crisis?
Lesson 8: If you believe you are not responsible for a crisis, you need to
build a case for who is responsible and why.
? Was there a need to build a case regarding responsibility
during this crisis?
Lesson 9: Organizations need to prepare for uncertainty through simulations
and training.
? Was there any evidence that training for crises could have
prevented this event?
Lesson 10: Crises challenge the way organizations think about and conduct
their business.
? Did Enron’s financial crisis challenge the way these types of
crises will be handled in the future?
SUMMARY
The Enron case offers valuable lessons for understanding financial
crises. First, financial crises are difficult to identify if the company is not
forthcoming about its financial problems. Arthur Andersen, the accounting
agency responsible for auditing and checking Enron’s financial viability,
was not effective and did not fulfill its professional responsibilities.
Second, extreme decentralization and lack of oversight in this case led to
increased uncertainty and fewer checks and balances regarding Enron
business deals. Decentralization can be effective and can distribute
power and control broadly, but organizations should maintain consistent
132 Part II The Lessons and Practical Application
updates about organizational activities if they are to avoid making the
same mistakes as Enron. Third, organizations should be open to signs
of problems and address those problems as quickly as possible. Finally,
organizations should work to establish codes of ethics and make sure
that those values are driving everyday business operations and decisions.
Organizations that deviate from established values and codes are likely
to make decisions they will regret later.
EXAMPLE 6.6. FUKASHIMA DAIICHI: UNCERTAINTY
CREATED BY THREE INTERRELATED CRISIS EVENTS
The Fukushima Daiichi disaster on March 11, 2011, was among the most
significant nuclear accidents in recent history. The disaster was really three
events that interacted with each other. First came the Tohoku magnitude 9
earthquake that created a tsunami. The tsunami then resulted in an industrial
accident at the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), Fukushima
Nuclear Power Plant.
According to the International Nuclear Event Scale, the disaster was
a Level 7 event, the most severe. Equipment failures at the plant occurred
because generators, located in the basement, were flooded and failed.
Without electricity, pumps to circulate water to cool the reactor could not
be operated. This lead to a nuclear meltdown and ultimately to releases
of radioactive materials into the air and water. The disaster went on for
some time and it was not until December 16 that the plant was declared
stable. Several workers were seriously hurt and many were exposed to
high levels of radiation. Almost 18,500 people died from the devastation
of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. Only a few were immediately
hurt by the Fukushima
disaster but the broader
and long-term impact of
the radiation exposure is
unknown.
The greatest concern
of a radiological event is
the impact of public health
through exposure. Evacuations
and shelter in place
are the most typical ways
in which exposure can be
limited. A four-level evacuation
process was put in
Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster
SOURCE: © AFLO/Mainichi Newspaper/epa/Corbis.
Chapter 6 Applying the Lessons for Managing Crisis Uncertainty Effectively 133
place, but the Japanese government changed evacuation notices as the crisis
developed.
On the first day, 134,000 people were evacuated, and 4 days later an
additional 354,000 were evacuated. Information released by the Japanese
government was delayed and in some cases inaccurate. Some suggested that
the government and the plant’s owner, the Tokyo Electric Power Company,
sought to downplay the risks. The government’s final report on the disaster
found a number of problems with the way information was provided to the
public. Initially the government tried to downplay the disaster for fear of
creating panic and even disputed the use of the term “reactor meltdown”
by the media.
Most observers agree that the company operating the plant, TEPCO,
was not well prepared and was too slow in its response. The government
and TEPCO did not coordinate their communication, and the crisis communication
plans seemed inadequate and incomplete. There were few
appropriate guidelines for how to communicate with the public about
radiological events. Japan in general takes disasters very seriously because
the country is so prone to earthquakes. September 1 is designated Disaster
Preparedness day and is set aside for drills and exercises for organizations
and government agencies. For the first 10 days of the Fukushima Daiichi
event, little information was available, and then when the information
was provided about the level of radiation exposure, it was highly technical
and could not easily be understood by the public. Japanese scientists were
also reluctant to discuss the disaster for fear of creating yet more confusion
and uncertainty.
In addition, radiation exposure is generally very frightening to people
because it is both unseen and exotic. It can persist for a very long
time and come through the air, water, and food. Low levels of exposure
generally pose very limited risks while high levels of exposure for
extended periods of time can create a number of serious health problems
including birth defects and cancer. We are all exposed to radiation
every day. Cell phones, security scans, smoke detectors, microwaves,
and power lines all emit radiation. Most of us have had x-rays taken for
medical purposes. Despite the fact that we are all exposed to radiation,
most people become concerned, some would say unduly concerned,
about radiation.
The fear about radiation, the uncertainty about the levels of release, the
exposure, trauma, and destruction from the earthquake and tsunami created
a very challenging context for communication. The confusion about
who should provide information resulted in the public being denied access
to critical information.
134 Part II The Lessons and Practical Application
YOU MAKE THE CALL
The Fukushima Daiichi disaster is generally described as a complex
event because it involved natural disasters and an industrial accident.
It also created a great deal of uncertainty. What were some of the other
factors that made this event so uncertain? Can you think of other cases
where a crisis may involve the interactions of risks that create high uncertainty?
First, take a moment to refresh in your mind the lessons established
in Chapter 5 for managing crisis uncertainty. These lessons should
guide you in evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of Fukushima’s
crisis response.
Lesson 1: Organization members must accept that a crisis can start
quickly and unexpectedly.
? How did the Fukushima crisis create uncertainty through a
quick and unexpected start to the crisis?
Lesson 2: Organizations should not respond to crises with routine
solutions.
? Were there routine responses available for the Fukushima
disaster?
Lesson 3: Threat is perceptual.
? How did perceptions about the dangers of radiation contamination
impact this event?
Lesson 4: Crisis communicators must communicate early and often following
a crisis regardless of whether they have critical information
about the crisis.
? Did the TEPCO officials communicate early and often?
What were some of the factors influencing how quickly and
often they communicated?
Lesson 5: Organizations should not purposely heighten the ambiguity of
a crisis to deceive or distract the public.
? How did the complexity of this event impact the ambiguity
of the situation? What communication approaches
would be most helpful in a case such as the Fukushima
Lessons on Managing Crisis Uncertainty
Chapter 6 Applying the Lessons for Managing Crisis Uncertainty Effectively 135
SUMMARY
The complexity and unusual precipitating events for the start of the
crisis at Fukashima initiated great uncertainty during this crisis. The lack of
preparedness by the nuclear power plant followed by the high uncertainty
of the crisis led to several missteps by TEPCO, the company that managed
the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The lack of preparation and
ineffective communication skills for managing the uncertainty of the crisis
enraged the general public and the global audience. The response also created
industry-wide questions about the role of nuclear power and radiation
levels in our lives.
Daiichi disaster where there is high uncertainty and the
situation is changing?
Lesson 6: Be prepared to defend your interpretation of the evidence surrounding
a crisis.
? How should TEMPCO and Japanese officials have defended
their interpretations regarding safe levels of radiation exposure?
How should they have discussed their interpretations
of evacuations?
Lesson 7: Without good intentions prior to a crisis, recovery is difficult or
impossible.
? What is the perception of the nuclear power industry?
Have other events called the intentions of the industry
into question?
Lesson 8: If you believe you are not responsible for a crisis, you need to
build a case for who is responsible and why.
? Was there a need to build a case regarding responsibility
during this crisis?
Lesson 9: Organizations need to prepare for uncertainty through simulations
and training.
? How would you describe Japan’s level of preparedness for
this disaster?
Lesson 10: Crises challenge the way organizations think about and conduct
their business.
? Did the Fukushima Daiichi disaster change the way people
think about nuclear energy? If so, how?
136 Part II The Lessons and Practical Application
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138
Lessons on Effective
Crisis Leadership
7
The third content chapter in this section of our book explains
and describes effective leadership during crisis. Previously we
discussed lessons on producing effective crisis communication
along with managing uncertainty effectively. We believe
that the ability to manage a crisis is a critical leadership skill
and that, in the future, leaders will be called on more and
more to respond to the threat and opportunity of crises. Crisis leadership,
then, is a critical management skill. We begin this chapter by defining and
describing leadership and crisis leadership. We then focus on 10 strategies
particular to crisis leadership. The first set of lessons focuses on some of the
functions of leadership during crisis. For instance, leaders need to be visible
and engaged following a crisis; they need to develop strong, positive relationships
with stakeholders; their responses need to create opportunities
for transformation and renewal; and they should build cooperation following
a crisis. The next group of lessons provides some advice and guidance
for managing crises. Specifically, this section examines how poor leadership
can make a crisis much worse, how leadership styles are much different
during times of crisis, and how leaders have specific communication
obligations in responding to, managing, resolving, and learning from crisis.
THE IMPORTANCE OF EFFECTIVE LEADERSHIP
Most of us place a great deal of faith in our leaders. Whether they are
business leaders, political leaders, or leaders of religious or social groups,
leaders are important representatives of their groups, organizations, and
communities. We look to our leaders for direction, inspiration, motivation,
resources, and comfort. Leaders establish a clear vision, communicate
that vision with others, collect and distribute information and knowledge,
and coordinate the efforts of others. They represent the organization. They
select, train, coach, and mentor employees. Leaders reflect and strengthen
Chapter 7 Lessons on Effective Crisis Leadership 139
the organizational culture and serve as a model. Leaders give us clues about
how to behave, about what is right, and about what things mean. They promote
ethical conduct and serve as moral guides. Sometimes, we expect our
leaders to be almost superhuman in their abilities to solve problems and
create positive outcomes.
Many definitions of leadership exist, and these definitions have
changed over time as society has changed. Communication researcher
Peter Northouse (2012) identified four characteristics that most definitions
of leadership share. First, it is a process, suggesting it is ongoing and changing.
Second, leadership involves influence of follower behaviors and perceptions.
Leadership also occurs in groups, organizations, or community
contexts. Finally, leadership is directed toward goals. We define leadership
as a communication and influence process directed toward followers who
are members of a group, organization, or community to assist in achieving
some goal or outcome.
While leaders are always important to the success of organizations,
during crisis, they take on particularly critical roles. They help reduce the
turmoil of crises and reassert order and control, in part, by being visible
to employees, members of the community, and the media. They oversee
responses and help others understand and cope with what is happening.
During a crisis, the leader may become an emergency manager coordinating
response efforts, providing comfort and reassurance, disseminating
information, speaking to the media, and providing a vision for response,
recovery, and renewal. The goals in the case of a crisis are to contain and
limit harm, assist those who have been
harmed, move beyond the crisis in an
appropriate manner, and learn and grow
from the experience. We describe 10 lessons
of effective leadership during a crisis.
WHY VISIBILITY FOLLOWING A CRISIS IS IMPORTANT
As you read in the case on 9/11 in Chapter 6, one well-known example
of crisis leadership is the role played by New York City Mayor Rudolph
Giuliani during the World Trade Center attacks (Giuliani & Kurson, 2002).
Mayor Giuliani was a calm and steady presence during the chaos following
the attacks. He organized much of the response, spoke to the public several
times a day through the media, and came to represent the strong spirit of
New Yorkers. Giuliani offered comfort to those who lost friends or family,
and he was also comforting to those of us who were upset, angry, scared,
and confused by the crisis. His calm presence and direct manner were
LESSON 1
Effective leadership is critical to a crisis
response.
140 Part II The Lessons and Practical Application
reassuring to everyone affected by the attacks including the emergency
workers, police, firefighters, and volunteers working to recover victims.
And almost as soon as the dust had settled from the attacks, he made public
commitments to rebuild.
There are many other examples of successful crisis leaders. In one of
the most thoroughly studied examples of public relations and crisis management,
Johnson & Johnson CEO James Burke took decisive action that
helped save his company in 1982 after 13 people died from Tylenol capsules
laced with cyanide. Sales of Tylenol capsules, the company’s most profitable
product, were decimated by the product-tampering crisis. Moving fast to
save its product, the company withdrew all the Tylenol from stores. CEO
Burke then appeared on the Phil Donahue Show, the most popular television
talk show at that time, to explain that the company had nothing to do
with the poisoning. He also openly described detailed plans to ensure that
no such tampering could ever occur again. The company soon introduced
a redesigned, tamper-proof, triple-sealed package (Benson, 1988; Snyder &
Foster, 1983).
Tylenol sales rebounded, largely because of the credibility of Burke’s
remarks and the personal reassurance he offered. His direct and honest
communication to the public was widely recognized as an example of effective
crisis public relations. He built credibility and goodwill through his
appearance on the Phil Donahue Show, and this goodwill helped the company
survive.
These cases illustrate that leaders must be actively engaged during a
crisis. They should be visible and accessible to the media. They should be
responsive to the needs of victims. They should be actively engaged in the
response. This communication helps create the impression that the crisis is
being actively managed and reduces the impression that the company has
something to hide. In fact, it is often appropriate for the leader to serve as
the crisis spokesperson, although he or she should work with other members
of the crisis team and be trained in crisis communication.
One of the questions leaders must face during crises is how visible they
should be. Leaders sometimes feel the impulse to withdraw during crises,
particularly when they believe that they might be blamed. This tendency
to circle the wagons is understandable but can make the crisis much worse.
When leaders withdraw, they cut themselves off from important information
and increase the uncertainty. They may enhance the impression that
there is something to hide. Some leaders may also be hesitant to honestly
and openly discuss the circumstances of the crises for fear of making the
situation worse. However, the actions of leaders like Rudolph Giuliani and
James Burke illustrate that being open and honest are important leadership
Chapter 7 Lessons on Effective Crisis Leadership 141
behaviors during a crisis. Transparency and honesty also build trust, credibility,
and support.
The glare of the media spotlight during a crisis can be very stressful
for a leader who isn’t prepared or is inexperienced. One reason organizations
sometimes choose to circle the wagons is because they are afraid to
face the media. There are some strategies that can increase the chances of
communicating successfully with the media. First, recognize that you have
no choice but to face the media. A crisis is usually news, and the media will
cover the story with or without you. Second, if you are open, honest, and
courteous with reporters, then they will usually respond in similar ways.
Finally, always be sure to express concern for those harmed by the crisis.
This does not mean that you are accepting
responsibility or blame; it simply means
your organization is human, empathetic,
and caring.
DEVELOPING NETWORKS OF SUPPORT
In another famous case, Lee Iacocca was able to bring the Chrysler
Corporation back from bankruptcy through his effective crisis leadership.
In 1982, Chrysler was essentially broke. In a last-ditch effort, the company
brought in Iacocca as its new CEO. Iacocca moved quickly to build support
for loans from the federal government. He spoke to workers, banks,
and suppliers and was open, honest, and even blunt in his assessment of
the company’s situation. He also received help from state and local governments,
community groups, and political organizations. The network of
support he built helped the company secure government loans and make
one of the most spectacular crisis recoveries ever. Customers reported buying
Chryslers because they wanted to support Iacocca’s efforts to save the
company.
As with Burke in the Johnson & Johnson case, Iacocca was visible in
his efforts to build widespread support for the company. He was honest
and direct in explaining the situation Chrysler faced. He also described his
plans for saving the company and asked directly for the public’s support.
Although Chrysler had fallen on hard times, it had long-established relationships
with customers, communities, suppliers, unions, banks, and even
competitors. Chrysler had been a good corporate citizen, providing jobs
and supporting communities, and for many years, building solid products.
These relationships and the company’s long history of success represented
a kind of reservoir of goodwill and legitimacy that it used during the crisis.
This reservoir of goodwill, positive reputation, and credibility is often
LESSON 2
Leaders should be visible during a crisis.
142 Part II The Lessons and Practical Application
essential to surviving a crisis. Lee Iacocca was a very effective and natural
communicator, and his communication saved the company.
In another example, CEO of the Canadian company Maple Leafs
Foods, Michael McCain, managed a 2008 recall of it products linked to a
serious outbreak of food-borne illness. The outbreak was linked to 9 confirmed
and 11 suspected deaths. Rather than try to deny responsibility and
limit the recall, McCann actually voluntarily expanded the recall of 23 of its
products, to all 220 packaged meat products produced at the plant, where
the contamination occurred. McCain was highly visible holding several
press conferences. Company spokespersons did interviews, and the CEO
posted a public apology on its website.
In it he said, “To those people who have
become ill, and to the families who have
lost loved ones, I want to express my deepest
and most sincere sympathies. Words
cannot begin to express our sadness for
your pain” (McCain, 2008).
BEING AVAILABLE, OPEN, AND HONEST
These examples show that crisis leadership is a critical skill for many managers.
Leadership is important for managing and recovering from all kinds
of crises, including product tampering, near bankruptcy, and even terrorist
attacks. In all cases and in all organizational contexts, engaged, open, and
honest leadership is critical to successful crisis management.
James Lee Witt, former director of FEMA, explains however, that
crisis “communication is more than talking—it’s the honest and open
exchange of personal views” (Witt & Morgan, 2002, p. 49). Honesty and
openness can be difficult during a crisis if the organization has done
something wrong. As we described earlier, there is a natural tendency to
circle the wagons or batten down the hatches during a crisis. Where there
is a history of wrongdoing, the natural first impulse may be to hide the
wrongdoing. Company attorneys often advise leaders to say as little as
possible following a crisis. They typically argue that any statement about
the crisis can be used against the organization and may increase the organization’s
liability. In the case of Maple Leaf Foods, CEO Michael McCain
specifically noted that he ignored the
advice of both his lawyers and accountants
in deciding how to respond to the
crisis. Failure to be open and honest usually
compounds the crisis and makes the
LESSON 3
Leaders should work to develop a positive
company reputation during normal times to
build a reservoir of goodwill.
LESSON 4
Leaders should be open and honest following
a crisis.
Chapter 7 Lessons on Effective Crisis Leadership 143
media even more aggressive and the public more suspicious. Stakeholders
may also become angry if they think an organization is trying to shift
blame and avoid responsibility. In the long run, failure to be open, honest,
and forthcoming usually makes matters worse for a company.
THE IMPACT OF LEADERSHIP
ON RENEWAL FOLLOWING A CRISIS
The experiences of Chrysler, Johnson & Johnson, and Maple Leaf Foods
are examples of organizations that were able to recreate themselves, not just
surviving their crises but subsequently thriving and achieving even more
success. Chrysler went on to become one of the most profitable car companies
during the 1980s. Johnson & Johnson actually built market share after
the poisonings. Michael McCain was named CEO of the year, and his company
also added market share. These examples illustrates that when a crisis
is managed successfully and when managers are open and honest and draw
on a set of strong core values crises can actually serve as renewing forces.
Companies facing crisis are forced to reexamine basic goals and values.
Support regarding money, resources, and goodwill may come to an
organization following a crisis if it is managed successfully. A crisis can create
an opportunity to change fundamental operations and activities. Fires
or explosions, for example, provide opportunities to rebuild facilities and
acquire new, modern equipment. A crisis may create opportunities for a
company to be more visible. In some cases, customers choose to buy products
to help out a company facing a crisis. General Motors went through
a devastating bankruptcy in 2009 when it
was caught in a very significant economic
downturn. The company came out of
bankruptcy a much leaner, stronger, and
profitable company. The crisis created an
opportunity for renewal.
INEFFECTIVE LEADERSHIP DURING A CRISIS
While the cases of Michael McCain, James Burke, and Lee Iacocca are success
stories, there are many more cases of leaders failing to successfully
communicate and manage crises. In fact, leaders are often part of the crisis;
when this is true, their efforts may actually backfire and make things worse.
As we discussed in Chapter 5, when Exxon’s tanker Valdez ran into an
Alaskan reef in 1989, spilling 1.5 million gallons of crude oil, Exxon CEO
Lawrence Rawl’s response made the environmental damage much worse.
LESSON 5
Leaders who manage crises successfully may
create opportunities for renewal.
144 Part II The Lessons and Practical Application
He decided early on not to visit the scene of the spill, thereby indicating
to many observers that he thought the problem was insignificant. He
then sought to shift blame for the spill to the Valdez captain and blame
for cleanup failure to decisions made by the State of Alaska. At the very
time when cooperation was needed, Rawl became engaged in a public dispute
with Alaska’s Governor Cowper. The Exxon Valdez oil spill is generally
recognized as a public relations disaster, one compounded by Rawl’s
behavior.
In 2010, Tony Hayward, CEO of BP, during the Gulf Coast oil spill crisis
received much criticism for his crisis communication. Hayward’s ineffective
leadership communication started with a delayed response that
minimized the severity of the spill. He also made mistakes by stating that
“he wanted his life back” in a public interview about the crisis (Chen, 2010,
para. 5). Not only was the content of Hayward’s message ineffective but
so too was the form of his response. While the Gulf Coast fishermen and
residents suffered the effects of the oil spill, Hayward was photographed at a
glitzy yacht race in England. Ultimately, Hayward was criticized for his lack
of transparency, a lack of crisis planning, a delayed response that initially
minimized the scope of the crisis, and a lack of empathy to those impacted
by the crisis.
In another classic example of poor crisis leadership, Firestone CEO
John Lampe and Ford CEO Jack Nassar became involved in a public fight
over a series of accidents involving Ford Explorers equipped with Firestone
tires. Lampe blamed the Ford Explorer for a series of rollover accidents;
Nassar blamed Firestone tires (see Venette, Sellnow, & Lang, 2003). The
public brawl not only ended a 95-year relationship between the two companies,
but it also seriously damaged the reputations of both firms. As Ford
and Firestone exchanged charges and countercharges, the public was left
with the impression that both companies
were more interested in avoiding responsibility
than in solving the problem or protecting
consumers. Negative publicity was
prolonged for many months, and the public
squabble made it almost impossible to
find the real cause of the problem.
During the recent economic downturn that reached economic proportions
in 2008, many Wall Street executives failed to acknowledge the crisis
until it was too late, failed in their responsibilities to be visible and engaged,
and in many cases, failed to change their usual approaches to doing business.
The result was several bankruptcies and further damage to Wall
Street’s already very negative reputation.
LESSON 6
Leaders should cooperate with stakeholders
during a crisis and should work to build
consensus.
Chapter 7 Lessons on Effective Crisis Leadership 145
In another well-publicized crisis, the Catholic Church faced a series of
scandals beginning in 2001–2002 regarding accusation of sexual abuse on
the part of priests. In many cases, church leaders had covered up the abuse,
even when it was reported to them and even when the allegations involved
children. According to BostonGlobe.com, “Victims who came forward with
abuse claims were ignored or paid off, while accused priests were quietly
transferred from parish to parish or sent for brief periods of psychological
counseling” (“Spotlight investigation,” para. 2). In 2002, the United State
Conference of Catholic Bishops passed new rules and guidelines for dealing
with accusations of abuse. Critics pointed out, however, that many of these
bishops had at one point covered up accusations of abuse. The failure of
the Catholic Church to protect children and young people from abuse and
the long-term practice of cover-ups seriously damaged the reputation of the
church. Many victims sued, and many Catholics withheld their donations.
Leaders who deny that problems exist, who seek to cover up problems,
or who simply to try to minimize the crisis or shift the blame risk creating
more damage. If a problem is not fixed, it may become much worse.
If leaders do not act to take responsibility
and to actively manage crises, they
can create the impression that they do not
care about those who have been harmed
and are only concerned about profits and
avoiding blame.
WHAT MAKES AN EFFECTIVE CRISIS LEADER?
Leadership has been the object of study for thousands of years. Even the
ancient Egyptians were fascinated by leadership. The ancient Chinese military
leader Sun Tzu wrote about the qualities of a successful leader, as did
the medieval European writer Machiavelli. Modern researchers in management,
political science, sociology, psychology, and communication have
continued to study leadership using a variety of methods. This research
has developed over time as society has changed. A number of theories of
leadership have been developed to help explain leadership. Three general
approaches to crisis leadership are discussed here.
LEADERSHIP STYLES
Researchers have examined the ways leaders behave and how they
communicate (Northouse, 2012). They have found that all leaders do not
behave the same way and that there is a great deal of variance from leader
LESSON 7
Poor leadership, including denials, cover-ups,
or lack of response, can make a crisis much
worse.
146 Part II The Lessons and Practical Application
to leader. Various kinds of leader behavior and communication have been
classified as specific styles of leadership.
For example, some leaders are very directive in giving orders and issuing
instructions. They generally ask for little input from followers and make
decisions based largely on their own opinions and information. This is generally
described as an authoritarian leadership style. Authoritarian leaders
are much more directive in telling followers what to do and very specific
when describing how tasks should be done.
In other cases, leaders are more open to the ideas and suggestions of
others. They rarely make decisions without asking for input and suggestions.
These leaders are also less likely to be directive and are more likely to
offer suggestions or come up with more general goals for followers. This is
called a democratic leadership style.
A third form of leadership is called laissez faire or nonleadership style. In
this style, the leader exhibits few of the characteristics associated with leadership
and may be a leader in name only, generally allowing followers to do
whatever they want without direction or, in many cases, without supervision.
There is some evidence to suggest that during a crisis, authoritarian
leadership styles are more effective than other styles. Mayor Giuliani had
been criticized for his authoritarian approach before 9/11, but after the
attack, his style of leadership was seen as appropriate. People may want
more directive leadership to counteract the uncertainty and confusion associated
with a crisis situation. An authoritarian leader may create a stronger
impression of control; however, they may also risk alienating followers and
other stakeholders.
While the styles of leadership are useful in explaining what a leader
actually does, many particularly effective leaders do not act the same in
every context. This conclusion leads to another view of leadership: the contingency
approach.
CONTINGENCY APPROACH TO LEADERSHIP
Contingency leadership suggests that different leadership situations
require different kinds of leadership. For example, when the leader has good
relationships with followers, the situation may call for a different style of
leadership than in circumstances when the leader has poor follower relationships.
In some situations, a task may be
clearly structured with easily identifiable
steps to achieving a desired goal, while in
others, the situation is unclear and uncertain.
Again, the style of leadership in these
LESSON 8
Leaders must adapt their leadership styles and
contingencies during crises.
Chapter 7 Lessons on Effective Crisis Leadership 147
cases may be different. A third factor in contingency models of leadership is
the power of the leader. Often during a crisis, leaders are given extra authority
and power so they may quickly contain and limit the harm.
Crises are unique situations and require different leadership approaches.
As mentioned earlier, during a crisis, the situation is usually uncertain and
confusing. In some instances, authoritarian leadership may be seen as an
appropriate effort to take control, particularly when there are clear and simple
actions that must be undertaken quickly, such as evacuation. When the
situation is seen as an emergency, leaders often have more power to move
quickly and take action. In other situations, the leader may need to build
cooperation and support through more democratic styles. Getting input
and building consensus take time, so a democratic approach is more common
after the immediacy of the crisis is over. As described earlier, leaders
with positive reputations and high credibility are generally given more support
by followers during crisis situations.
TRANSFORMATIONAL LEADERSHIP
A third approach to understanding crisis leadership is called transformational
leadership. This approach to leadership was developed by
researchers studying political leaders and has expanded to many organizational
contexts. James MacGregor Burns (1978) described transformational
leadership as both leaders and followers coming to agree on a shared vision
and goals. By creating agreement on core values, priorities, and what should
be done, leaders can motivate their followers to achieve extraordinary outcomes.
The success of transformational leadership is associated with the
communication skill of the leader and the importance of the shared goals.
Earlier, we described leadership as a transformational situation when
we discussed renewal. Crises can create great changes, and although most
people see them as negative, these changes can also create very positive
transformations. In 1999, an explosion and fire in the massive Ford Rouge
River plant near Detroit killed one worker and injured 30 others. While
the accident could have resulted in major criticism of the company and
questions about safety, William Clay Ford Jr., Ford Motor’s chairman and
the great-grandson of the founder, came to the plant less than 2 hours
after the explosion. Even while firefighters were still trying to control the
flames, Ford expressed his deep condolences and concerns for the workers,
whom he described as members of his Ford family. Later, he went to
the hospital to meet with those who had been injured, express his concerns,
and offer his help. While the crisis could have been a public relations
disaster, Ford’s leadership was transformational by demonstrating
148 Part II The Lessons and Practical Application
that the most important value was the safety of workers and that the priority
was taking care of the victims.
We believe most crises create opportunities for transformational leadership.
Sometimes, this is due to a silver lining that is created by a crisis. In
other cases, an entire organization can be recreated and renewed by a crisis.
Renewal usually happens because a leader has stepped forward and communicated
a clear set of values, a sense of common purpose, and a way forward.
LEADERSHIP VIRTUES
Another general approach to understanding leadership comes from the concept
of virtues. Virtues can be understood as a predisposition to act in a positive
or ethical way. A person who has the virtues of honesty and responsibility,
for example, is a person who tends to act in an honest and responsible manner.
This virtue ethics approach has been used since the time of Aristotle to
study and teach people about moral and ethical behavior.
Virtues have also been applied to leadership and crisis leadership
(Seeger & Ulmer, 2001). Returning to an earlier example, Aaron Feuerstein
was the CEO of the textile company Malden Mills when it experienced a
devastating fire. While the fire still burned, he made a public commitment
to continue to pay his workers and rebuild the plant. This response was
very consistent with earlier decisions Feuerstein had made and helped him
generate the support necessary to rebuild his company. When asked why
he had decided to rebuild, Feuerstein noted that it was the right thing to do
(see Ulmer, 2001). The examples of William Ford Jr. and Michael McCain
discussed earlier are other examples of a corporate leader acting in virtuous
ways following a crisis.
Many effective responses to crisis are based on a personal set of values
and a commitment to do the right thing. Crises are highly uncertain and
stressful events, and during these kinds of circumstances, leaders can fall
back on values, ethics, and virtues to determine how to respond. A virtuous
response to a crisis is likely to generate support from stakeholders and is
much more defensible than a response based in the need to avoid lawsuits
or protect profits. A virtuous response to a crisis may enhance an organization’s
reputation and help a company renew itself.
MANAGING UNCERTAINTY, RESPONDING,
RESOLVING, AND LEARNING FROM CRISIS
In Chapter 1, four consistent communication demands of crisis were described:
managing uncertainty, responding to the crisis, resolving it, and learning from
it. Each of these demands requires leaders to act and communicate effectively.
Chapter 7 Lessons on Effective Crisis Leadership 149
Managing uncertainty, for example, requires a consistent voice, usually in the
form of a crisis spokesperson, and necessitates creating and maintaining open
channels of communication and information flow. As mentioned earlier, we
look to leaders to actively manage a crisis, and followers expect the leader to
be visible during a crisis. One of the critical behaviors of the crisis leader is to
serve as a spokesperson.
Speaking as a representative of the organization to aggressive and
demanding media while the uncertainty of a crisis still prevails is not easy.
Many leaders are not well prepared to serve as spokespersons. Many CEOs
will undergo media training before a crisis. This training usually focuses on
responding to intense media questioning, understanding the needs of the
media during a crisis, and strategies for how to respond to questions effectively
even when all the facts aren’t known and where questions of responsibility
and liability may be raised. Training will often put leaders in mock
press conferences or staged interviews where reporters ask tough questions.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has conducted extensive
interviews with community leaders who have managed crises. They recommend
following the six principles of STARCC: (1) Simple messages
are important during a crisis when people may have difficulty processing
information. (2) Timely messages are critical during a crisis. (3) Accuracy
requires straightforward direct messages. (4) Relevant messages address the
most immediate concerns. (5) Credibility builds trust that is essential to
effective crisis communication. Finally, (6) consistency is the hallmark of
effective crisis communication. Additional guidelines for a crisis spokesperson
are presented below.
SUGGESTIONS FOR THE LEADER AS SPOKESPERSON
? Don’t let the media push you into saying things that you do not want
to say, but don’t become angry with the media.
? Express concern for anyone harmed by the crisis.
? Avoid the phrase “no comment.”
? If you don’t have the answer to a question, say so, but indicate that
you are working to find the answer.
? Don’t speak with certainty unless you are absolutely sure of all the
facts.
? Be sure to point out the uncertainty of situations with phrases such
as, “The situation is evolving” or “We don’t have all the facts yet.”
? Don’t hesitate to involve others on the crisis team when you don’t
know the answer.
150 Part II The Lessons and Practical Application
As described earlier, many leaders withdraw and limit external contact
during a crisis situation. Sometimes managers may believe they should
circle the wagons or batten down the hatches during crises. But one of the
principal features of managing uncertainty is to facilitate the flow of information.
Crisis leaders should reach out to a variety of groups and agencies
during a crisis. Often, this simply means making phone calls, asking for
help, giving an update, or offering to coordinate. At times, this outreach
means identifying liaisons or creating coordinating groups so that everyone
has access to information. What is most important is that the leader remains
open to information and is willing to share information with others.
Maintaining openness can also assist with the second consistent communication
requirement: responding to the crisis. Part of responding to a
crisis is building coalitions of support through leader openness and accessibility.
In addition, crisis leaders need to be honest and forthright in their
discussion of the crisis. Lawrence Rawl, CEO of Exxon, initially tried to deny
the harm caused by the Valdez oil spill and blame others for the spill. This
only served to reduce the company’s credibility and prolong the damage. The
effort to shift the blame to others created additional harm and resentment.
As described earlier, one way to generate support for a crisis is to use a virtuous,
value-based response reflecting values that most stakeholders admire.
For example, a response that is focused primarily on helping those who have
been harmed by a crisis is likely to generate more support than those responses
designed to shift or avoid blame. In the case of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina,
which is discussed in more depth in the next chapter, much of the communication
by public officials was directed toward shifting blame among FEMA,
the State of Louisiana, and the City of New Orleans. The needs of the victims
were secondary. A virtuous response by
leaders grounded more fully in the values of
helping those who had lost their homes and
livelihoods may have been more effective.
In addition, a virtuous response may have
helped generate more support and cooperation
for rebuilding and renewal.
Resolving the crisis, the third consistent communication demand, usually
requires specific actions to offset the harm. Action may need to be taken
to limit the injury to consumers, employees, or members of the community.
Leaders may need to apologize publicly. During and after a crisis, leaders
have specific obligations and duties to others. These may include victims,
employees, stockholders, regulatory agencies, members of the community,
and other crisis stakeholders. In general, crisis resolution may also
require that there be an agreed-upon explanation of what caused the crisis.
LESSON 9
A virtuous response to a crisis by the
organization’s leaders may be the most
effective in generating support and renewal.
Chapter 7 Lessons on Effective Crisis Leadership 151
Determination of blame and responsibility
usually impacts insurance settlements
and legal liability. Sometimes, renewal and
rebuilding are postponed until questions
of blame are resolved. If the leader is associated
with the cause, he or she may also be
held responsible for the crisis. It is not uncommon for leaders to step down
from their positions following crises.
A final crisis communication demand is to learn from the crisis.
Unfortunately, many organizations fail to learn from the crises they experience
and repeat the same mistakes again and again. After a crisis has been
resolved, leaders have the important responsibility of interpreting the lessons
of the crisis and communicating them throughout the organization. For
leaders such as Lee Iacocca, Rudolph Giuliani, and Aaron Feuerstein, crises
are life-changing experiences that include fundamental lessons about how
to manage and lead, how to avoid risk, how to respond to crisis, and what is
most important. By communicating the lessons, leaders enhance safety and
prevention, increase an organization’s vigilance, and demonstrate its values.
SUMMARY
Even during the best of times and the most normal of circumstances, leadership
is a demanding and complex process. During the stress, uncertainty,
and harm the demands, obligations, and duties of leadership are even more
complex. This chapter explains that effective crisis leadership can create
opportunities for renewal. Conversely, ineffective leadership can cause a
crisis or make a crisis much worse. Crisis leadership can be understood by
studying approaches or styles or by examining crisis situations as contingencies
of leadership. In addition, crisis leadership may be understood as a set
of specific activities. Regardless of how crisis leadership is approached, leaders
should be visible, open, and honest. They should cooperate with others,
work to build a reservoir of goodwill, and explore opportunities for renewal.
LESSON 10
Leaders have specific communication
obligations and duties for managing and
learning from crises.
Lesson 1: Effective leadership is critical to overcoming a crisis.
Lesson 2: Leaders should be visible during a crisis.
Lessons on Effective Crisis Leadership
(Continued)
152 Part II The Lessons and Practical Application
Lesson 3: Leaders should work to develop a positive company reputation
during normal times to build a reservoir of goodwill.
Lesson 4: Leaders should be open and honest following a crisis.
Lesson 5: Leaders who manage crises successfully may create opportunities
for renewal.
Lesson 6: Leaders should cooperate with stakeholders during a crisis and
should work to build consensus.
Lesson 7: Poor leadership, including denials, cover-ups, or lack of
response, can make a crisis much worse.
Lesson 8: Leaders must adapt their leadership styles and contingencies
during crises.
Lesson 9: A virtuous response to a crisis by the organization’s leaders
may be the most effective in generating support and renewal.
Lesson 10: Leaders have specific communication obligations for managing
and learning from crises.
REFERENCES
Benson, J. A. (1988). Crisis revisited: An analysis of strategies used by Tylenol in the
second tampering episode. Central States Speech Journal, 39, 49–66.
Burns, J. M. (1978). Leadership. New York, NY: Harper & Row.
Chen, S. (2010). Crisis management 101: What can BP CEO Hayward’s mistakes
teach us? CNN.com. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2010/
LIVING/07/27/bp.tony.hayward.mistakes/index.html
Giuliani, R. W., & Kurson, K. (2002). Leadership (1st ed.). New York, NY: Hyperion.
McCain, M. (2008). Maple Leaf CEO Michael H. McCain responds to determination
of link to plant. Retrieved from http://investor.mapleleaf.ca/phoenix.
zhtml?c=88490&p=irol-newsArticle&ID=1189861&highlight=
Northouse, P. (2012). Leadership: Theory and practice (6th ed.). Thousand Oaks,
CA: Sage.
Seeger, M. W., & Ulmer, R. R. (2001). Virtuous responses to organizational crisis:
Aaron Feuerstein and Milt Cole. Journal of Business Ethics, 31, 369–376.
Snyder, L., & Foster, L. G. (1983). An anniversary review and critique: The Tylenol
crisis. Public Relations Review, 9, 24–34.
Spotlight investigation: Abuse in the Catholic Church. (n.d.). BostonGlobe.com.
Retrieved from http://www.boston.com/globe/spotlight/abuse/scandal
(Continued)
Chapter 7 Lessons on Effective Crisis Leadership 153
Ulmer, R. R. (2001). Effective crisis management through established stakeholder
relationships: Malden Mills as a case study. Management Communication
Quarterly, 14, 590–615.
Venette, S. J., Sellnow, T. L., & Lang, P. A. (2003). Metanarration’s role in restructuring
perceptions of crisis: NHTSA’s failure in the Ford-Firestone crisis. Journal
of Business Communication, 40, 219–236.
Witt, J. L., & Morgan, G. (2002). Stronger in broken places: Nine lessons for turning
crisis into triumph. New York, NY: Times Books.
154
Applying the Lessons for
Developing Effective Crisis
Leadership
8
Effective leadership is critical to producing effective crisis communication.
The previous chapter outlined the key crisis communication
functions of an effective leader. What follows are
five cases that examine in depth the role of leadership in crisis
communication. This chapter begins with a case of the Peanut
Butter Corporation’s response to its devastating salmonella outbreak in
2008 and 2009. The second case examines a fire at a lumber mill and the
owner’s virtuous leadership response to the crisis. The third case describes
a food-borne illness outbreak at a frozen food company and how a guiding
vision by the owner set effective crisis communication in motion. The
fourth case presents Cantor Fitzgerald, a NYC bond trading company and
its leader’s response to 9/11. The fifth case explains the myriad leadership
failures during Hurricane Katrina. In this case, the reader is able to apply
the lessons to a case of ineffective and maladaptive leadership practices.
Finally, this chapter presents an examination of how General Motors’ leadership
responded during the 2008 financial crisis. Good luck with working
through these cases while developing your crisis communication skills and
experience at the same time.
EXAMPLE 8.1. THE SWEEPING IMPACT
OF A CONTAMINATED FOOD INGREDIENT:
PEANUT CORPORATION OF AMERICA
The first set of tests returned to plant managers of Peanut Corporation of
America (PCA) indicated that the peanut product was contaminated with
salmonella. Rather than discarding the tainted product, PCA sent additional
samples to another testing facility. When the second set of tests failed
to detect salmonella, PCA officials made the decision to ship the tainted
product to various food makers where it was used in 2008 as an ingredient
Chapter 8 Applying the Lessons for Effective Crisis Leadership 155
in other products. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
in the United States explains that salmonella is a form of bacteria that is
transferred to humans when food items are contaminated with animal
feces. Those who ingest salmonella can develop salmonellosis, leading to
“diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps” (CDC, 2009, para. 1). After experiencing
extreme discomfort for 4 to 7 days, most victims of salmonellosis
fully recover. The condition can be fatal, however, in the very young and
the very old. Salmonellosis is also life-threatening to people with some preexisting
health conditions. Investigations conducted later revealed that the
retesting and eventual shipment of products initially identified as contaminated
was done repeatedly at the PCA plant (Millner, 2011).
PCA was a major producer of peanut meal, peanut butter, and peanut
paste for use as ingredients in a wide variety of products. When the contaminated
ingredients left the PCA processing plant, the managers knew it
would be an ingredient in such food items as “brownies, cakes, pies, many
types of candy, cereals, cookies, crackers, donuts, dressings and seasonings,
prepared fruit and vegetable precuts, ice creams, peanut butter and products,
pet foods, prepackaged meals, snack bars, snack mixes, and toppings”
(Wittenberger & Dohlman, 2010, p. 4). With such a diversity of products
and companies receiving the contaminated product, it was only a matter of
time before a major crisis would erupt.
In September of 2008, the CDC identified a pattern of salmonellosis
cases in a dozen states. Further investigations revealed the peanut ingredients
shipped earlier by PCA were the source of the outbreak. In December
of 2008, the first death caused by the outbreak occurred. By this point,
the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was engaged in a widespread
investigation of PCA trying to determine the full reach of the contaminated
ingredients. In January of 2009, PCA recalled all products shipped from its
plant beginning in the summer of 2008.
PERVASIVENESS OF THE PRODUCT
Unlike many recalls, the PCA salmonella crisis was not limited to a
single product. If the company had only produced an end user product such
as peanut butter purchased directly by consumers, the focus of the recall
could have been limited to that product. Instead, PCA produced an ingredient
that was purchased by a host of companies and included in hundreds of
different products purchased by consumers. By the end of February 2009,
over 1,550 assorted peanut products were “removed from store shelves,”
and the CDC reported that over 500 people across 43 states had contracted
salmonellosis, eight of whom had died (Hartman & Barrett, 2009). In its
156 Part II The Lessons and Practical Application
final update on the crisis, the CDC (2010) reported a total of 714 confirmed
cases of salmonellosis in 46 states. The communication challenges associated
with the crisis expanded and intensified with the discovery of every
new contaminated product (Millner & Sellnow, 2013, p. 264).
PCA’S CRISIS RESPONSE
Aside from announcing the recall, PCA remained largely silent through
the crisis, offering no “instructing information, apology, remorse, or even
an explanation” (Millner, Veil, & Sellnow, 2011). Instructing information is
helpful during a food-borne crisis such as this because without a clear explanation
of which products are safe the consumers lack the information needed
to protect themselves (Sellnow, Sellnow, Lane, & Littlefield, 2012). Hallman
and Cuite (2009) explain that when consumers “cannot successfully distinguish
affected from unaffected products, they are likely to either underreact
by assuming that they do not own any of the recalled products or overreact
by discarding or avoiding the purchase of anything that resembles it” (p. 4).
PCA’s reticence contributed to two problems as the recall expanded. First, the
ingredient was used in so many products that consumers had a difficult time
comprehending the full extent of the recall. Second, many consumers incorrectly
assumed that peanut butter sold under such names as Jif or Peter Pan
were contaminated with salmonella. In response, the FDA launched a website
that listed all contaminated products. For efficiency, the site was designed so
that consumers could also enter
the name of a product in a search
box on the webpage to see if it
was listed. The FDA updated the
website regularly, and the CDC
frequently issued reports on the
outbreak, including instructions
for identifying and responding to
the symptoms of salmonellosis.
This process continued for both
the FDA and CDC until the CDC
announced that it was issuing its
final report about the outbreak in
May of 2010. Organizational leaders
responsible for products such
as Jif and Peter Pan peanut butter
“began costly ad campaigns
to reassure the public” (Phillips,
Representative Greg Walden, right,
holds up a container of food items
recalled due to the salmonella
outbreak associated with peanut
products manufactured by the Peanut
Corporation of America
SOURCE: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite.
Chapter 8 Applying the Lessons for Effective Crisis Leadership 157
2009) alerting the public that their products were not associated with PCA in
any way and were never part of the recall.
PCA’s silence continued as the investigation into the contamination
deepened. Notably, during a February 2009 congressional hearing, PCA’s
owner and the plant manager both refused to testify, pleading the Fifth
Amendment (CNN, 2009). The CDC, FDA, and some industry leaders such
as Jif and Peter Pan communicated admirably in the absence of information
from PCA. Millner, Veil, and Sellnow (2011) label such third party sources
of critical information during crises proxy communicators. Although proxy
communicators can effectively fill the void created when an organization
in crisis chooses to remain mute, this substitution is not without problems.
For example, proxy communicators such as CDC and FDA lacked immediate
access to critical information about where products were shipped and
when. Thus, as third parties involved in the crisis, proxy communicators face
inherent delays that can allow the crisis to intensify (Millner, Veil, & Sellnow,
2011). As for the PCA owner and plant managers involved in shipping the
tainted product, all pleaded not guilty and their trials were still underway
when this book went into production. As you contemplate the questions that
follow, consider the extent to which the proxy communicators were eventually
able to satisfy the informational needs of consumers during the crisis.
YOU MAKE THE CALL
After examining this case, it is time to determine whether PCA or the
proxy communicators communicated effectively with consumers. First, take
a moment to refresh in your mind the lessons established in Chapter 7 for
effective leadership during crises. These lessons should guide you in evaluating
the strengths, weaknesses, and challenges in the leadership response
by PCA and the proxy communicators.
Lesson 1: Effective leadership is critical to overcoming a crisis.
? Was the PCA or proxy communicators leadership useful
during the crisis?
Lesson 2: Leaders should be visible during a crisis.
? Was the PCA or proxy communicators visible during the crisis?
Lessons on Developing Effective Leadership
(Continued)
158 Part II The Lessons and Practical Application
Lesson 3: Leaders should work to develop a positive company reputation
during normal times to build a reservoir of goodwill.
? Had the PCA worked to develop strong positive stakeholder
relationships before the crisis?
Lesson 4: Leaders should be open and honest following a crisis.
? Was the PCA open and honest in its crisis response?
Lesson 5: Leaders who manage crises successfully may create opportunities
for renewal.
? Did the PCA create opportunities for renewal following its
crisis?
Lesson 6: Leaders should cooperate with stakeholders during a crisis and
should work to build consensus.
? Did the PCA cooperate with stakeholders following the
crisis?
Lesson 7: Poor leadership, including denials, cover-ups, or lack of
response, can make a crisis much worse.
? Did the PCA’s leadership make the crisis better or worse?
Lesson 8: Leaders must adapt their leadership styles and contingencies
during crises.
? Did the PCA adapt its leadership style during the crisis?
Lesson 9: A virtuous response to a crisis by the organization’s leaders
may be the most effective in generating support and renewal.
? Would you describe the PCA’s leadership as virtuous?
Lesson 10: Leaders have specific communication obligations for managing
and learning from crises.
? How did the PCA manage the communication obligations
following the crisis? Do you believe any learning took place?
(Continued)
SUMMARY
The PCA case offers valuable lessons for responding to food-borne
illness crises. First, failure to communicate following a crisis has serious
implications for the health and wellness of your customers and the industry
in which you operate. Second, when an organization fails to communicate
it puts pressure on proxy communicators to fill that void. These proxy communicators
are at a serious disadvantage when responding to crises because
Chapter 8 Applying the Lessons for Effective Crisis Leadership 159
they do not have direct access to information or the facts surrounding the
crisis. Organizations would be wise to study the PCA case and consider the
implications of silence as a strategy in crisis communication.
EXAMPLE 8.2. A FIRE AT COLE HARDWOOD
On Saturday, June 13, 1998, Cole Hardwood, a lumber mill in
Logansport, Indiana, that processes green lumber from several regional
lumber mills, burned. The fire, described as the largest in Indiana history,
burned for over 6 days, putting 110 employees out of work. The
fire destroyed roughly 140,000 square feet of inventory, equipment, and
warehousing capacity. Milt Cole, the CEO and owner of Cole Hardwood,
was well known in the community for supporting his workers and the
community. What follows are some key characteristics of sole owner
Milt Cole’s leadership style and character.
CRISIS PLANNING AND PREPARATION
Milt Cole described himself as a simple man who has been blessed with
success and friendship. He mentioned that employees are key to his business:
“I have lots of confidence in people, people make the company. [Our
key to success is to] keep people informed and have good communications”
(Seeger & Ulmer, 2002, p. 133). Mr. Cole took the relationships that he
developed over time with his workers and the community very seriously.
Milt Cole (personal communication, June 9, 1999) explained that the
lumber industry is largely built on personal trust and credibility rather
than on contractual obligations.
Personal loyalty and commitment,
interpersonal trust, and
credibility represented Milt
Cole’s core business values. “I
believe in taking care of people,”
he said. “I have a profit-sharing
plan and employees have never
missed a year. They made the
company; I can’t do it myself”
(M. Cole, personal communication,
June 9, 1999). Beyond the
respect and responsibility Cole
had for his workers, he believed
in the community as well.
Milt Cole at his lumber mill in
Logansport, IN
SOURCE: Photo Courtesy of Cole Hardwood.
160 Part II The Lessons and Practical Application
Milt Cole was an active community leader and philanthropist. He
donated several scholarships to local colleges and chaired the local United
Way fundraising campaign.
Milt Cole’s leadership characteristics were obviously well established
before the crisis. What follows is a description of his leadership communication
following one of the most devastating experiences for his organization.
LEADING INSTINCTIVELY AFTER A DISASTER
Because of the fire, the company’s entire stock of green and processed
lumber was lost. The good news was that no one was injured; however, the
main offices, along with a small retail outlet, were destroyed. In the wake
of the severe damage to the buildings, equipment, and inventory, many of
the workers were concerned about their jobs. Milt Cole took several communication
actions following the crisis.
Watching the fires, Mr. Cole reported, “I felt gutted. That night I slept
like a baby and the next day we started planning to rebuild, even before the
fire was out” (Seeger & Ulmer, 2002, p. 135). It appeared as though Milt
Cole knew immediately how he was going to respond to the crisis. At about
8:00 a.m. on Monday morning, while firefighters from 31 counties fought
the blaze, Milt Cole announced in front of an assembly of his employees
that he would pay salaries and benefits while they were unemployed and
while the lumber mill was being rebuilt. “I knew it was the right thing to
do,” he reported (Seeger & Ulmer, 2002, p. 132).
The rebuilding effort began immediately, and the workers were split
into two shifts to accommodate the lack of equipment. Over a year after the
fire, Cole Hardwood was making record profits and was continuing to grow
(Seeger & Ulmer, 2002). Mr. Cole was able to mobilize his workforce quickly
following the crisis. Once he had assembled the workers, he explained how
they were going to proceed: “We never looked back. . . . There was no consideration
of not rebuilding” (Seeger & Ulmer, 2001, p. 373).
Over the next year, Cole Hardwood rebuilt their lumber mill. The previous
mill had been hampered by a lack of warehouse space and equipment.
One consequence of Cole’s response to the crisis was the opportunity
to reconstruct the business in a more efficient manner, allowing for more
profitability on less volume. Milt Cole capitalized on his years of experience
with the old mill and made changes accordingly. The fire allowed Cole to
update his mill with state-of-the-art equipment.
When asked about the plant fire after the lumber mill was rebuilt, Milt
Cole explained that he experienced “the highest highs and lowest lows but I’ve
never been prouder of anything in my life” (Seeger & Ulmer, 2001, p. 373).
Chapter 8 Applying the Lessons for Effective Crisis Leadership 161
YOU MAKE THE CALL
After examining this case, it is time to determine whether Milt Cole
exhibited the leadership qualities identified in Chapter 7. First, take a
moment to refresh in your mind these leadership lessons. Second, note that
these lessons serve as touchstones and discussion points for what we believe
are key aspects of any approach to crisis leadership. As you answer the questions
that follow, consider whether Milt Cole was effective or ineffective in
his crisis leadership. We rephrased the lessons into question format so that
you are better able to address the key issues in the case.
Lesson 1: Effective leadership is critical to overcoming a crisis.
? In what ways was Milt Cole’s leadership critical to overcoming
the crisis?
Lesson 2: Leaders should be visible during a crisis.
? In what ways was Milt Cole visible following the fire?
Lesson 3: Leaders should work to develop a positive company reputation
during normal times to build a reservoir of goodwill.
? How did Milt Cole work to develop a positive reputation for
his company before the fire?
Lesson 4: Leaders should be open and honest following a crisis.
? In what ways was Milt Cole open and honest following the
crisis?
Lesson 5: Leaders who manage crises successfully may create opportunities
for renewal.
? How did Milt Cole create opportunities for renewal following
the fire?
Lesson 6: Leaders should cooperate with stakeholders during a crisis and
should work to build consensus.
? Did Milt Cole cooperate with stakeholders following the
fire?
Lessons on Developing Effective Leadership
(Continued)
162 Part II The Lessons and Practical Application
SUMMARY
Milt Cole displayed outstanding leadership following the 1998 fire at
his lumber mill. It is no surprise that, following the fire, Mr. Cole displayed
the character and integrity that his stakeholders had been accustomed to
before the event. Milt Cole communicated consistently and early following
the crisis and made himself available to his stakeholders. These characteristics
and actions created a reservoir of goodwill and support for Cole
Hardwood following the crisis. In addition, Milt Cole’s leadership enabled
the company to move beyond the plant fire. The focus following the crisis
was not on blame and responsibility but rather on the opportunity for the
company to renew, prosper, and grow.
EXAMPLE 8.3. THE LARGEST
FOOD-BORNE ILLNESS OUTBREAK
IN HISTORY: SCHWAN’S SALES ENTERPRISES
In September 1994, a tanker truck owned and operated by Cliff Viessman,
Incorporated, returned to the company’s Minnesota facility after hauling
a load of raw eggs which, unknown to Viessman employees, were infected
with salmonella bacteria. The truck was parked and scrubbed internally by
Lesson 7: Poor leadership, including denials, cover-ups, or lack of
response, can make a crisis much worse.
? Did Milt Cole’s leadership make the crisis better or worse?
Lesson 8: Leaders must adapt their leadership styles and contingencies
during crises.
? Did Milt Cole adapt his leadership style to the nature of
the crisis?
Lesson 9: A virtuous response to a crisis by the organization’s leaders
may be the most effective in generating support and renewal.
? In what ways was Milt Cole’s communication virtuous?
Lesson 10: Leaders have specific communication obligations for managing
and learning from crises.
? How did Milt Cole manage the communication obligations
following the fire? Did learning take place?
(Continued)
Chapter 8 Applying the Lessons for Effective Crisis Leadership 163
high-pressure washers. The washing, however, did not completely eliminate
the bacteria, and as the contaminated truck sat idle, waiting for its next
load, the bacteria multiplied. Unfortunately, for Schwan’s Sales Enterprises
(Schwan’s), the contaminated truck’s next assignment was to haul ice cream
mix to the Schwan’s plant in Marshall, Minnesota. The ice cream mix was
severely contaminated by the time it was delivered to Schwan’s. In turn, the
mix contaminated every part of the Schwan’s ice cream processing system
that it touched.
Egg-associated salmonella infections are a serious health problem.
The CDC explains that persons infected with salmonella experience “fever,
abdominal cramps, and diarrhea beginning 12 to 72 hours after consuming
a contaminated food or beverage” (Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention, 2010). The illness typically lasts 4 to 7 days. Antibiotic treatment
is sometimes prescribed and, in some cases, “the diarrhea can be severe,
and the person may be ill enough to require hospitalization” (Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention, 2009). Like other food-borne illnesses,
salmonella bacteria are most dangerous for the very young and the very
old. The bacteria can be killed by thoroughly cooking
or pasteurizing infected eggs. The eggs in the
Viessman truck were raw and unpasteurized.
In 1994, Schwan’s was a private company
believed to be earning between $1.2 billion and
$1.5 billion annually. Schwan’s products were, and
still are, shipped throughout the United States.
As has been the case since the company began
in 1952, Schwan’s ice cream and other frozen
foods are sold door-to-door by drivers in yellow,
refrigerated trucks. Some of Schwan’s products
are also distributed to grocery stores throughout
the country. Schwan’s drivers tend to establish
friendly relationships with their customers,
because the drivers deliver products several times
per month.
The popularity and broad distribution of
Schwan’s products meant that, in a short time,
a wide network of customers had purchased
infected ice cream. The subsequent outbreak was
enormous. At least 224,000 people in 35 states
became ill, making the Schwan’s crisis the largest
food-borne illness outbreak in history (“Ice cream
poisoning,” 1996).
In the middle lane,
Schwan’s trucks
are on their way to
supply frozen food
throughout the
nation
SOURCE: Photo
Courtesy of the Schwan
Food Company.
164 Part II The Lessons and Practical Application
A GUIDING PHILOSOPHY
From Schwan’s perspective, the crisis began on October 7, 1994. An
epidemiologist from the Minnesota Department of Health contacted
Schwan’s, telling them that there was a “very, very big statistical relationship”
between Schwan’s ice cream and a widespread salmonella outbreak
(Sievers & Yost, 1994, p. 1). Once this information was received, the company
leaders met immediately to discuss their strategy. Schwan’s had a
crisis management plan in place, but the guiding philosophy for the company
came from a statement made by company president Alfred Schwan.
Schwan’s manager of public affairs recalled that Schwan asked simply, “If
you were a Schwan’s customer, what would you expect the company to do?”
(D. Jennings, personal communication, January 29, 1996). Jennings went
on to say that this statement by Schwan’s leader inspired the company to
make the “right choices” throughout the crisis.
SCHWAN’S CRISIS RESPONSE
Schwan’s did not hesitate to respond to the mounting evidence. Even
before the final tests were processed, the company publicly announced that
it was recalling the suspected ice cream. In the announcement, Schwan
said, “The well-being of our customers is our very first priority at Schwan’s,
which is why we are willingly withdrawing our ice cream products from
distribution and cooperating fully with government agencies” (Sievers &
Yost, 1994, p. 1). Schwan’s crisis response included apologies and refunds
delivered by drivers, a consumer hotline, and compensation for medical
treatment.
Schwan’s had an advantage over most distributors in that the company’s
drivers had face-to-face contact with customers. Drivers apologized to customers,
collected the recalled ice cream, and refunded them for the cost.
Because the drivers had delivered the product, they were able to identify
and contact a majority of the people who had purchased the tainted ice
cream. Most food processing companies have no idea, beyond delivery to a
grocery store or restaurant, who has purchased their products.
Schwan’s managed the expansive nature of the outbreak by establishing
a customer hotline. The company spared no expense with its hotline.
Rather than using prerecorded messages, calls were answered in person.
Jennings recalled that the hotline received “15,000 [calls] a day at its peak”
(D. Jennings, personal communication, November 19, 1996). The hotline
gave customers another means of speaking directly with the company to get
answers to their questions.
Chapter 8 Applying the Lessons for Effective Crisis Leadership 165
A third strategy in Schwan’s crisis response was to compensate customers
for any medical expenses they may have incurred due to eating the infected
ice cream. The company mailed a letter to customers offering to pay for diagnostic
medical exams. The crucial paragraph in the letter reads,
If you believe you may have persisting symptoms of salmonella
and have eaten any of our ice cream products mentioned, we
want to encourage you to see your physician and get the tests necessary
to confirm it one way or the other and get the treatment
you need. The information on the reverse side of this letter will
explain what the symptoms might include and how to go about
getting the test. We will pay for the test. (D. Jennings, personal
communication, October 14, 1996)
The letter clearly indicated that Schwan’s valued the well-being of its
customers over all other considerations. The letter, like all Schwan’s correspondence
with its customers, emphasized the guiding philosophy established
by Alfred Schwan at the onset of the crisis.
LEARNING FROM THE CRISIS
Schwan’s immediate and thorough response to the crisis enabled the
company to recover quickly without losing its customer base. Schwan’s also
used the crisis to learn how to make its products safer. In response to the
salmonella outbreak, Schwan’s made the following changes:
? Schwan’s built a new facility allowing the company to repasteurize
all products just before final packaging.
? Schwan’s contracted to have a dedicated fleet of sealed tanker trucks
to transport its products.
Although these changes were costly, Schwan’s enacted them voluntarily.
These changes established a new standard of safety in the food processing
industry.
YOU MAKE THE CALL
After examining this case, it is time to determine whether Alfred
Schwan and his company displayed effective leadership in managing the
salmonella outbreak. First, take a moment to review the lessons for effective
leadership in crisis situations described in Chapter 7. These lessons should
166 Part II The Lessons and Practical Application
guide you in evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of Schwan’s crisis
response. As you contemplate the questions that follow, consider whether
Schwan was effective or ineffective in addressing his customers’ needs and
concerns.
Lesson 1: Effective leadership is critical to overcoming a crisis.
? In what ways was Schwan’s leadership critical to overcoming
the crisis?
Lesson 2: Leaders should be visible during a crisis.
? In what ways did Schwan’s make itself visible following the
crisis?
Lesson 3: Leaders should work to develop a positive company reputation
during normal times to build a reservoir of goodwill.
? How did Schwan’s develop a strong reputation prior to the
crisis?
Lesson 4: Leaders should be open and honest following a crisis.
? In what ways was Schwan’s open and honest following the
crisis?
Lesson 5: Leaders who manage crises successfully may create opportunities
for renewal.
? How did Schwan’s create opportunities for renewal following
the crisis?
Lesson 6: Leaders should cooperate with stakeholders during a crisis and
should work to build consensus.
? Did Schwan’s cooperate with stakeholders during and following
the crisis?
Lesson 7: Poor leadership, including denials, cover-ups, or lack of
response, can make a crisis much worse.
? Did Schwan’s leadership make the crisis better or worse?
Lesson 8: Leaders must adapt their leadership styles and contingencies
during crises.
? Did Schwan’s leadership adapt its leadership style to the
nature of the crisis?
Lessons on Developing Effective Leadership
Chapter 8 Applying the Lessons for Effective Crisis Leadership 167
SUMMARY
The Schwan’s salmonella crisis is a classic case of effective crisis communication.
It is interesting that the company based its response not on a long
and detailed crisis plan but on a guiding philosophy. From this philosophy,
Schwan’s immediately took responsibility for the crisis and worked to repair
relationships with its customers. Schwan’s received a tremendous amount of
support from its customers following the crisis for its response even though
many of its consumers became very ill as a result of the salmonella infection.
Schwan’s had several opportunities to shift the blame outside the organization.
However, the company was determined to take
care of its customers and move beyond the crisis.
EXAMPLE 8.4. LEADERSHIP
DURING A TERRORIST ATTACK:
COPING WITH 9/11 BY REBUILDING
The terrorist attacks of 9/11 were devastating
for many industries, companies, communities,
and individuals located in New York’s financial
district. The two airplanes that hit the twin towers
demolished both buildings and much of the
surrounding area. The financial industry was
particularly hard-hit because of where the attack
occurred. Many financial firms were located in
lower Manhattan, and many were also located in
the two towers of the World Trade Center. One
of those companies was Cantor Fitzgerald (CF),
a bond-trading firm that operated out of the top
floors of Tower One (Seeger, Ulmer, Novak, &
Lesson 9: A virtuous response to a crisis by the organization’s leaders
may be the most effective in generating support and renewal.
? In what ways was the response by Schwan’s virtuous?
Lesson 10: Leaders have specific communication obligations for managing
and learning from crises.
? How did Schwan’s manage the communication obligations
following the crisis? Did learning take place?
The twin towers on fire
SOURCE: ©iStockphoto.com/
danhowl.
168 Part II The Lessons and Practical Application
Sellnow, 2005). CF was impacted particularly hard because, when the plane
hit its tower, most of CF’s employees were trapped above the initial impact.
CF lost a greater percentage of its employees than any other company during
the tragedy. Exactly 658 employees died in the attack, including CEO
Howard Lutnick’s only brother.
CANTOR FITZGERALD’S PRECRISIS REPUTATION
CF was a very successful firm, handling about $200 billion in securities
each day (Barbash, 2003). At the time of the attacks, CF was rated
as one of the largest bond trading brokerage firms in the world, employing
over a 1,000 people, most of whom were
housed in the World Trade Center. Wall
Street financial firms are known as very
competitive workplaces, and bond trading
firms are the most competitive of the group.
CF had a reputation as a take-no-prisoners
firm, where profits came before everything
else. The company had at times pushed the
limits of financial regulations and come
under the scrutiny of the Securities and
Exchange Commission (SEC).
The CEO of the firm was Howard
Lutnick, known as single-minded and even
ruthless in his business dealings (Hill, Knight,
& Wiggins, 2001). He was very authoritarian
and some would even say deceptive in
his business practices. In 9 years, by age 29,
Lutnick had moved from the bottom of the
firm to take over the position of CEO.
HOWARD LUTNICK’S CRISIS RESPONSE
The hijacked American Airlines plane hit Tower One at 8:46 a.m. on
the morning of September 11, 2001. At that time, Howard Lutnick was
dropping his son off for his first day of kindergarten. Mr. Lutnick’s brother,
however, was already at work. CF lost about two-thirds of the company’s
workforce. CF was obviously devastated, and Howard Lutnick was completely
overcome by what had happened. In a surprising move, however, he
decided to share his grief publicly.
Howard Lutnick
SOURCE: Bloomberg/Contributor/
Getty Images.
Chapter 8 Applying the Lessons for Effective Crisis Leadership 169
On September 14, 2001, Lutnick was interviewed by ABC’s Connie
Chung. During the interview, Lutnick broke down in describing the loss of
employees. But in this and subsequent interviews, he asked people to help
him rebuild his business so that he could help the families of the employees
who had died. A tearful Lutnick vowed to stay in business for the sake of
“my 700 families” (Russakoff & Eunjung Cha, 2001, p. A24).
RESERVOIR OF GOODWILL
After Howard Lutnick declared that his new American dream was
to support the families of his employees who lost their lives in the attack,
he had to illustrate that he could maintain business operations with less
than one-third of his staff. He also knew he would need help from bond
traders around the world to get his company back on its feet. He noted “if
every money manager of a pension fund just gave us a little bit of business,
then maybe we’ll survive” (Dunne, 2001, p. 39). On Monday, September
17, 2001, CF experienced tremendous support, almost too much. Howard
Lutnick explained it this way:
Monday was an amazing thing to witness. All of the accounts—
money managers, mutual funds, hedge funds—they reached out
to help us. They pumped us up with so much business, and we
had one of the busiest days ever. And when I went home that
night, I told Alison, “I think we’re done. Because we cannot process
the trades, and we’ve got no margin of error here. We were
crushed with kindness, I thought.” (Barbash, 2003, pp. 60–61)
While some saw Lutnick’s public plea for help in saving CF as selfserving
effort to save his fortune by exploiting the victims, others believed
that he would make good on his promise. On September 19, CF made a
public pledge to distribute 25% of the firm’s profits for the next 5 years
to the families and committed to paying for 10 years of their health care.
These funds were taken directly out of the profits that otherwise would
have gone to CF’s partners.
Due to the support of many who believed his promise, he was able to
bring CF back online within a week.
Lutnick was very explicit in explaining that the tragedy had created a
specific reason for the company to continue and return to profitability. CF
even created a series of ads featuring employees asking for help. In one of
these ads, a CF employee says, “We want to make sure that these families
can go on. And that’s why we’re in business today.”
170 Part II The Lessons and Practical Application
POST-9/11: RECOVERY, REMEMBRANCE, AND RENEWAL
CF was able to return to profitability very quickly and remains very
profitable today. The company even weathered the economic collapse of
2009 successfully. Some people have suggested this is because of what they
learned during 9/11. Howard Lutnick kept his pledge to return a significant
part of the company profits to the families of the victims. Additional
money was given to other victims of 9/11, and CF today sponsors a program
to provide relief to victims of other terrorist attacks, natural disasters,
or emergencies.
The CF Memorial website at http://www.cantorfamilies.com/cantor/
jsp/index.jsp reads:
On the morning of September 11th, we lost more than a team.
We lost family. We mourn the losses of our siblings, our best
friends, and our partners. We cannot imagine work or life without
them nor their many unique qualities and characteristics.
They have enriched our lives immeasurably, and in us, their
spirits shall live on.
YOU MAKE THE CALL
After examining this case, it is time to determine whether Howard
Lutnick exemplified effective crisis leadership and crisis communication
strategies following 9/11. First, take a moment to review the lessons
for effective leadership in crisis situations described in Chapter 7. These
lessons should guide you in evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of
Howard Lutnick’s crisis response.
Lesson 1: Effective leadership is critical to overcoming a crisis.
? How did leadership function in this case?
Lesson 2: Leaders should be visible during a crisis.
? Describe Lutnick’s visibility. Do you think it was appropriate
for him to go on TV so soon after the attacks?
Lessons on Developing Effective Leadership
Chapter 8 Applying the Lessons for Effective Crisis Leadership 171
SUMMARY
Communication after a crisis such as 9/11 is obviously very emotional
and difficult. Howard Lutnick’s response illustrated a change in leadership
style as well as business philosophy and mission. It is clear that the crisis
served as a bifurcation point for Mr. Lutnick’s business values and goals.
He was quick to act and created a clear vision based on these new business
Lesson 3: Leaders should work to develop a positive company reputation
during normal times to build a reservoir of goodwill.
? Did CF have a positive reputation before the crisis? How did
this reputation affect the efforts?
Lesson 4: Leaders should be open and honest following a crisis.
? Do you think Lutnick was open and honest? Why or why
not?
Lesson 5: Leaders who manage crises successfully may create opportunities
for renewal.
? How were opportunities for renewal created?
Lesson 6: Leaders should cooperate with stakeholders during a crisis and
should work to build consensus.
? Was there consensus about the efforts of CF to rebuild?
Lesson 7: Poor leadership, including denials, cover-ups, or lack of
response, can make a crisis much worse.
? Was Lutnick’s leadership good or bad?
Lesson 8: Leaders must adapt their leadership styles and contingencies
during crises.
? What was Lutnick’s leadership style before the crisis? Do
you think it changed?
Lesson 9: A virtuous response to a crisis by the organization’s leaders
may be the most effective in generating support and renewal.
? What leadership virtues did Howard Lutnick demonstrate?
Lesson 10: Leaders have specific communication obligations for managing
and learning from crises.
? What obligations did CF describe after the crisis? Do you
think the company learned any important lessons?
172 Part II The Lessons and Practical Application
values and goals for the future of CF. This framing of the crisis created a
clear vision for his surviving employees and other organization stakeholders
for the future.
EXAMPLE 8.5. HURRICANE KATRINA
On August 29, 2005, the worst hurricane to hit the United States in recent
history slammed into one of the most vulnerable areas of the country.
Hurricane Katrina was the most expensive and one of the most deadly
natural disasters to hit the United States (“Katrina may cost,” 2005). Some
1,500 people were estimated to have died, and 134 were still missing 2 years
after the storm. While the storm was a monster, category 4, it would have
been much less devastating had it hit another community. The city of New
Orleans, however, was particularly vulnerable.
Disaster managers had long warned that a major hurricane making
landfall in New Orleans could result in massive flooding and several thousand
deaths. Not only was much of the city actually built below sea level, but
the complex network of private and public levees that protected the city from
flooding were poorly maintained. The city was often described as a natural
bowl, the sides of which were the levees. In addition, the system of natural
wetlands and barrier islands that had traditionally protected the city from
the full force of storms had been significantly degraded by human activity.
Finally, many of the residents of New Orleans were very poor and did not
have the resources to prepare for a crisis and, in some cases, to evacuate.
As tropical storm and then Hurricane Katrina churned through the
Gulf of Mexico, it was not seen as a major threat. It was not until August 27,
after the storm strengthened to category 4 and was clearly heading to the
Louisiana coast, that residents of the low-lying areas of New Orleans were
ordered to evacuate. While many evacuated, many of the poorer residents
either did not receive the notices or simply could not evacuate. Thousands
were stranded in the city.
As the storm pushed inland, it was increasingly clear that government
officials and agencies were failing to coordinate their messages and their
resources. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, Louisiana Governor Kathleen
Blanco, and President George W. Bush appeared unprepared, unaware,
uninformed, and willing to shift blame for a failure in response.
The Katrina disaster evolved slowly, and the devastation was not
clear until the second and third days of the event. This was partly due to
the fact that news reports came in slowly and partly due to the fact that
the initial effects of the storm seemed to be under control until the protective
levees gave way, flooding the city. Eventually, there were over 50
Chapter 8 Applying the Lessons for Effective Crisis Leadership 173
breaches in the levees, and 80% of New
Orleans was flooded, with some parts
under 15 feet of water.
This confusion was clear in many of
the early comments made by the three
leaders. The day before the storm hit,
Governor Blanco, for example, told the
media, “I believe we are prepared. That’s
the one thing that I’ve always been able
to brag about” (Wilmouth, 2005). The
next day, however, she issued a formal
disaster declaration, indicating that the
hurricane was beyond the ability of the
state government to manage and requested federal disaster aid. Later, she
would argue with the Bush administration about the federal government’s
efforts to take over the management of the disaster. President Bush was
reportedly unaware of the disaster unfolding in New Orleans. He was vacationing
in Texas at the time the storm hit, and 2 days later, he returned to
Washington, DC. On the way back, his plane flew over the flooded city, and
President Bush was photographed looking out the window at the disaster
below. He commented, “It’s devastating; it’s got to be doubly devastating
on the ground” (Wilmer, 2005). On September 2, President Bush visited
Alabama and publicly praised his FEMA director Michael Brown’s handling
of the disaster, saying, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.” Bush
seemed to be completely unaware that thousands of people were stranded
in New Orleans, many in the large Superdome complex, and were rapidly
running out of food and water.
The third leader involved in managing the disaster was New Orleans
Mayor Ray Nagin. Mayor Nagin issued an advisory on August 26 encouraging
residents to watch the storm’s path and prepare for possible evacuation. He
made several general statements encouraging residents to leave the city but did
not issue an evacuation notice. On the evening of August 27, when it became
clear that the city was a likely target of the massive storm, Mayor Nagin issued
a call for voluntary evacuation. Some reports indicate that he was worried
about issuing an evacuation order because it might disrupt the local economy
and result in lawsuits. With fewer than 24 hours left before Hurricane Katrina
would make landfall, Nagin declared a mandatory evacuation.
Even with only 24 hours’ notice, almost 90% of the residents of New
Orleans evacuated. Many experts agree that this was a very high rate and
that a 100% evacuation of a major city is almost impossible. Those who
remained were the elderly, disabled, and poor. About 30,000 people flocked
A view from the Superdome
following Hurricane Katrina
SOURCE: FEMA photo/
Andrea Booher.
174 Part II The Lessons and Practical Application
to the Louisiana Superdome, the shelter of last resort. Media reports from
there and images of people stranded on rooftops or wading through the
water dominated television. The nation was shocked at the devastation of a
major U.S. city, and that government at the local, state, and even federal level
seemed unable to help. All three leaders were publicly and severely criticized
for their handling of Katrina. The
response became a major scandal for the
Bush administration. Governor Blanco
chose not to run for reelection. Nagin
would eventually be voted out of office.
The long-term impact of Katrina
has been devastating. Entire neighborhoods
have been destroyed, and several
are not being rebuilt because they are too
vulnerable to future storms. Significant
numbers of people have relocated, and
while the population is growing, it still
remains at about 25% below its pre-
Katrina numbers. The devastation was
also a lesson for the rest of the country about what kind of risks communities
face and about the need for leaders to prepare for natural disasters and
coordinate their efforts when a disaster occurs.
YOU MAKE THE CALL
After examining this case, it is time to determine whether leaders in
the Hurricane Katrina case displayed effective leadership in managing the
impact of the hurricane. First, take a moment to review the lessons for
effective leadership in crisis situations described in Chapter 7. These lessons
should guide you in evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of the
crisis responses.
A view of the devastation
following Hurricane Katrina
SOURCE: U.S. Coast Guard, Petty Officer
2nd Class Kyle Niemi/Wikimedia.
Lesson 1: Effective leadership is critical to overcoming a crisis.
? How did leadership function in this case?
Lesson 2: Leaders should be visible during a crisis.
? Describe President Bush’s visibility. Do you think it was
appropriate for him to fly over New Orleans after the crisis?
Lessons on Developing Effective Leadership
Chapter 8 Applying the Lessons for Effective Crisis Leadership 175
SUMMARY
Hurricane Katrina represents one of the most severe natural disasters
in U.S. history. It also represents one of the most poorly handled in terms of
crisis communication. Following the crisis, government leaders were more
interested in shifting blame and responsibility than helping people evacuate
or survive the event. Leadership at all levels of government, including
FEMA, failed to respond appropriately to citizen communication needs.
Lesson 3: Leaders should work to develop a positive reputation during
normal times to build a reservoir of goodwill.
? New Orleans had a reputation as a poorly managed city
before the crisis. Do you think this impacted the response?
How or how not?
Lesson 4: Leaders should be open and honest following a crisis.
? Do you think the three leaders were open and honest?
Lesson 5: Leaders who manage crises successfully may create opportunities
for renewal.
? Were there opportunities for renewal missed during this
crisis?
Lesson 6: Leaders should cooperate with stakeholders during a crisis and
should work to build consensus.
? Describe the ways in which cooperation failed in the case
of Katrina.
Lesson 7: Poor leadership, including denials, cover-ups, or lack of
response, can make a crisis much worse.
? Describe specific ways in which the leadership of Nagin,
Bush, and Blanco failed.
Lesson 8: Leaders must adapt their leadership styles and contingencies
during crises.
? Describe the leadership styles of Nagin, Bush, and Blanco
as they responded to this crisis.
Lesson 9: A virtuous response to a crisis by the organization’s leaders
may be the most effective in generating support and renewal.
? What leadership virtues did each of these leaders demonstrate?
Lesson 10: Leaders have specific communication obligations for managing
and learning from crises.
? What leadership obligations could have been used following
Hurricane Katrina to make the response more effective?
176 Part II The Lessons and Practical Application
For this reason, Hurricane Katrina is described as a classic case in how not
to respond to a natural disaster.
EXAMPLE 8.6. RISING FROM THE WRECKAGE:
GENERAL MOTORS AND THE CRASH OF 2008–2009
The United States domestic auto industry has a long history of roller coaster
rises and falls. While these boom-to-bust business cycles were normal, the
downturn of 2008–2009 was so sudden and so precipitous that the big three,
Ford, Chrysler, and GM, were caught largely unprepared. Record high gas
prices, rising unemployment, plunging home prices, and a severe credit
crunch meant sales of cars all but stopped. By the summer of 2008, it was
clear that GM, the largest of the three, was losing cash at a very rapid rate
and bankruptcy might be the only option. At the time, GM was run by CEO
Rick Wagoner. He had spent his entire career at the company; he was seen
as a product of the GM system and was often described as a defender of the
system. Wagoner had, however, instituted a number of important changes
at GM and had pushed for smaller cars and the new innovative electric car,
the Volt. GM, however, was the largest, least flexible, and most out of touch
of all the companies.
GENERAL MOTORS’ INITIAL RESPONSE TO THE CRISIS
On November 19, 2008, the heads of the big three and the president
of the United Auto Workers (UAW) union testified in front of the U.S.
House Committee on Banking. They were requesting money to help them
avoid bankruptcy and a terrible shock to an economy that was already
very unstable. The congressional hearings, however, went poorly for the
CEOs. They were severely criticized by members of Congress for years of
poor management and for making gas-guzzling, poor-quality products
that could not compete with imported cars (Vlasic & Herszenhorn, 2008).
They were criticized for giving too many concessions to the UAW. One
member of Congress even pointed out that all three executives had flown
in on private jets to ask for a government handout (Levs, 2008). The executives
talked about saving jobs and protecting communities that had come
to depend on the auto companies. They also talked about plans to produce
more fuel-efficient cars of higher quality. The executives were sent
back to Detroit and asked to come up with detailed turnaround plans that
were realistic before Congress would approve any bailout funds (Vlasic &
Herszenhorn, 2008).
Chapter 8 Applying the Lessons for Effective Crisis Leadership 177
A SECOND ATTEMPT TO RESPOND TO THE CRISIS
In December of 2008, the three CEOs returned to Washington, DC,
for more hearings, and this time they drove hybrid cars (Das, 2008).
They asked for a total of $34 billion in help, and while some members of
Congress were receptive, others continued to attack the plan. One of the
primary complaints was that the UAW simply was not giving up enough.
Wagoner offered to resign if it would help save the company. Eventually,
the United States taxpayers would invest $60 billion in the domestic auto
industry. In March, the Obama Administration Auto Task Force told Rick
Wagoner that he would need to step down, and on June 2, 2009, GM,
which had just celebrated its 100th anniversary, filed for bankruptcy (King
& Stoll, 2009).
BANKRUPTCIES AT GENERAL MOTORS AND CHRYSLER
The Chrysler Corporation was also forced into bankruptcy and was
acquired by the Italian car company Fiat. Under bankruptcy and the oversight
of government officials, the company quickly moved to reduce its
debts and streamline its operations (Vlasic & Bunkley, 2009). Some divisions
that were not considered core were dropped, including Saturn, Saab,
and Pontiac. The company cut thousands of workers and cut the pay of
many more. Many dealers were told they were closing. As 2009 came to
an end, a much smaller GM with fewer debts and many managers brought
in from outside the company was introducing new, exciting products and
reporting higher-than-expected sales numbers.
TELEVISING AND PROMOTING
A NEW VISION AT GENERAL MOTORS
Executives began talking about a new GM, and the commercials the
company ran talked about a renewed company (Vlasic & Bunkley, 2009).
They talked honestly about the pain of bankruptcy and the reinvention
that the company was undergoing. Rather that talk about Chapter 11, they
talked about Chapter 1. One senior manager who remained was Bob Lutz,
a long-time auto executive who had worked at both Chrysler and GM.
The television commercial admitted mistakes that GM had made in the
past and delineated learning and changes the company was going to make
in the future. In early 2010, Lutz was interviewed about the future of GM.
He said, “Going through the crucible for Chapter 11, it really did permit
us to fundamentally fix the company. GM’s new products are much
178 Part II The Lessons and Practical Application
more fuel efficient, and it appears
the company is finally producing
many cars that American consumers
want to buy. Some of the
long-term plans, like the plug-in
electric hybrid car, the Volt, and
GM products being built and
sold in China, are also proving
important to the renewal of the
company.”
Go to http://www.youtube.com/
watch?v=30Qnn1oAHQo and watch
GM’s commercial about reinvention
and renewal.
YOU MAKE THE CALL
After examining this case, it is time to determine whether leaders at
GM displayed effective leadership in managing their bankruptcy during
the financial crisis. First, take a moment to review the lessons for effective
leadership in crisis situations described in Chapter 7. These lessons
should guide you in evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of the crisis
responses. As you contemplate the questions that follow, consider whether
GM history and long-standing values hurt or helped its ability to renew
following the financial crisis.
GM’s new prospective vision
following their bankruptcy and the
2008 financial crisis
SOURCE: Photo courtesy of Bill Mattocks.
Lesson 1: Effective leadership is critical to overcoming a crisis.
? What role did the leadership of GM play in this crisis?
Lesson 2: Leaders should be visible during a crisis.
? How did the appearance of the executives before congress
impact this crisis?
Lesson 3: Leaders should work to develop a positive company reputation
during normal times to build a reservoir of goodwill.
? What factors impacted the goodwill of GM?
Lessons on Developing Effective Leadership
Chapter 8 Applying the Lessons for Effective Crisis Leadership 179
Lesson 4: Leaders should be open and honest following a crisis.
? Was the commercial GM produced open and honest? Was
it effective?
Lesson 5: Leaders who manage crises successfully may create opportunities
for renewal.
? What opportunities did Bob Lutz describe? What other
opportunities were created by the crisis?
Lesson 6: Leaders should cooperate with stakeholders during a crisis and
should work to build consensus.
? Who were the important stakeholders in this case? Why
were they important?
Lesson 7: Poor leadership, including denials, cover-ups, or lack of
response, can make a crisis much worse.
? What were some examples of poor leadership in this case?
Lesson 8: Leaders must adapt their leadership styles and contingencies
during crises.
? How did GM’s message change over time?
Lesson 9: A virtuous response to a crisis by the organization’s leaders
may be the most effective in generating support and renewal.
? What were the values that were discussed in this case?
Lesson 10: Leaders have specific communication obligations for managing
and learning from crises.
? What communication obligations did Wagoner have?
SUMMARY
The GM case study provides valuable lessons for effective crisis communication.
First, GM was caught in a complex financial crisis that impacted
the organization’s ability to secure credit during a serious downturn in
the economy. Although GM had been pressed for years to produce more
fuel-efficient vehicles, the organization’s leadership resisted that change.
Ultimately, the financial crisis provided GM the opportunity to make
changes to its business practices and its organizational values. Although
GM initially responded ineffectively to the crisis, it appears that they are
currently on a more solid business trajectory.
180 Part II The Lessons and Practical Application
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The Opportunities
Chapter 9: Learning Through Failure
Chapter 10: Risk Communication
Chapter 11: Responding to the Ethical Demands of Crisis
Chapter 12: Inspiring Renewal Through Effective Crisis Communication
P A R T I I I

185
9 Learning Through
Failure
Acapacity crowd composed of tourists, space enthusiasts,
students, and the astronauts’ family members gathered at
NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on February 1, 2003, anxious
to observe the shuttle Columbia’s triumphant return
from space. When the shuttle failed to appear, the crowd’s
emotions moved from confusion to alarm as a loudspeaker
announced that there had been a major malfunction. The malfunction was
a full-blown crisis. As Columbia moved through Earth’s atmosphere, the
spacecraft shattered, strewing debris for miles near Nacogdoches, Texas.
How could such a disaster have happened?
Seventeen years earlier, the shuttle Challenger exploded as it was
launched, killing all aboard. After the Challenger explosion, the shuttle
program was halted as the Reagan administration called for a thorough
examination of the NASA program. Dramatic changes in leadership,
shuttle structure, and communication procedures were enacted to remedy
problems found during the Challenger investigation. Yet a review of the
Columbia disaster reveals that many of the flaws in NASA’s organizational
culture that led to the Challenger disaster reemerged in the Columbia crisis.
Why, with so much to lose, would an organization fail to learn from
one crisis, only to create a similar event a decade and a half later?
Phillip Tompkins (2005) summarizes his extensive study of NASA in
his book Apollo, Challenger, Columbia: The Decline of the Space Program.
Tompkins describes a cautious and responsive organizational culture that
had declined as the space shuttle program replaced the Apollo missions. A
culture emerged that was less sensitive to safety and much more concerned
with bureaucratic procedures and financial matters. Tompkins describes
the impact of this changing culture:
We saw that a culture can divide into two antagonistic cultures,
two warring tribes with a cultural fence between them: in this
186 Part III The Opportunities
case the managerial/bureaucratic subculture and the weakened
engineering/concertive one. We watched a reversal of status, as
the engineers became second-class members, forced to communicate
through the formal channels, intimidated by the managers.
The informal system of communication could no longer save the
formal system. (p. 203)
The bitterest element of the Columbia disaster is the fact that the
presence of this perilous culture was identified following the Challenger
tragedy.
In this chapter, we identify several opportunities organizations have to
learn from crises. We begin with an exploration of why some organizations
fail to learn from them. We continue with a discussion of the process for
learning through failure, the possibility for vicarious learning, the necessity
of organizational memory, and the need for organizations to unlearn some
unproductive habits.
FAILING TO LEARN FROM FAILURE
Simply experiencing a negative event is not sufficient for learning. Think of
the stories you may have heard about individuals who have acquired multiple
citations and license suspensions for driving while intoxicated. The
event alone is not enough to change behavior. Behavior can only change
when an individual chooses to learn from an event. This learning requires
individuals to change their beliefs and attitudes so that, in turn, their behaviors
are altered.
From an organizational perspective, learning can be a complicated
process. The acquisition of knowledge and the shifts in behavior must
occur at all levels in what can be a highly complex system. Bazerman
and Watkins (2004) contend that, when organizations fail to learn from
failures, they become vulnerable to predictable surprises. Bazerman and
Watkins distinguish predictable surprises from unpredictable surprises. Predictable
surprises occur when an organization’s leadership ignores or fails
to understand clear evidence that a potentially devastating problem could
occur. Unpredictable surprises occur with no clear warning signs.
Bazerman and Watkins (2004) identify four ways in which organizations
fail to learn from the failures that occur around them:
1. Scanning Failures: failure to pay close attention to potential problems
both inside and outside the organization; this failure could be
due to arrogance, a lack of resources, or simple inattention
Chapter 9 Learning Through Failure 187
2. Integration Failures: failure to understand how pieces of potentially
complicated information fit together to provide lessons on how to
avoid crises
3. Incentive Failures: failure to provide sufficient rewards to people
who report problems and take actions to avoid possible crises
4. Learning Failures: failure to draw important lessons from crises and
preserve their memories in the organization
Organizational leaders who experience one or more of these failures
jeopardize the future safety of their organizations.
Mitroff and Anagnos (2001), in their book Managing Crises Before They
Happen: What Every Executive and Manager Needs to Know About Crisis
Management, provide a convincing example of how an organization can fail
to learn from a previous crisis. In 1982, Johnson & Johnson responded to
a link between Tylenol capsules and several deaths due to cyanide poisoning
by pulling the product from the shelves and communicating candidly
with the media. Investigators later determined that the product had been
tampered with while on a store shelf. During the investigation, both the
FBI and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advised against pulling
the product. Nevertheless, Johnson & Johnson recalled 31 million bottles
of Tylenol. Although the short-term losses for Tylenol were staggering, the
product reemerged as a top seller. When a second Tylenol poisoning event
occurred, Johnson & Johnson’s response was equally effective. Its swift and
forthright response to the crises established a standard for all organizations
facing crises. Mitroff and Anagnos explain, however, that much of Johnson
& Johnson’s success was based on the fact that, even though the company
was not to blame for the crisis, Johnson & Johnson responded without hesitation
in the hope that no more consumers would be injured or killed.
Mitroff and Anagnos (2001) assert that, in recent years, Johnson &
Johnson has been far less effective in its crisis management. In the past
decade, Johnson & Johnson has faced several crises resulting from predictable
surprises. The company’s products have been linked to overdose problems
in children. Tylenol has also been associated with liver damage. In
these cases, Mitroff and Anagnos found that Johnson & Johnson’s response
has been comparatively slow and much less effective. Mitroff and Anagnos
explain that “ironically, because J & J did so well in handling its two major
crises, it did not learn the proper lessons” (p. 19).
Using Bazerman and Watkins’s (2004) foregoing list of failures, we can
speculate about Johnson & Johnson’s failure to learn. Because the Tylenol
poisonings were caused by a criminal, they were unpredictable surprises.
188 Part III The Opportunities
The poisonings offered no incentive for scanning the environment for
potential product failures. Second, the criminal cases did not provide an
obvious link to other types of failures. Thus, little integration of information
was inspired by them. Third, the Tylenol poisonings clearly revealed
incentives for responding immediately to a criminal assault on a product.
Yet the events gave little incentive to Johnson & Johnson employees for
closely monitoring and reporting potential failures related to the daily consumption
of its products. Last, Johnson & Johnson experienced a learning
failure when it did not draw lessons from the crises that reached beyond the
criminal level.
Mitroff and Anagnos (2001) characterize the dwindling effectiveness of
Johnson & Johnson in its crisis management as a “failure of success” (p. 20).
The company was so successful in its initial Tylenol crises that it failed to
respond effectively when faced with a crisis of a different type.
LEARNING THROUGH FAILURE
Most of us can think of a sport, a school subject, or a project of some sort
where we learned from our mistakes. Our failures help us better understand
what we need to do if we want to improve. We learn from the mistakes or
near misses that occur in the world around us. We may not even be aware of
a risk until some crisis or near crisis occurs. For example, several teens were
recently exploring an unsupervised cave near the Mississippi River in Minneapolis,
Minnesota. The cave was a popular summer spot for adolescents
in the area. On this occasion, however, something went terribly wrong. As
many had done numerous times in the past, four teens entered the cave
anticipating a daring adventure. This excursion, however, ended tragically,
with three of the teens dying from asphyxiation due to the poor air quality
in the cave. The fourth struggled against losing consciousness and eventually
crawled from the cave. The story raised community awareness of
the cave’s danger. Parents in the area, who previously either overlooked or
were unaware of the cave, now monitor the progress of authorities as they
attempt to seal the cave and to patrol the area. The community learned a
painful lesson about such caves. The media carried the story throughout
the state and region, thereby spreading the lesson to authorities, parents,
and teens who would not have otherwise been aware of the danger.
Organizational learning can function in much the same way. Sitkin
(1996) details the way organizations of all kinds may learn through failure,
going so far as to argue that failure is an essential part of the learning
process. He insists that failures, especially minor ones, should not be overlooked
or concealed.
Chapter 9 Learning Through Failure 189
Veil (in press) explains that organizations tend to lock into routines
that distort their view of minor failures. As these failures accumulate, crises
are much more likely to occur. Veil characterizes this routine view as
trained mindlessness—a barrier to recognizing warning signals caused
by focusing only on expected outcomes. Veil explains that crises generate
recalcitrance to “force us to amend our interpretations” of existing systems
and thereby foster learning. Recalcitrance causes a void or a feeling that we
“no longer have control over our understanding of the world.” Learning
actually fills the void created when crises occur. Our understanding must
expand through the learning process.
Mittelstaedt (2005) agrees. In his extensive study of organizational
crises, Mittelstaedt makes the seemingly paradoxical observation that
making mistakes is essential to success. A company that appears to operate
free from disruption may simply be operating from an unrealistic and
uninformed perspective. Mittelstaedt contends that “learning to identify
mistakes in an analytic and timely fashion is often the difference between
success and failure” (p. 287).
Sitkin (1996) extends this claim: Too often, he explains, employees
and managers are unwilling to admit small failures for fear of reprisal from
organizational leadership. The unwillingness to recognize and embrace
failure is also a failure to recognize and respond to a potential crisis. The
longer a failure is allowed to continue, the more likely it will intensify into
a full-blown crisis. Sitkin explains further that, in successful organizations,
failure creates a recognition of risk and a motivation for change that otherwise
would not exist. He describes this recognition as a “learning readiness”
(p. 548) that, without failure, is very difficult to produce in most organizations.
Sitkin cautions, however, that not all failures are equally effective in
fostering good risk management. He claims that organizations learn best
from intelligent failures, which have the following five characteristics: They
(1) result from thoughtfully planned actions, (2) have uncertain outcomes,
(3) are modest in scale, (4) are executed and responded to with alacrity
(eagerness), and (5) take place in domains that are familiar enough to permit
effective learning.
In summary, organizations learn to
recognize risk by accepting and acting on
their failures. They learn best when the
failures result from competent actions, are
not yet crises, and are within the comfort
zones of employees who are eager and
experienced enough to respond wisely and quickly. Learning from failure
leads to Opportunity 1.
OPPORTUNITY 1
Organizations should treat failure as an
opportunity to recognize a potential crisis or
to prevent a similar crisis in the future.
190 Part III The Opportunities
VICARIOUS LEARNING
Organizations do not necessarily need to fail themselves in order to learn.
Successful organizations engage in vicarious learning in order to recognize
risk, wherein organizational leaders observe the failures or crises experienced
by similar organizations and take action to avoid making the same
mistakes. A few examples will emphasize the value of vicarious learning.
When a perpetrator mailed a letter claiming that he or she had infected
cattle in New Zealand with foot and mouth disease (FMD), the country’s
agricultural ministry was faced with one of the world’s greatest fears. Biological
terrorism, or bioterror, on the world’s food supply has long been a
worrisome prospect for world leaders. New Zealand’s government was worried
that its worst fears had been realized. If FMD spread, its cattle industry
would be decimated. The country responded swiftly to calm its citizens and
to avoid losing the confidence of consumers worldwide. Eventually, the letter
was proven to be a hoax. The disruption New Zealand faced prompted
bioterror experts in other countries, such as the United States, to fortify
their plans for managing false claims of terrorist activity. By so doing, many
countries learned from New Zealand’s successful response.
When college students organized a boycott of all Nike products in
response to accusations of worker abuse in its shoe factories in Vietnam,
Nike initially failed to react. When the boycott rapidly spread to additional
universities and Nike sales figures began to decline, the company responded
dramatically. Admitting that he should have responded sooner, Nike’s chief
operating officer announced that the company was setting a new standard
for worker safety and safety inspections in its Asian factories. Nike also
raised the minimum working age and provided educational opportunities
for workers. To avoid parallel boycotts,
companies such as Adidas and Reebok
began implementing similar standards.
Both the New Zealand and Nike
examples offer evidence that organizations
can learn and learn well without experiencing
a crisis or failure within their corporate boundaries by monitoring
other members of their industries. This demonstrates Opportunity 2.
ORGANIZATIONAL MEMORY
Without learning from their own and others’ mistakes, organizations stagnate
and fail to respond to potential threats in an ever-changing world. Yet,
as any student of any subject knows, learning is of little use if the knowledge
is not retained. In organizations, this retention of knowledge is referred to
OPPORTUNITY 2
Organizations can avoid crises by learning
from other organizations’ failures and crises.
Chapter 9 Learning Through Failure 191
as organizational memory. From the perspective of crisis communication,
organizational memory consists of an accumulation of knowledge based
on the observation of successes and failures, both within the company
and through vicarious observation. If an organization’s members do not
remember and act on their knowledge of previous failures, a crisis is much
more likely to occur.
A horrific example of a failure in organizational memory occurred at a
Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, in 1984. Early on a December morning,
the plant leaked a deadly cloud of gas that settled over part of the sleeping
city of 900,000. Within hours, 2,000 residents were dead, and thousands
more were injured.
How could such a crisis occur? Union Carbide was a reputable company.
The plant had many safety procedures in place to detect and prevent
such leaks. Part of the answer is in a loss of organizational memory. The
plant had been slated for closure. Many of the experienced staff had already
been transferred to other locations, leaving a minimal crew with little
experience. The training program for the workers who remained had been
reduced to the minimum. The crisis was eventually traced to staff reductions
and oversight failures. Much of the blame for the tragedy rests with a
rapid reduction in experienced staff that took with them a large share of the
organization’s memory.
Bhopal represents one of the most dismal failures in organizational
memory to occur in the past century and offers compelling motivation for
understanding how to maintain it. In its most general sense, organizational
memory consists of the following three stages:
1. Acquiring knowledge, as we discussed earlier, is achieved by recognizing
failures within the organization and by observing the failures
of similar organizations.
2. Distributing knowledge is the key to organizational memory. Inevitably,
highly experienced employees will leave the organization.
Unless these people are given an opportunity to share their knowledge
with other employees, the knowledge will leave the organization
along with the departing personnel. Thus, the organization is
doomed to repeat previous failures.
3. Acting on knowledge is essential for organizational memory to serve
an organization. If new employees are unwilling to learn from
departing ones, the organization’s accumulated knowledge is lost.
Thus, new employees who want to do things their way could be
destined to repeat previous organizational failures.
192 Part III The Opportunities
As the three steps to organizational memory show, employees have
many opportunities to disregard hard-earned knowledge.
Organizations can take steps to minimize the likelihood that employees
will disregard new knowledge. Novak and Sellnow (2009) offer several
suggestions for engaging the workforce in positive change that reduces risk.
Access to information is essential. They explain that “information flow
and risk discourse occur more readily when employees regularly engage
in discourse about operations” (p. 367). This discourse emphasizes the lessons
learned onsite or vicariously. Novak and Sellnow explain that when
employees “are talking, hearing, and doing training throughout the day
and every day, the collective mindfulness of the organizations increases”
(p. 367). In this manner, employees are able to consistently retain and act
on new information.
Because organizational memory depends on the exchange of information
from one person to another, the process will always be imperfect.
Rivalry among employees, perceived mistreatment of employees by the
organization, or a simple unwillingness by new employees or organizational
leaders to learn from their predecessors all disrupt the preservation
of organizational memory. Mittelstaedt (2005) offers this blunt assessment:
“Not only must we continue to learn, but until we develop ‘plug-compatible’
brain dumps, each new generation must start learning from scratch but at
a higher level” (pp. 120–121). This higher
level involves learning and retaining what
we can from previous experience while
embracing the learning process.
The enormous impact of organizational
memory on the crisis prevention
process leads us to Opportunity 3.
UNLEARNING
To this point, we have seen the importance of organizational learning and
organizational memory. On occasion, however, effective organizational
learning depends on an organization’s ability to unlearn practices and policies
that have become outdated because of environmental changes.
In Chapter 8, we discussed the ruinous flood that occurred along the
North Dakota and Minnesota border. For decades prior to the 1997 flood,
the communities had focused their flood-fighting energy on the construction
of mammoth dikes. Flooding had become a normal occurrence in the
expansive valley. The dikes gave residents confidence that, each spring,
the waters could be held back from the cities and homes in the region.
OPPORTUNITY 3
Organizational training and planning should
emphasize the preservation of previous
learning in order to make organizational
memory a priority.
Chapter 9 Learning Through Failure 193
After 1997, this flood-fighting philosophy had to be unlearned. The 1997
flood revealed that some neighborhoods were simply too close to the river
and at too low an elevation to be protected by dikes. Homeowners who
had lived in their houses for 40 or more years were asked to accept government
buyouts and move to safer ground. The magnitude of this flood
brought the realization that simply adding dikes was a losing proposition.
Accordingly, the community leaders were inspired to unlearn their previous
dike-building policy for lowland areas. In its place, they adopted a
policy that required residents to move to locations where they could be
better defended against future floods.
Changes like those adopted after the Red River Valley floods do not
come easily to organizations. Employees, management, and other stakeholders
become comfortable with the way things are done. This comfort,
however, can blind organizations to the urgency of an impending crisis. As
Huber (1996) explains, unlearning is much more than simply discarding
knowledge. Unlearning occurs when organizations recognize that existing
procedures constrain the organization’s ability to respond to crises. From
this perspective, three results may occur from unlearning:
1. Expanding Options: When organizations are unwilling to forgo routine
procedures during crisis or potential crisis situations, they lose
the capacity to react to unique circumstances. Unlearning enables
the organization to expand its options.
2. Contracting Options: In some cases, organizations may respond to a
crisis with a strategy that has worked well in the past. In the current
situation, however, the strategy from the past may actually make
matters worse. In such cases, organizations must be willing to reject
some strategies in favor of others.
3. Grafting: In the previous section, we discussed the need for organizations
to hand down existing knowledge to new employees. If the
socialization of new employees is so intense that they cannot bring
new knowledge to the organization, however, the organization is
doing itself a disservice. Although organizational memory is essential,
some degree of unlearning in favor of the ideas new employees
bring may be helpful in predicting and responding to crises.
Although we may seem to be contradicting ourselves by extolling the
benefits of unlearning in organizational crisis communication, we are convinced
that unlearning can be a necessary step in the learning process and
thus in the crisis management process.
194 Part III The Opportunities
Unlearning, then, can be an essential
ingredient. Thus, we offer Opportunity 4.
SUMMARY
Conventional wisdom suggests that failures
are negative events that should be
avoided at all costs. This chapter makes the opposite argument. From the
perspective of organizational learning, failing and responding to failure
are essential steps in both crisis prevention and crisis management. Effective
organizations learn directly from their own failures and vicariously
from the failures of similar organizations. The knowledge thus acquired
produces organizational memory. If organizations are able to preserve this
memory, they have a better repertoire for managing or avoiding crises.
Although organizational memory is an essential component of crisis prevention
and management, there are times when unlearning is needed. If
routine procedures fail, organizations must abandon some strategies and
seek out others. One means of developing new strategies is to hire new
employees who can bring fresh ideas. If organizations are willing to devote
themselves to effective organizational learning, they may experience the
following four opportunities:
Opportunity 1: Organizations should treat failure as an opportunity to
recognize a potential crisis or to prevent a similar crisis in the future.
Opportunity 2: Organizations can avoid crises by learning from other
organizations’ failures and crises.
Opportunity 3: Organizational training and planning should emphasize
the preservation of previous learning in order to make organizational
memory a priority.
Opportunity 4: Organizations must be willing to unlearn outdated
or ineffective procedures if they are to learn better crisis management
strategies.
REFERENCES
Bazerman, M. H., & Watkins, M. D. (2004). Predictable surprises: The disasters
you should have seen coming and how to prevent them. Boston, MA: Harvard
Business School Press.
Huber, G. P. (1996). Organizational learning: The contributing processes and the
literatures. In M. D. Cohen & L. S. Sproull (Eds.), Organizational learning
(pp. 124–162). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
OPPORTUNITY 4
Organizations must be willing to unlearn
outdated or ineffective procedures if they are
to learn better crisis management strategies.
Chapter 9 Learning Through Failure 195
Mitroff, I. I., & Anagnos, G. (2001). Managing crises before they happen: What every
executive and manager needs to know about crisis management. New York, NY:
AMACOM.
Mittelstaedt, R. E. (2005). Will your next mistake be fatal? Avoiding the chain of mistakes
that can destroy. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Wharton.
Novak, J. M., & Sellnow, T. L. (2009). Reducing organizational risk through participatory
communication. Journal of Applied Communication Research 37,
349–373.
Sitkin, S. B. (1996). Learning through failure: The strategy of small losses. In
M. D. Cohen & L. S. Sproull (Eds.), Organizational learning (pp. 541–578).
Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Tompkins, P. K. (2005). Apollo, Challenger, Columbia: The decline of the space program.
Los Angeles, CA: Roxbury.
Veil, S. R. (in press). Mindful learning in crisis management. Journal of Business
Communication.
196
Risk Communication
10
In the United States, genetically altered corn, soybeans, and cotton
are grown and consumed broadly. The techniques used in developing
these products of modern technology are similar to those used
in traditional plant breeding methods. In this case, however, the
technology involves actually identifying and transferring selected
genes into plants. As a result, some crops are now grown in the
United States using considerably less water, pesticides, herbicides, and cultivation
than in the past. Despite these advantages, many European countries,
such as the United Kingdom and France, reject this technology. They
label foods grown from seeds produced through biotechnology “Franken
foods” and restrict the importation of many products produced with ingredients
from these crops. Policy makers from countries in Southeast Asia
have similar reservations to those expressed in Europe. Despite the fact that
plant and food scientists in countries such as China, Vietnam, and Indonesia
have endorsed biotechnology, the governments of these countries refuse to
allow the production of crops using biotechnology. Moreover, many citizens
in these countries fear the introduction of products of biotechnology.
Although the crops have been consumed in many countries for more than
a decade without creating health problems, rumors that these foods cause
cancer, autism, or environmental destruction still prevail. The controversy
over biotechnology is, to a large extent, a matter of risk communication.
Those who deem biotechnology safe see the technology as a means
for addressing a looming risk—a rising world population and a shrinking
amount of land available for growing food. For example, the Population
Institute (n.d.) projects that the world’s population will “increase from
6.8 billion to 8.3 billion” with an increasing demand for meat and dairy
products (p. 2). As a result, the institute acknowledges predictions that
“by 2030 the world will need to produce around 50 percent more food and
energy, together with 30 per cent [sic] more fresh water, whilst mitigating
and adapting to climate change” (p. 2). In response to these demands, the
Chapter 10 Risk Communication 197
International Food Information Council (2003) explains that “with land
availability being constant and the population continuing to grow, food biotechnology
offers the potential to produce more food and feed more people
using less land than previously possible” (p. 15).
Which side is correct about biotechnology and the world’s food supply?
Is biotechnology the answer to feeding the world or is it a gateway to
disease and environmental destruction? Risk communication is the means
by which we answer such questions. Because no crisis has occurred, the
debate centers on perceived levels of uncertainty. Neither side on the biotechnology
debate can say with certainty that harm is inevitable or that no
harm will ever come from these products of modern technology. Those
who advocate biotechnology believe sufficient research is available to establish
their safety. Those who oppose biotechnology are not yet convinced
that sufficient research exists. In this chapter we characterize the nature of
risk communication. If we had all the answers regarding biotechnology, risk
communication would be unnecessary.
DISTINGUISHING BETWEEN RISK AND CRISIS
In a landmark publication, the National Research Council (NRC) (1989)
defines risk communication as “an interactive process of exchange of information
and opinion among individuals, groups, and institutions” (p. 2).
Interactive is the key word. The NRC advocates that risk communication
be an interactive dialogue among those who are facing risk and those who
have some capacity for controlling or reducing that risk. For example,
according to this definition, when a factory is built, the organization that
built it is responsible for interacting with area residents to help them understand
any potential risks that may be caused by the factory and its emissions
into the air and water. If an organization simply announces to area residents
that its new factory is safe, the organization has not met the interactive
expectation established by the NRC. Instead, the organization should
share the information residents need to determine the risks and economic
benefits of the new factory. Through this interaction, residents can better
determine whether they (a) perceive a risk or (b) are willing to tolerate the
risks because the potential benefits outweigh them.
The interaction process with risk communication differs considerably
from crisis communication, yet poor risk communication can, itself, produce
crises. For example, when Enron executives misled their employees about the
risk of basing their entire pension system on company stock, the result was a
crisis for every Enron employee. When the company folded, employees lost
everything, while Enron executives pocketed hundreds of millions of dollars.
198 Part III The Opportunities
Reynolds and Seeger (2005) offer a clear distinction between risk and
crisis communication. Table 10.1 provides a list of eight clear differences
between risk and crisis communication. We summarize these distinctions
as well:
? Risk communication is future oriented, because risk focuses on
what may happen. In contrast, crisis, by its nature, is focused on a
specific event that is occurring or has already occurred.
? Risk communication is designed to avert a crisis, while crisis communication
seeks to explain the consequences for a regrettable event.
? Risk messages are designed to speculate about what might happen
based on current knowledge. Crisis messages typically focus on a
known event and speculate about how and why the event happened.
? Risk messages are designed for long-term planning. Crisis messages
focus on the short term as they seek to address an immediate
problem.
? Risk messages typically come from technical experts and scientists
who use their expertise to foresee potential problems. Once a crisis
has occurred, most communication comes from authoritative figures,
such as government officials, who are charged with maintaining
or reestablishing order.
Table 10.1 Distinguishing Risk From Crisis
Risk Crisis
Future oriented Specific incident
Messages of reducing likelihood Messages of blame and
consequences
Based on what is currently known Based on the known and unknown
Long term Short term
Technical experts, scientists Authoritative figures
Personal scope Community perspective
Mediated communication campaigns Press conferences, press releases,
speeches
Controlled and structured Spontaneous and reactive
Chapter 10 Risk Communication 199
? Risk messages tend to have a personal focus because, as the NRC
advocates, they should be interactive so that individuals can decide
for themselves whether or not they believe a risk is tolerable. In contrast,
crisis messages address the entire community affected by a crisis.
? Risk communication has the luxury of time. Full-blown media
campaigns, such as appeals for using seat belts, can be designed
and implemented over an extended period of time. Crisis messages
typically take the form of news conferences, press releases, speeches,
and any other available means that can get the information out as
quickly as possible.
? Risk messages can be carefully crafted and controlled. Crisis messages
must be developed spontaneously in reaction to the crisis.
As you can see, risk and crisis communication differ dramatically. They
are inextricably linked, however, in that poor risk communication often
produces intense crises. Conversely, good risk communication can avert or
diminish the impact of a crisis event.
The value of risk communication can clearly be seen in the example
provided in the introduction to this chapter. The discussion of biotechnology
is firmly rooted in the future. No serious problems have been
documented, but there is lingering concern that in the long run biotechnology
could produce unforeseen problems. Those on both sides of the
issue speculate about future problems.
One side anticipates a food shortage without
biotechnology. The other side remains
concerned that biotechnology could ultimately
prove harmful to the food supply.
The evidence is highly technical, but both
sides eventually seek to persuade consumers
to believe their interpretation. As the debate continues, stories about
advances in biotechnology and European resistance are often featured in
the media. Thus, risk communication offers Opportunity 1.
IDENTIFYING RISK
The first step in eliminating or managing risk is risk identification. The process
includes recognizing an evolving risk, learning about it, prioritizing it
compared with other risks, and changing behavior in order to eliminate or
minimize it. In this next section, we describe the role mindfulness plays in
the risk identification process.
OPPORTUNITY 1
Effective risk communication can disrupt a
crisis and prevent it from reaching its full
magnitude.
200 Part III The Opportunities
MINDFULNESS
If we have any hope of avoiding crises by recognizing risk, we must, in
Langer’s (1989) terms, forgo mindless behavior and embrace mindfulness.
Mindfulness requires us to constantly adapt our perceptual skills to account
for the ever-changing world around us (see Table 10.2). To do so, we must
be willing to see new categories of problems and solutions rather than
forcing the evidence we observe to fit into the existing categories we have
been taught. For example, a 14-year-old girl was killed by a shark in July
2005 while swimming with a friend in the Gulf of Mexico off the Florida
Panhandle. Only 3 days later, a 16-year-old boy lost his leg in a shark attack
as he stood fishing in waist-deep water at another popular Florida tourist
area. The second attack occurred within 80 miles of the first. By standards
of the day, neither the girl nor the boy was taking unusual risks. The waters
in the area were presumed safe for tourists enjoying Florida’s beaches.
Because no attacks had been recorded there, the swimmers mindlessly categorized
their surroundings as safe. This assumption failed to account for
the fact that shark behavior continues to evolve, putting additional tourist
areas at higher risks than ever before. Since the attacks, Florida officials
have “doubled the staff of sheriff ’s beach patrol officers” (“Shark attacks,”
2005, p. C5).
Mindfulness also requires that risk observers be aware of new information.
Think how airport security has changed, for example. Airlines
now have more information about each passenger than was ever possible
prior to 9/11. The hope is that by acquiring additional information and
developing lists of suspicious individuals airlines will be able to identify
and detain high-risk passengers. Similarly, the near tragic consequences of
diseases, such as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and avian flu,
have resulted in a more mindful approach by WHO. Potentially threatening
symptoms are now recorded, shared internationally, and tracked in a
more efficient and potentially insightful manner than ever in the history of
Mindlessness Mindfulness
Trapped by categories Creation of new categories
Automatic behavior Openness to new information
Acting from a single perspective Awareness of more than one perspective
Table 10.2 Mindlessness Versus Mindfulness
Chapter 10 Risk Communication 201
modern medicine. This attention to new information is designed to catch a
potential epidemic or pandemic in its earliest stages.
Last, mindfulness requires individuals to be aware of more than one
perspective. If we insist that our point of view is the only acceptable interpretation
of a situation, we have little hope of engaging in effective communication.
If we cannot see the concerns and fears of others, we cannot
understand their resistance to new ideas. For example, Monsanto developed
a genetically modified form of wheat that was not susceptible to herbicides.
The result was a form of wheat that could be grown cheaply and
more efficiently. When farmers overwhelmingly resisted use of the new
product, Monsanto officials were shocked. The company had failed to
account for the genuine fear farmers and many consumers have that genetically
modified plants could potentially disrupt the ecosystem, rendering
entire regions barren. Monsanto may never have seen such fears as legitimate.
The company should, however, have seen the potential resistance in
the consumers for whom the product was designed. Monsanto simply did
not take the farmers’ perspective into account.
The notion of mindfulness has appeal for organizations of all types.
After all, if organizations can be mindful of risks, they can ultimately avoid
crises and save money. This need is particularly great for operations such as
nuclear power plants, airlines, and food processing plants, where the potential
for crisis is constantly present.
Weick and Sutcliffe (2001) observed five applications of mindfulness in
organizations that have managed to maintain impressive records of safety,
despite intense potential for crisis. These characteristics include
1. preoccupation with failure,
2. reluctance to simplify interpretations,
3. sensitivity to operations,
4. commitment to resilience, and
5. deference to expertise.
Weick and Sutcliffe (2001) call organizations that maintain these characteristics
high reliability organizations. These agencies are constantly preoccupied
with the possibility that a misstep could lead to crisis. Therefore,
they are reluctant to simplify any new evidence that could be a sign of risk.
High reliability organizations are sensitive to all operations in all parts of
the organization. This sensitivity allows for a mindful approach to training
and monitoring. High reliability organizations also commit themselves
202 Part III The Opportunities
to resilience, which allows them to learn
from any failure that they make, no
matter how small. We talked about the
importance of learning through failure in
Chapter 9. Last, high reliability organizations
defer decision making to the person
with the greatest expertise. Instead of centralizing all decision making with
a single individual who cannot possibly understand all the intricacies of
every form of operation in an organization, whenever possible, decision
making rests with those who know the most about the situation. Naturally,
these decisions are made with the rest of the organization in mind. By holding
to these standards, high reliability organizations manage risk in a highly
mindful manner. This idea is reflected in Opportunity 2.
ANALYZING MULTIPLE AUDIENCES
As we mentioned earlier in this chapter, the NRC endorses a form of risk
communication that is interactive in nature. This process functions best
as a dialogue or meaningful conversation among all parties who might be
affected by a risk. Although the importance and ethical integrity of such a
dialogue seems obvious, many cases exist now and have existed in the past
where dialogue has been discarded for monologue. In a dialogue, at least
two parties discuss an issue and decide what will happen. In a monologue,
one party makes a decision and tells the other party or parties what will be
done. To better explain this difference, we turn to the dialogue-centered
versus technology-centered dichotomy (see Table 10.3).
OPPORTUNITY 2
A mindful outlook is essential to recognizing
new risks.
Dialogue-Centered Technology-Centered
Democratic, with all sides having a
say in the matter
Decision making focused on subject
matter experts
Matters of perception addressed as
needed
Perceptions dismissed in favor of a
series of facts determined by subject
matter experts
Assumes subjectivity but works
toward objectivity through dialogue
and inquiry
Assumes objectivity through science
but can be influenced by subjective
interests
Table 10.3 Dialogue-Centered Versus Technology-Centered
Chapter 10 Risk Communication 203
From a communication perspective, the dialogue-centered and
technology-centered philosophies are complete opposites. When the
dialogue-centered approach is the primary communication philosophy in
a risk situation, the costs and benefits to stakeholders are analyzed in a democratic
process: All stakeholders in a risk environment are invited to share
their opinions. In the end, a decision is made by the stakeholders that takes
into consideration the greatest good for the greatest number. For example,
many states have opted to increase the speed limits on public highways. This
issue is often put to a vote, either to the general population or by elected representatives.
Traffic fatalities and road quality are two of the primary topics
that arise in public debate and discussion over the higher limits.
In contrast, if the technology-centered approach is the operative philosophy
in a risk communication situation, experts are called on to make
recommendations based on their sophisticated knowledge of the subject
and situation. These recommendations are then translated into laws and
regulations for managing situations. For example, emission standards for
factories are seldom open to public debate. Subject matter experts debate
the issue, and national standards are set, often changing as one U.S. presidential
administration leaves office and another arrives. Few citizens could
engage in a coherent and informed discussion of the details about allowable
emission levels.
There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches. The
technology-centered advantages are efficiency and complexity. None of us
has the time or desire to study every technical matter that poses some risk
to our well-being. We typically trust experts who advise governing officials
on matters of public safety. Most of us think very little about the packaged
food we eat. We trust that officials from the USDA and FDA have
our well-being in mind. We thereby assume that they have established
appropriate standards. Not only do we lack the time needed to make such
observations, but most of us also lack the expertise. Relatively few citizens
have a sophisticated understanding of microbiology. We defer to technical
experts in this area to tell us what is and is not safe to eat.
The technology-centered approach loses credibility, however, when the
public loses trust in the ability or willingness of technical experts to communicate
honestly and without bias. This problem can best be understood
by the following equation developed by Peter Sandman (1993, 2000):
Risk ƒ {Hazard ?? Outrage}
Sandman’s equation distinguishes between hazard, the scientifically
determined risk level, and outrage, the public’s perceived risk level. Simply
204 Part III The Opportunities
put, if the public perceives that something is of high risk, scientific experts
will have a very difficult time convincing them otherwise. Conversely, if
the public perceives that something is not a high risk, scientific experts
will have a very difficult time convincing the public that it is. Leiss (2003)
argues that, “the golden rule for risk managers is: always focus on the linked
hazard-plus-concern” (p. 369).
Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), known to the general public
as mad cow disease, provides a clear example of public outrage outpacing
a scientific hazard. You may recall that the discovery of BSE in the United
Kingdom resulted in hundreds of thousands of animals being destroyed.
In reality, BSE has a very low likelihood of entering the food supply in the
United States. The disease has an even lower potential for infecting humans
who ingest contaminated meat. Still, there is a possibility, albeit very small,
that an infected animal theoretically could reach the food supply and infect
consumers. This small risk caused Oprah Winfrey to declare on her program
that she would never eat beef again. Public outrage over BSE, not only in the
United States but also internationally, devastated Canadian beef producers
after several infected cows were discovered in that country. The United
States has taken extreme measures to make certain that no cow showing
symptoms even remotely similar to BSE can enter the food supply. In June
2005, Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns announced that a suspicious cow
had been identified, destroyed, and tested before it entered the food supply.
When the animal tested positive for a strain of BSE, Johanns sought to avoid
further intensification of public outrage by making the following statement:
I am encouraged that our interlocking safeguards are working
exactly as intended. . . . This animal was blocked from entering
the food supply because of the firewalls we have in place.
Americans have every reason to continue to be confident in the
safety of our beef. (“U.S. confirms,” 2005, p. A4)
In his statements, Johanns recognized that public outrage would not
permit him to deemphasize the hazard of BSE. He wisely recognized public
concern and emphasized the protective strategies the USDA had developed
since the first case of BSE was discovered in the United States 2 years earlier.
The strength of the dialogue-centered philosophy is that, by its nature,
it takes into account the public’s outrage. Through dialogue, public concerns
are heard and considered in the development of risk management practices.
This has clearly been the case in dealing with BSE. There are, however, several
weaknesses with the dialogue-centered philosophy. These weaknesses
are diametrically opposed to the strengths of the technology-centered
Chapter 10 Risk Communication 205
approach. The dialogue-centered approach functions very slowly, and the
opinions shared by the general public are not always based on fact. Thus,
if a community functioned solely under the philosophy of the dialoguecentered
approach, it could not respond with urgency to a threatening situation.
Worse, a totally democratic process could result in an uninformed
public actually endorsing very risky behavior.
Rowan (1995) offers a helpful compromise to the tension between the
technology-centered and the dialogue-centered approaches. She explains
that engaging in the democratic process does not in and of itself mean that
we will arrive at the best decision regarding a risk situation. Rowan is concerned
about a dialogue process that “tries to outlaw an important communication
skill: persuasion” (p. 303). She offers the warning, however, that
such persuasion by any party in a risk debate should only occur after a careful
examination of the evidence. Unfortunately, persuasive messages are
often delivered prematurely by biased individuals and organizations that
“should be listening or gathering information rather than attempting to
persuade” (p. 303), she explains. Ultimately, Rowan advocates an interactive
approach that is “most likely to secure
the best possible technical knowledge
about hazards and the best possible methods
of addressing stakeholders’ concerns”
(p. 304). This compromise is summarized
in Opportunity 3.
CONVERGENCE THEORY AND RISK COMMUNICATION
Palenchar and Heath (2002) explain that the universal objective of risk messages
is to promote accurate and ethical decision making about risk issues.
Although this objective is straightforward, the complexity of risk issues can
cause communicators to lose focus. Many risk issues cause deep divisions
among parties. For example, the prevalence of global warming, or the lack
thereof, has fostered intense debate due to what Palenchar and Heath call
“competing scientific conclusions” (p. 130). Interpretations of global warming
evidence range from complete denial of its existence to claims that we
have passed the tipping point and that no human effort can reverse the damage
to Earth’s atmosphere. When such debates about risk issues occur among
experts, they “are apt to heighten public uncertainty about what the facts
really are, increase doubts about whether the hazards are really understood,
and decrease the credibility of official spokespersons” (Kasperson et al., 2000,
p. 242). In such contentious cases, sorting through the available risk messages
is both difficult and confusing for the lay public.
OPPORTUNITY 3
Risk communication must account for both
hazard and outrage.
206 Part III The Opportunities
Convergence theory offers an explanation of how such public debates
over risk issues are received, sorted, and assessed by the lay public (Sellnow,
Ulmer, Seeger, & Littlefield, 2009). Convergence theory is based on
Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca’s (1969) notion of interacting arguments.
They explain that the audience’s understanding of a contested risk issue,
such as global warming, “shifts each moment as argumentation [public
debate] proceeds” (p. 460). In other words, the arguments of opposing parties
interact to form a new understanding of the issue.
As arguments interact, both risk communicators and the lay audiences
ascertain the strength and weakness of the arguments. Arguments are weak
when they have little support and establish a position outside the parameters
of competing arguments. Arguments are strong when at least a portion
of their reasoning shares a commonality with other reasonable parties
involved in the debate (Sellnow et al., 2009). This commonality, as Perelman
and Olbrechts-Tyteca (1969) explain, is “almost always recognized” because
the “likelihood that several entirely erroneous arguments would reach the
same result is very small” (p. 471).
When risk issues are contested in a public setting, Sellnow and
colleagues (2009) explain that convergence functions systematically:
We see convergence as the primary objective in risk communication.
The uncertainty in risk situations gives rise to competing
claims about the levels of danger and about the appropriate
means for responding. Thus, diverse arguments emerge. As the
public observes these arguments, it is unlikely to fully accept one
line of reasoning and totally reject another. Instead, the public is
likely to make sense of the issue by observing ways in which the
arguments interact. (p. 12)
The convergence Sellnow et al. (2009) describe can be seen through
the global warming example introduced above. Figure 10.1 displays several
competing positions on the global warming issue. The positions range
from the complete extremes that global warming is a myth to the position
that global warming is so severe that it cannot be reversed. In this case, the
majority of the positions at least acknowledge the existence of global warming.
Hence, the varying positions offer strength to the converging position
that global warming exists to some degree. Complete denial of global warming
is a weak argument in that it does not converge with the other positions
(Sellnow et al., 2009). Convergence is represented in the diagram by the
points of intersection in the circles. In this example, the likely conclusion is
that global warming is a risk, but how to deal with it is still not understood.
Chapter 10 Risk Communication 207
RESPONSIBLE RISK COMMUNICATION
Consideration of the dialogue-centered approach, the technology-centered
approach, hazards, and outrage can make crisis communication seem overwhelming.
Trying to communicate responsibly in a complex situation may
appear to be a daunting task. Having considered this challenge for quite
some time, we believe we have arrived at a straightforward and reasonable
approach: We introduce significant choice as the foundation for responsible
risk communication. We also contrast significant choice with fantasy messages
that are designed to mislead the public.
SIGNIFICANT CHOICE
Nilsen (1974) is credited with developing the concept of significant
choice within the context of communication studies. Nilsen explains that a
good share of human dignity resides in the capacity to make rational decisions.
As risk communicators, we often seek to influence those decisions. If
Global warming
does not exist. Global warming
may exist.
Global warming
exists, but we do
not know what
to do yet.
Global warming
exists, and this
is what must
be done.
Global warming
exists, and it’s too
late to stop it.
Figure 10.1 Communication Convergence Global Warming
208 Part III The Opportunities
we provide unclear or biased information to stakeholders, we can corrupt
the decision-making process. Significant choice represents the ideal circumstances
for free and informed decision making. Nilsen asserts that stakeholders
engage in significant choice when the following five standards are met:
1. Stakeholders are free from physical or mental coercion.
2. The choice is made based on all the information that is available.
3. All reasonable alternatives are included in the discussion.
4. Both short-term and long-term consequences are disclosed and
discussed.
5. Both senders and receivers of messages are open about the personal
motives they have that may influence their decision making.
These five standards provide an initial framework for avoiding bias and
manipulation in risk communication. When applied effectively, according
to Nilsen, significant choice creates a marketplace of ideas where various
viewpoints can be heard and understood for what they are. Hearing these
viewpoints, stakeholders can make objective decisions that they believe to
be in their best interests.
While emphasizing the five standards for open communication, Nilsen
(1974) cautions against several forms of communication that could diminish
the opportunity for significant choice. Nilsen labels these forms of problematic
communication “misinformation” (p. 71). Misinformation includes
the following characteristics:
? Incomplete information
? Biased information
? Statistical units that may be inadequately defined or incomplete
? Vague or ambiguous terminology in which listeners find erroneous
meanings
? Implied relationships between the issue under discussion and other
issues when in fact no relationship exists (for example, guilt by
association)
? A false sense of urgency or false sense of importance
? Highly emotionalized language, which may distort meaning (pp.
71–72)
For significant choice to occur, then, communicators must meet the five
standards discussed earlier and avoid the seven forms of misinformation.
Chapter 10 Risk Communication 209
As risk communicators, we should strive to meet these standards and avoid
these pitfalls. As receivers of risk communication, we should demand that
speakers hold to these standards and object if we feel they are engaging in
misinformation. Above all, risk communication functions best when risk
communicators serve as “honest brokers” of information for their stakeholders
(Horlick-Jones, Sime, & Pidgeon, 2003).
FANTASY MESSAGES
The greatest threat to significant choice is our vulnerability to messages
that tell us what we want to hear even when the messages sound too
good to be true. Despite familiarity with the age-old adage, “Anything that
sounds too good to be true probably is,” many of us on occasion fall victim
to what Perrow (1999) calls fantasy messages. Perrow explains that fantasy
messages tell the public what it wants to believe by producing exaggerated
crisis management and risk assessment plans that create a fantasy of safety.
Perrow argues, for example, that Exxon used their crisis plans as fantasy
documents rather than blueprints for action to avoid discussing the real
risk of oil transportation in Alaska. Perrow explains that either intentionally
or unintentionally, the biases of risk communicators can overwhelm
them, leading to deceptive communication that boldly overstates the merits
of one position while dismissing all others.
Fantasy messages are an ever-present part of our lives. Advertisers tell
us their products will change our lives in ways that sound too good to be
true. In early adolescence, we come to realize that such messages cannot be
taken seriously. As consumers of risk communication
messages, we must be equally
vigilant. If a risk communicator discusses
only one side of an issue, we should
demand to hear the other sides as well. If a
risk communicator oversimplifies an issue
or uses language and terminology we cannot
hope to decipher, we should demand that the message be provided in
a clear and appropriate manner. The concept of significant choice offers
a time-tested set of standards to which all risk communication should be
held. Thus, we offer Opportunity 4.
SUMMARY
Every crisis event, no matter how baffling, has some degree of warning
before it occurs. This warning is risk. Risk may be readily apparent, as in
the shocking maneuvers of athletes in events such as the X Games or the
OPPORTUNITY 4
To ensure social responsibility, all risk
communication should be held to the standard
of significant choice.
210 Part III The Opportunities
death-defying antics of motorcycle jumpers. Most often, however, risk
is subtle. If we are to identify, learn from, and communicate responsibly
about risk, we would be wise to keep the following opportunities in mind:
Most important, effective risk communication allows for interaction
among all stakeholders in any risk situation. To maximize this interaction,
risk communicators should be conscious of the various needs of diverse
stakeholders.
Opportunity 1: Effective risk communication can disrupt a crisis and
prevent it from reaching its full magnitude.
Opportunity 2: A mindful outlook is essential to recognizing new
risks.
Opportunity 3: Risk communication must account for both hazard
and outrage.
Opportunity 4: To ensure social responsibility, all risk communication
should be held to the standard of significant choice.
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212
Responding to the
Ethical Demands of
Crisis
11
Confronted with the accusations of lying to the public, investors,
and his own employees about the status of his company, Enron
CEO Kenneth Lay denied he had done anything wrong. He
claimed that his subordinates had misled him and that he was
not responsible for Enron’s illegal and deceptive business practices.
It was later revealed that Enron executives had manipulated
stock prices, created electricity shortages so that they could charge
higher rates, and bribed officials.
As we saw in Chapter 6, the collapse of Enron resulted in hundreds of
employees losing their jobs and wiped out the retirement savings of many
more. Kenneth Lay, like many other CEOs involved in financial crisis, used
the hear no evil, see no evil defense to claim that he did not know what was
going on in his own company.
In April of 2013, an 11-story building in Bangladesh housing five garment
factories collapsed killing over 1,000 workers and injuring 2,500
more. The factories produced low-cost garments for well-known retailers
including Benneton, The Gap, and Children’s Palace. The owner of the
building had been informed of serious cracks in the walls and the floors
and had told workers to ignore them. Initially, politicians claimed that
the building collapse was not significant. Protests by garment workers
and international outrage prompted several arrests including the building
owner.
Garment industry working conditions in developing countries have
been severely criticized for their conduct, including hiring of underage
workers, paying very low wages, and creating unsafe working conditions.
The retailers rely on very cheap labor in developing countries to produce
high-profit products for sale in Europe and the United States. Critics charge
they exploit workers and put them at risk to protect profits.
Chapter 11 Responding to the Ethical Demands of Crisis 213
The crises at Enron, Bangladesh, and the Catholic Church sex scandal,
illustrate the role of ethics in organizational crisis: Many crises are created
by unethical and even illegal conduct on the organization’s part. Illegal and
deceptive business practices, unsafe working conditions, insider trading,
knowingly selling defective products, misleading marketing claims, sexual
harassment, bribery, and kickbacks, among many other unethical business
practices, have led to crises.
In addition, almost all crises, even if they were not caused by unethical
conduct, have ethical implications. The 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill,
for example, raised questions about blame and responsibility, about environmental
exploitation, and about the rights of native people. The 2011
Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan raised questions about the safe
use of nuclear energy and the right of access to information about radiation
exposure
In this chapter, we define ethics and values and describe some of the key
ethical issues and values that arise during a crisis. It is important to recognize
that ethics are always part of any crisis situation and failure to address
ethics can make the crisis much worse. We also describe some of the ways
in which values can create opportunities that inform an effective response.
ETHICS
Ethics concern basic judgments of right and wrong, good and bad, and
desirable and undesirable. Ethics are the values, standards, principles, or
guidelines we use for making these judgments. Ethical issues and questions
arise whenever a situation or a decision has the potential to affect another
person. A situation where someone is discriminated against is unethical
because of the impact on that person. Lying is unethical because it denies
the person being lied to accurate information. Everyone, however, occasionally
uses small so-called white lies to help manage their lives (Bok,
1979). There is some disagreement about whether these white lies are
unethical because they generally do no harm. As the potential impact on
others becomes greater, issues take on more ethical significance. During a
crisis, the potential to harm others is often quite large, and therefore, the
ethical implications are very great (Simola, 2003; Wilkins, 2010).
Ethical judgments are based on specific values that we have learned
and internalized. We all make many ethical judgments every day. We may
see a politician trying to spin a particular issue in a way that we judge
as misleading and deceptive. We may make purchasing decisions about a
produce based on how we judge the behavior of the company. In evaluating
or judging behaviors as wrong or unethical, we are applying some set
214 Part III The Opportunities
of standards or values regarding what we think is appropriate behavior.
We may believe, for example, that politicians should not lie or distort the
truth, that lying is wrong. We may believe that companies should respect
the environment and that they should act responsibly in dealing with
potentially toxic materials.
Many people reacted negatively to the sexual abuse scandals in the
Catholic Church. The behaviors of the priests involved were judged as fundamentally
unethical and immoral because they were entirely inconsistent
with the values and norms of the church. Basic values about appropriate
sexual behavior (priests take vows of celibacy) and protecting children were
violated. In addition, many observers believed that the church responded
unethically by refusing to accept responsibility and by trying to hide the
facts of these cases. The British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in
2010 created significant harm to the environment, to the fishing and tourism
industries, and to many communities. Basic values about respect for
the environment were violated because close to 5 million barrels of oil were
spilled into the Gulf. Some critics suggested that BP tried to minimize the
harm and withhold information about the size of the spill and its impact.
Ethical judgments help inform our behaviors and choices. While no
one acts in an ethical manner all the time, most of us at least recognize when
we are behaving in ways that might be judged as unethical. In addition, we
may choose to avoid interacting with others whom we judge as unethical.
A good person, for example, is more likely to be believed. This also holds
true for our choices about doing business with particular organizations.
An organization with a good reputation may have more support from its
public and stakeholders than one judged as bad or unethical. Many people
stopped giving money to the Catholic Church following the sex scandals.
Many people cut up their Exxon credit cards following the Valdez oil spill.
These ethical judgments, however, are not easy to make. Some people
look to universal ethical standards that can apply in all circumstances and
for all people. While universal standards would make ethical judgments
much easier, most researchers agree that the specific situation is an important
factor in determining how to apply ethics. In addition, ethical standards
vary quite widely among cultures, communities, and professional groups.
What might be considered an appropriate ethical standard for attorneys
might be very different in the case regarding a public relations professional.
What is considered ethical conduct in the China might not be considered
acceptable in South Africa or Brazil.
In most cases, ethical judgments are more comprehensive when they
take into account situational factors, different values, competing loyalties,
and complex duties and obligations. These are the conditions faced in
Chapter 11 Responding to the Ethical Demands of Crisis 215
most organizations where multiple stakeholders are involved (Christensen
& Kohls, 2003).
CORPORATIONS AS MORAL AGENTS
One of the complexities that relates to organizational ethics concerns the
question: can an organization act in a moral or immoral way? Philosophers
often argue that only humans are moral agents and only they can make
moral judgments. Organizations, because they are not humans, cannot be
held to human-based ethical standards. Based on this, some have argued
that only individual managers can be held morally accountable. When an
organization does something wrong, it must be traced back to the individual
manager (the moral agent) who made the decision. If a manager can’t be
found, then it would be inappropriate to hold the organization as a whole
accountable because they are not moral agents. Others have suggested that
often the individual manager is just a scapegoat for some unethical conduct,
and the organization as a whole should be held morally accountable.
Organizations, however, often act in collective ways like a moral agent. A
third view is that the organization and the managers who make the decisions
about organizations should both be held accountable. In this way,
society can help ensure that accountability exists and that organizations are
forced to act in ethical ways (Seeger & Kuhn, 2011).
In many cases of unethical conduct leading to a crisis, there is a debate
about who is responsible and who should be held accountable. This occurs
because the causes of crises are often uncertain and unclear, especially at the
early stages, and because organizations and individuals want to avoid responsibility.
In the case of Enron, which we discussed earlier, the senior managers
claimed that they didn’t know what was happening and sought to shift
blame to one another. While senior managers had obviously acted in unethical
ways, the company’s entire culture was one that promoted unethical conduct.
In the case of Enron, both managers and the entire organization were
eventually held accountable. In the case of the BP spill, questions were raised
about the company that owned the drilling rig and the contractors who had
helped install some of the safety equipment; BP argued that these groups also
shared responsibility. The question of moral agency is important because it
often determines who will be held responsible for unethical behavior.
VALUES
As noted earlier, ethical judgments are based on values (Beyer & Lutze,
1993). Values are the larger positions we have learned and that inform
our attitudes, beliefs, and, ultimately, ethical judgments. They are the
216 Part III The Opportunities
more specific ought tos, shoulds, ideals, norms, and goals that exist
throughout any society, culture, or community. For example, many
communication students have learned to value free speech and expression,
diversity of opinion, and the free flow of information. The health
care profession teaches values of supportiveness, nurturing, and caring
for the sick and less fortunate. The Public Relations Society of America
(PRSA) suggests the core values of advocacy, honesty, expertise, independence,
loyalty, and fairness are instrumental to its profession (“PRSA
member statement,” 2000). Most schools of business teach their students
principles of social responsibility along with the values associated with
profits. Of course, values are also taught at home and through religion.
Values are thus ubiquitous in our lives.
What is particularly interesting is that not everyone agrees that the
same set of values is most important. Some people value personal freedom
and personal choice, while others place more importance on religious
values and the sanctity of all human life. This value conflict underlies the
ongoing abortion debate. In organizations, values concerning profitability
and economic gain often conflict with values concerning the well-being
of employees or the environment. Values vary widely from individual to
individual, context to context, organization to organization, and culture to
culture. The fact that not everyone agrees with the same set of values is
often described as the competing value view. There is almost always a disagreement
in any given situation over which values are most important and
which values might apply in a situation. Often, before a decision can be
made, these values need to be discussed, debated, and sorted out.
In one relevant case, a city in California experienced an earthquake.
Residents were afraid to return to their houses because of potential aftershocks
and had gathered in city parks. The city had to decide whether or
not to set up tents for them. The police chief argued against setting up tents,
claiming that he could not ensure security and public order and that people
should be encouraged to disperse. The emergency management director
argued that tents were necessary to ensure the welfare and psychological
well-being of the community. In this case, values related to security were in
conflict with those involving public welfare. The mayor, taking into account
the situation, decided that the tents would go up.
During the 2009 H1N1 “swine” flu outbreak, many schools and colleges
were encouraged to reconsider their attendance policies. Public health
officials, who value the well-being of the public, pointed out that having sick
students come to class would increase the spread of the disease and make
the pandemic much worse. Schools and colleges, however, value learning
and education and were reluctant to change their attendance policies. One
Chapter 11 Responding to the Ethical Demands of Crisis 217
university tried to balance these competing values with the following message:
“Students with flu symptoms will be expected to balance their academic
responsibilities with the social responsibility to self-isolate. In return,
students should expect their instructors to demonstrate reasonable flexibility
in the enforcement of written policies on class attendance and excused
absences.” In this case, competing values were balanced.
VALUES AND CRISIS
As the preceding examples illustrate, ethical questions are almost always
important considerations following a crisis. In addition, crises often create
the need to balance competing values. Crises, by definition, have created
some harm and have the potential to create even more. Often, a crisis creates
victims who are physically, psychologically, and economically vulnerable.
Values that are important during times of normalcy and stability may not
be as critical during a crisis situation. In many cases, short-term concerns
about budgets need to be set aside so that the immediate needs of victims
can be addressed.
Three ethical standards often become prominent in crisis situations:
responsibility and accountability, access to information, and the ethic of
humanistic care.
RESPONSIBILITY AND ACCOUNTABILITY
Following a crisis, there is almost always an effort to sort out what went
wrong and why. Part of this process is to determine who might be responsible
or culpable. Responsibility is a broad, ethical concept that refers to the
fact that individuals and groups have morally based obligations and duties
to others and to larger ethical and moral codes, standards, and traditions.
In addition, responsibility concerns who or what caused a particular outcome.
If someone freely made a choice that led to a particular outcome,
then he or she is responsible for that outcome. If I run a stop sign and cause
an accident, I am responsible for that accident. I may then be asked to give
an account of my actions. If an organization takes some action that causes
harm, such as creating a crisis, it too is responsible and will likely be forced
to account for its actions. Thus, responsibility and accountability are closely
related ethical concepts.
As we described in Chapter 4, many of the approaches associated with
postcrisis communication are image restoration strategies designed to
respond to the crisis or offer an account or explanation of what happened.
Image restoration strategies are also frequently used to limit or contain an
218 Part III The Opportunities
organization’s responsibility, which might also mean less legal liability. In
general, accepting responsibility for actions is considered ethical (Ulmer &
Sellnow, 2000). This includes taking action to help victims, providing support
and resources, and helping alleviate and contain the harm. Seeking to
avoid or deny responsibility would be considered unethical conduct. This
includes denying that any harm occurred, shifting blame to others, and
refusing to provide assistance to victims on the grounds that it might create
legal liability. Following the Valdez oil spill, Exxon blamed the captain of the
ship for the accident, America’s driving habits for the need to transport oil,
and the state of Alaska for interfering with the cleanup. This example also
illustrates the problem of corporate moral agency we described earlier in
this chapter. In addition to the role of responsibility in postcrisis situations,
organizations also have ethical responsibilities before a crisis occurs. They
are ethically obligated to exercise care in their decisions and operations
so that harm does not occur. Machinery should be maintained. Workers
should be trained appropriately. Procedures for handling dangerous chemicals
need to be established so that no one is harmed. Safety should be taken
seriously. Most important, managers have an ethical responsibility to monitor
their organizations for warning signs of any impending crisis and must
act on those warnings. Opportunity 1, then, involves the role of responsibility
in crisis communication. Accepting
responsibility is an opportunity for an
organization to demonstrate its ethical
stance. Organizations that embrace ethics
early in a crisis are more likely to be able to
move quickly toward renewal than those
that get caught up in protracted debates
about blame and responsibility.
ACCESS TO INFORMATION
As mentioned earlier, fundamental values of communication are free
speech and expression and the free flow of information. In general, an ethical
obligation exists to provide people with the information necessary for
them to make informed choices. This obligation is sometimes referred to
as significant choice, because it gives people information they need to make
significant choices. Organizations dealing with toxic chemicals, for example,
have a moral obligation to inform members of the surrounding community
of the potential risks so community members can make informed
choices about how to respond. Drug companies list the risks of using drugs
on their labels. The government often mandates these warnings, and they
OPPORTUNITY 1
Organizations are better able to generate
productive crisis responses if they are willing
to accept responsibility for any actions that
may have caused the crisis.
Chapter 11 Responding to the Ethical Demands of Crisis 219
serve to give consumers information for making informed choices about
significant issues.
Any kind of deception is ethically questionable because it restricts the
freedom of the person being deceived. Lies place the liar in a powerful position
over those being lied to. The person being lied to does not have the
information necessary to make an informed choice. As we discussed in
Chapter 3, during the Bhopal disaster, where as many as 5,000 people may
have died, Union Carbide sought to manage the public concerns associated
with its plants by describing the insecticide it produced as benign plant
medicines. This subtle description helped reduce the level of public apprehension
about the chemical facility, and this meant that residents could not
make fully informed choices about the risks. Similarly, as we discussed in
Chapter 3, a very effective public relations campaign helped convince the
residents of Alaska that oil exploration and shipping was safe and that a
major spill was unlikely. The public eventually supported building a terminal
in Valdez, Alaska, and allowed shipping oil through Prince William
Sound. The fact that people believed that a spill was very unlikely may have
contributed to an attitude of complacency and ultimately may have contributed
to the Exxon spill and delayed the cleanup.
In some cases, organizations try to avoid providing information
because it is too costly and complicated. Food companies, for example,
have resisted some efforts to list the country of origin for products. They
claim that tracking and reporting this information when foods may include
ingredients from dozens of countries would be too hard. Others, however,
claim that consumers have a right to know where their food comes from
and not having this information makes it hard to support local farmers.
Organizations sometimes withhold information or temporarily postpone
its release for a variety of ethically justifiable reasons. In the case of an
airline disaster, for example, families of victims are usually notified before
passenger lists are released to the press. This action respects the rights of
the families. School crisis plans sometimes include provisions to protect the
privacy of students.
Organizational crises are public events that create a great deal of close
media attention. There is usually much pressure to be open, truthful, and
honest. However, organizations often
choose to withhold information, try to
remain strategically ambiguous, or simply
stonewall. These kinds of responses are
usually not ethically justifiable and often
lead to even more damage to the organization’s
reputation. The severity of a crisis is
OPPORTUNITY 2
Organizations that are open and honest
before and during crises are better prepared
to manage and recover from the events.
220 Part III The Opportunities
usually increased by the perception that the organization is dishonest or
withholding information (Benoit, 1995). In contrast, the perception that
the organization has been open, honest, and forthcoming with all relevant
information may reduce the seriousness of a crisis and ultimately help the
organization’s image. Thus, we offer Opportunity 2.
HUMANISM AND CARE
An ethical standard relevant to many crisis conditions concerns humanistic
care. Humanism is a philosophical standpoint and value system that
emphasizes the uniqueness and inherent worth of human beings. The ethic
of care concerns the duty all humans have to others and specifically requires
a supportive response to individuals who have suffered some harm and who
have some need (Johannesen, 2001; Simola, 2003). In some religious traditions,
the ethic of care is portrayed in the parable of the Good Samaritan. In
this story a person who has been injured is helped by a stranger. This story
teaches the lessons that we all have obligations to help others in times of
need, even strangers. This ethical perspective is often particularly important
when a crisis or disaster creates victims who have suffered hardship,
loss, and physical, economic, and emotional harm.
A humanistic orientation requires that organizations be sensitive to the
harm that may be caused by their operations, including what could happen
in a crisis. Following the death of an employee due to an organizational
accident or workplace violence, many organizations provide financial assistance
to the family. Counseling offered to victims, their families, and others
affected is often part of a crisis response.
In one case we witnessed, a tragic shooting occurred on a college
campus during finals week. Many students were very upset. The college
provided psychological counseling to any student who requested it and
postponed final exams for any student who felt the need for more time.
The college also held memorial services and provided other kinds of support
to students, faculty, and staff.
Many relief agencies, including the American Red Cross and various
religiously based relief agencies, undertake caring and humanistic responses
to large-scale crises. The Red Cross provides medical assistance, food, shelter,
counseling, and short-term financial assistance for disaster victims. It
defines its mission as the service of humanity by “providing relief to victims
of disasters” and helping people “prevent, prepare for and respond to emergencies”
(“What is the mission,” 2005).
Following 9/11, hundreds of thousands of people from around the world
made donations to various funds to help the victims and the families of
Chapter 11 Responding to the Ethical Demands of Crisis 221
survivors. Similar responses have occurred for most major disasters. Caring
responses to the Indian Ocean tsunami included millions of dollars in private
donations. Some $30 million was raised by the One Boston foundation
to support the victims of the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombings. Crisis often
creates an opportunity for organizations and other groups and agencies to
respond in humane and caring ways, to nurture others, and to ethically
respond to human suffering. In fact, there is a natural tendency to want
to help following a crisis. Seeing media
accounts of victims can prompt people to
help out following a crisis. From a humanistic
perspective, organizations have an
ethical duty to avoid harming others. They
also have a duty to be supportive of those
who are harmed by crises. When an organization
acknowledges that following a
crisis one of its first obligations is to help others, it generates good will and
bolsters its reputation. This can help the organization move toward renewal.
Opportunity 3 suggests that humanism and care are critical following crises.
THE ROLE OF VALUES IN A CRISIS RESPONSE
While crises always create threats and harm, they also create opportunities
to clarify values and to demonstrate those values by acting in ethical manners.
During a crisis, organizations often struggle to act appropriately. A
crisis is an uncertain situation, and organizations sometimes simply don’t
know what to do. Managers are often confused and even shocked and simply
cannot determine what actions to take. In these cases, it is very important to
take time and think about the ethical implications. This includes thinking
carefully about whom the stakeholders potentially impacted by the crisis
are, what their values are, how they might be impacted, and what duties
and obligations the organization has to these stakeholders. Stakeholders for
a crisis may include customers, suppliers, employees, members of the community,
crisis response agencies, and members of the media, among many
others. Each of these groups will have its own values, and these values are
likely to compete with other values.
One effective approach in a crisis situation where it is not clear how to
respond is to consider the organization’s own core values (Seeger & Ulmer,
2001). As we discussed in Chapter 7, when faced with the fact that its Tylenol
product had been laced with cyanide, for example, Johnson & Johnson
turned to its corporate mission statement to determine what to do. The mission
statement emphasized the company’s duty to its customers, so Johnson
OPPORTUNITY 3
Organizations that make humanism and care
priorities before crises are better prepared
for enacting these values after they have
occurred.
222 Part III The Opportunities
& Johnson withdrew Tylenol from store shelves. The company received a
great deal of positive publicity for its actions, which ultimately helped it
recover from the crisis. Johnson & Johnson was able to survive this crisis
in large part because it followed its core values in determining its response.
Recall the case where Malden Mills suffered a devastating fire at its
manufacturing facility in Chapter 4. The company was in complete ruin,
and workers faced losing their jobs. CEO Aaron Feuerstein chose to respond
to the crisis from a well-established set of values and ethics concerning his
duty to workers and to the community (Ulmer, 2001). He announced that
workers would continue to be paid and that he would rebuild the company
as soon as possible. Feuerstein received a great deal of support and recognition
for his actions, and ultimately, he was able to rebuild the company. In
fact, the new plant he built was much more efficient than the one that had
been destroyed.
The Malden Mills story illustrates that a value-based response to a crisis
can actually help a company renew itself. It may find new areas of support
and opportunity if it responds ethically to a crisis. As we discussed in
Chapter 8, Cantor Fitzgerald was a bond trading company located on the
top floor of the World Trade Center. The company and its CEO, Howard
Lutnick, were known as cutthroat competitors who did not necessarily
let ethics get in the way of profits. The attack on the World Trade Center
claimed the lives of 600 CF employees, including Lutnick’s brother. Lutnick
publicly appealed to people to help him rebuild his company so that he
could, in turn, help support the families of those employees who died in
the attack (Seeger, Ulmer, Novak, & Sellnow, 2005). Lutnick was publically
acknowledging that his most important ethical obligation was to the families
of his employees who had lost their lives. CF did survive, and now the
company has a renewed set of values and sense of purpose based on the
losses of the 9/11 attacks.
Another effective approach to understanding values during a crisis is
called virtue ethics. This is a traditional approach to ethics that can be traced
all the way back to Aristotle. Virtue ethics suggests that people tend to act
in predictable ways and follow their established patterns of conduct. Thus,
a manager who has developed a habit of being honest in the past tends to be
honest in the future. Honesty, in this case, is a virtue of this manager.
Virtuous responses are closely related to the development of a positive
reputation and what is sometimes called the reservoir of goodwill. A reservoir
of goodwill is a general public perception that the organization has
been responsible, trustworthy, ethical, and so on. This public perception
may have many benefits. It may create a halo effect that influences how
other activities are perceived. It can reduce the impact of a crisis event.
Chapter 11 Responding to the Ethical Demands of Crisis 223
Regarding renewal, a reservoir of goodwill can generate critical public
support for an organization attempting to rebuild and recreate itself following
a crisis (Jones, Jones, & Little, 2000).
We have found that virtue ethics are one important factor in effective
responses to crises. Organizations and senior managers who have established
patterns of responsible conduct toward their stakeholders tend to
follow those patterns during a crisis. Aaron Feuerstein of Malden Mills and
Milt Cole of Cole Hardwood were both managers who had established habits
of being virtuous. They were fair to their workers, responsible members
of their communities, and honest in their business dealings. When their
companies were destroyed, they not only committed to rebuilding, but they
also committed to supporting their communities. One additional benefit of
virtue ethics is that it helps build a reservoir of goodwill before a crisis that
the organization can draw on during a crisis. Both Milt Cole and Aaron
Feuerstein had the support of stakeholders because they had established
such good relations with stakeholders before a crisis.
To recap, a value-based response to a crisis can bolster an organization’s
reputation, serve as a rallying point for support, and ultimately lead
to renewal. Moreover, during the uncertainty and confusion of a crisis,
values and ethics are important landmarks
that can help an organization reorient itself
and respond in an ethical manner. Two
approaches involve the organization’s established
core values and the habits of virtuous
responses established by senior managers.
Thus, we offer Opportunity 4.
SUMMARY
Ethics and values are always part of a crisis. This includes questions of
responsibility and accountability, free flows of information, and a caring,
humane response. These and other values and ethics compete with one
another and need to be sorted out to determine which values will take precedence.
Sadly, values of profitability and self-protection often take priority
over everything else. An ethical response to a crisis, however, can help
bolster an organization’s image and reputation and ultimately help lead an
organization toward renewal.
Opportunity 1: Organizations are better able to generate productive
crisis responses if they are willing to accept responsibility for any
actions they may have taken to cause the crisis.
OPPORTUNITY 4
Organizations have a larger reservoir of
goodwill and are better prepared to avoid
or manage crises if they have identified,
discussed, instituted, and followed core values.
224 Part III The Opportunities
Opportunity 2: Organizations that are open and honest before and
during crises are better prepared to manage and recover from the
events.
Opportunity 3: Organizations that make humanism and care priorities
before crises are better prepared for enacting these values after they
have occurred.
Opportunity 4: Organizations are better prepared to avoid or manage
crises if they have identified, discussed, and instituted core values.
REFERENCES
Benoit, W. L. (1995). Sears’ repair of its auto service image: Image restoration discourse
in the corporate sector. Communication Studies, 46, 89–105.
Beyer, J., & Lutze, S. (1993). The ethical nexus: Organizations, values, and decisionmaking.
In C. Conrad (Ed.), The ethical nexus (pp. 23–45). Norwood, NJ:
Ablex.
Bok, S. (1979). Lying. New York, NY: Vintage Books.
Christensen, S. L., & Kohls, J. (2003). Ethical decision making in times of organizational
crisis: A framework for analysis. Business Society, 42(3), 328–358.
Johannesen, R. L. (2001). Ethics in human communication (5th ed.). Prospect
Heights, IL: Waveland.
Jones, G. H., Jones, B. H., & Little, P. (2000). Reputation and reservoir: Buffering
against loss in times of economic crisis. Corporate Reputation Review, 3(1),
21–29.
PRSA member statement of professional values. (2000). Retrieved from http://www
.prsa.org
Seeger, M. W., & Kuhn, T. (2011). Communication ethics and organizational contexts:
Divergent values and moral puzzles. In G. Cheney, S. May, & D. Munshi
(Eds.), The handbook of communication ethics (pp. 166–190). New York, NY:
Routledge.
Seeger, M. W., & Ulmer, R. R. (2001). Virtuous responses to organizational crisis:
Aaron Feuerstein and Milt Cole. Journal of Business Ethics, 31, 369–376.
Seeger, M. W., Ulmer, R. R., Novak, J. M., & Sellnow, T. L. (2005). Post-crisis discourse
and organizational change, failure and renewal. Journal of Organizational
Change Management, 18, 78–95.
Simola, S. (2003). Ethics of justice and care in corporate crisis management. Journal
of Business Ethics, 46(4), 351–361.
Ulmer, R. R. (2001). Effective crisis management through established stakeholder
relationships: Malden Mills as a case study. Management Communication
Quarterly, 14, 590–615.
Ulmer, R. R., & Sellnow, T. L. (2000). Consistent questions of ambiguity in organizational
crisis communication: Jack in the Box as a case study. Journal of
Business Ethics, 25, 143–155.
Chapter 11 Responding to the Ethical Demands of Crisis 225
What is the mission of the American Red Cross? (2005). Retrieved from http://www
.redcross.org/faq/0,1096,0_315_,00.html#383
Wilkins, L. (2010). Mitigation watchdogs: The ethical foundation for a journalist’s
role. In C. Meyers (Ed.), Journalism ethics: A philosophical approach (pp.
311–324). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
226
Inspiring Renewal
Through Effective Crisis
Communication
12
The focus of this book has been on taking the challenges crises
present and, when possible, turning them into opportunities.
As we discussed in the first chapter, we see crises as
turning points for organizations. Throughout the book, we
have provided some evidence that crises can be viewed as
they are perceived in Chinese culture, where the symbol for
crisis is interpreted as dangerous opportunity. We believe that mindfully
considering crises as containing the elements of both danger and opportunity
is essential to effective crisis communication. In this concluding
chapter, we build on the lessons, cases, and opportunities to further discuss
the theory of crisis communication called the Discourse of Renewal.
The Discourse of Renewal describes, explains, and provides a prescriptive
approach to communicating during a crisis (Ulmer, 2012). In the remaining
chapter, we first discuss some organizations that have emphasized
the opportunities associated with crises and created renewal. Second, we
delineate a theory of renewal. Third, we consider crisis as an opportunity
and renewal as a framework for effective crisis communication. We conclude
with some ideas about how the Discourse of Renewal can be used
to prepare for responding to crises.
CONSIDERING THE OPPORTUNITIES
ASSOCIATED WITH CRISIS
An examination of crises of all types illustrates a preponderance of failures
in communication with few examples of successful or effective responses.
We contend that many of these failures are related to the threat bias we
discussed in the first chapter. After reading this book and the examples
provided in the middle section of the book, you should have a good idea
of how emphasizing the opportunities over threat to image or reputation
Chapter 12 Inspiring Renewal Through Effective Crisis Communication 227
can be instrumental in a crisis response. As we discussed earlier in this
book, one of the first organizations to take a renewal approach to managing
a crisis was Johnson & Johnson following the crisis that involved Tylenol
pain reliever. Johnson & Johnson’s response to the Tylenol tampering in
1982 is a landmark case of largely effective crisis communication (Benoit
& Lindsey, 1987; Benson, 1988; Snyder & Foster, 1983). The company was
widely acclaimed in its crisis response for communicating immediately
about the crisis, recalling the Tylenol product immediately to protect stakeholders,
and for learning from the crisis by developing a new tamper-proof
package for their product. Johnson & Johnson actually grew their market
share following the crisis and increased its loyalty to its brand. In this case,
Johnson & Johnson’s crisis triggered an opportunity for the organization to
illustrate its value for customer safety and commitment to learn from a crisis.
After the tampering, Johnson & Johnson spent little time determining
responsibility or protecting its image. After its products were implicated
with being tampered with cyanide, Johnson & Johnson immediately sought
to make sure that its customers were safe and it could prevent the crisis
from happening again.
You have read about several organizations in this book that illustrate
the ability to see the opportunities available in a crisis. Organizations like
Malden Mills, Cole Hardwood, King Car, Odwalla, Schwan’s, Oklahoma
City, CF, and GM, along with community-based responses like those in
Greensburg, Kansas, and Rudy Giuliani’s response to 9/11, exemplify the
characteristics of seizing the opportunities inherent in crises. Clearly, there
was threat in each of these events, but these organizations also emphasized
the opportunities intrinsic to these crises as well. What follows is a discussion
of the theory of the Discourse of Renewal.
THEORETICAL COMPONENTS
OF THE DISCOURSE OF RENEWAL
We define renewal as a fresh sense of purpose and direction an organization
or system discovers after it emerges from a crisis (Ulmer, Sellnow, &
Seeger, 2009). As we briefly mentioned in Chapter 1, we see four theoretical
objectives central to the Discourse of Renewal: organizational learning,
ethical communication, a prospective rather than retrospective vision, and
sound organizational rhetoric (see Table 12.1). These approaches to crisis
communication suggest that organizations need to learn from crises
and illustrate learning from stakeholders through their communication.
The organization must also communicate ethically in its crisis communication.
We provide an in-depth discussion below about what we believe
228 Part III The Opportunities
constitutes ethical crisis communication and how to evaluate this communication
against solid ethical standards. Next, organizations need to be
able to resist focusing excessively on their reputations and trying to control
interpretations of them. Rather, each should emphasize a prospective
vision that moves the organization and its stakeholders forward. Finally,
the organization’s leadership should exemplify communication that models
optimism and commitment to actions that can resolve the crisis. We
discuss each of these objectives in more depth below.
ORGANIZATIONAL LEARNING
A central feature in the crisis communication literature is that learning
is essential to an effective response (Elliott, Smith, & McGuinness, 2000;
Kovoor-Misra & Nathan, 2000; Mittelstaedt, 2005; Nathan, 2000a, 2000b;
Roux-Doufort, 2000; Seeger, Sellnow, & Ulmer, 1998; Simon & Pauchant,
2000; Ulmer, Sellnow, & Seeger, 2007). Chapter 9 provides an extensive view
of how learning functions as an opportunity during a crisis. In short, crisis
creates an opportunity for an organization to confront its problems or deficiencies.
Sitkin (1996) argues that failure is an essential part of the learning
process for organizations. In this case, an organization should communicate
learning in its postcrisis responses as soon as possible. Communication
about learning provides organizational stakeholders with confidence that
the organization has resolved the crisis.
Simon and Pauchant (2000) describe three types of learning useful
for overcoming a crisis. Behavioral learning is the lowest form of learning
because changes are not internalized by members of the organization but
rather are “maintained by external control, through rules, regulations or
technological systems” (p. 7).
Paradigmatic learning involves “both changes due to an external
agency and changes enacted by the organization itself ” (p. 7). Organizations
need to take time to fully integrate learning throughout the
1. Organizational learning
2. Ethical communication
3. Prospective rather than retrospective vision following the crisis
4. Effective organizational rhetoric
Theoretical Elements Related to the Discourse of
Table 12.1 Renewal
Chapter 12 Inspiring Renewal Through Effective Crisis Communication 229
organization. This type of learning takes consistent training support
from the organization’s leadership and members. Systemic learning
involves an organization learning in advance of a crisis and preventing it.
Organizations seeking renewal are more likely to employ paradigmatic or
systemic learning rather than having a regulatory agency enforce behavioral
learning on them. Behavioral learning suggests that the organization
is experiencing impediments to learning and, as a result, needs external
verification that learning is taking place. Organizations seeking to create
a renewing crisis response or to avoid some crises altogether should work
toward systemic learning.
Elliott et al. (2000) delineated several barriers to organizational learning.
They explain that the key barriers include
rigidity of core beliefs, values and assumptions, ineffective communication
and information difficulties, failure to recognize
similar or identical situations that happen elsewhere, maladaptation,
threat minimization and environmental shifts, cognitive
narrowing and event fixation, centrality of expertise, denial and
disregard of outsiders, lack of corporate responsibility, and focus
upon “single loop” or single cause, learning. (p. 18)
We believe that organizations that emerge from crisis successfully
and capitalize on the opportunities of crisis will avoid these barriers and
emphasize the importance of what they can learn from the event. It is also
important that the organization illustrate to stakeholders how its learning
will help ensure that the organization will not experience a similar crisis in
the future.
Effective crisis communication messages should include discussions
of organizational learning. Several of the case studies in this book emphasize
the importance of learning. Odwalla communicated very specific
changes about its food processing by creating a flash pasteurization technique
that would keep the nutrients in the juice but remove or at least
limit the potential for E. coli infections. Jack in the Box communicated
about changes through its internal communication channels to ensure
that messages from state and federal agencies are received and communicated
appropriately. King Car clearly communicated its new testing procedures
for ensuring the safety of its powdered milk products following
the melamine crisis in China. TVA communicated a number of lessons
learned in its postcrisis communication to maintain legitimacy following
the ash slide near Knoxville. Beyond learning, organizations must also be
ethical in their crisis communication.
230 Part III The Opportunities
ETHICAL COMMUNICATION
A second key factor in creating a renewing response is communicating
ethically before, during, and after the crisis. As we discussed in Chapter 11,
on ethics in crisis communication, we believe that organizations that have
not prepared adequately for crisis or are unethical in their business practices
are going to have to account for those actions in the wake of a crisis. In fact,
unethical actions are often the cause of a crisis. One of the key factors in crisis
is that it reveals the ethical values of the organization. If an organization
is unethical before the crisis, those values are likely to be identified during
the crisis. Crises provide the opportunity to identify failures that have built
up over time and have been ignored or gone undetected. Organizations that
institute strong, positive value positions with key organizational stakeholders,
such as openness, honesty, responsibility, accountability, and trustworthiness,
before a crisis happens are best able to create renewal following
the crisis. We believe ethical communication involves having strong stakeholder
relationships, a provisional response to the crisis, and communication
that meets the ethical standard of significant choice. What follows is
a description of each of these standards as well as representative examples
for each one.
Stakeholder Relationships
Included in ethical communication are the relationships organizations
have with their stakeholders. There are few opportunities for the public
and stakeholders to view these organizational values prior to crisis. If
organizations are going to benefit from a reservoir of goodwill following a
crisis, they must invest in true equal partnerships with their stakeholders
prior to the crisis. Organizations that want to benefit from renewal focus
on developing clear understandings and amicable relationships with their
stakeholders. When strong relationships are developed before a crisis, an
organization is able to depend on its stakeholders to help it overcome the
negative effects of a crisis.
The case study on Malden Mills provides an example of a leader,
Aaron Feuerstein, who had developed strong positive relationships with
his stakeholders prior to the fire at his textile manufacturing plant. These
relationships served as a reservoir of goodwill and support that helped him
through the crisis. The Schwan’s case provides an example of how the truck
drivers’ positive relationships with customers played an important role in
the company’s recovery. Similarly, King Car was also able to build on its
strong positive relationships with suppliers to recall a very high percentage
of its contaminated product following the melamine crisis. Without these
Chapter 12 Inspiring Renewal Through Effective Crisis Communication 231
relationships, an important component of each company’s crisis response
would have been missing. What follows is a discussion of why crisis communication
should emphasize positive organizational values to be effective.
Provisional Rather Than Strategic Communication
Renewal and ethics also focus more on provisional or instinctive
responses to crisis rather than on strategic communication. Strategic
communication can be seen as unethical when it is designed to protect
the image of the organization by employing spin to deflect blame from
the organization. Renewal is often based on a leader’s established ethical
character. These leaders often respond in provisional or instinctive ways
deriving from long-established patterns of doing business. Typical of the
Discourse of Renewal is an immediate and instinctive response based on
the positive values and virtues of a leader rather than a strategic response
that emphasizes escaping issues of responsibility or blame.
Examples such as Milt Cole’s response to the fire at his lumber mill
exemplify a provisional response. Milt explained in the case study that he
knew immediately that he was going to rebuild the mill. He explained that,
the night following the fire, he slept like a
baby. Aaron Feuerstein, owner of Malden
Mills, responded in a similar manner.
Alfred Schwan responded to the salmonella
outbreak at Schwan’s with a personal
value statement that set the tone for
the organization’s crisis response: “If you
were a customer of Schwan’s, how would
you want the company to respond” (D. Jennings, personal communication,
January 29, 1996). Clearly, this response was not only consistent with
Alfred Schwan’s approach to business, but also compatible with his personal
values as well. What follows is a discussion of how ethical communication
can be determined ethical or unethical.
Significant Choice
As we discussed in our chapter on risk communication, significant
choice is an important ethical standard for effectiveness. Nilsen (1974)
explains that much of human dignity resides in the capacity to make rational
decisions. We advocate the ethic of significant choice as a criterion for
ethical crisis communication. In this case, we advocate always communicating
the essential information about what is best for the stakeholders
while never manipulating information. We use the notion of significant
OPPORTUNITY 1
Organizations that base their crisis
communication on strong, positive
organizational values are more likely to
experience renewal.
232 Part III The Opportunities
choice as criteria for evaluating the ethicality of postcrisis messages. Nilsen
argues for clear and unbiased communication in order for citizens to make
rational choices and decisions. Regarding crisis communication, providing
unclear or biased information to stakeholders can distort their decisionmaking
process and, as a result, deny them the opportunity to make rational
decisions.
The opportunity to make significant choices is crucial to effective crisis
communication. Domino’s was thrust into a crisis started over social
media and over time created significant choice for its stakeholders about
the hoax. Cases such as Enron and Katrina restricted significant choice
from stakeholders with disastrous results. TVA failed to communicate
effectively about the risk of an ash slide prior to the crisis and hence violated
the ethic of significant choice in its precrisis communication. Conversely,
King Car added to a larger discussion of risk and significant choice by testing
their own products for safety and publicly declaring them unsafe in the
wake of denials and stonewalling by other
companies. Complete and free access of
information though communication is
essential to effective crisis communication.
In addition, this communication
should be forward-looking to provide a
vision for the future.
PROSPECTIVE VERSUS RETROSPECTIVE VISION
A third feature of a renewing response is communication focused on
the future rather than the past. Organizations that have created renewing
responses to crisis typically are more prospective than retrospective in their
crisis communication. These organizations focus on the future, organizational
learning, optimism, their core values, and rebuilding rather than on
issues of blame or fault. Issues of blame and fault seem to be less important
in cases of organizational renewal. Organizations focusing on renewal are
typically optimistic and building a vision for the future.
OPTIMISM
The Discourse of Renewal is inherently an optimistic form of communication
and focuses on the ability of the organization to reconstitute itself
by capitalizing on the opportunities embedded in a crisis. For instance,
Meyers and Holusha (1986) explained that “[c]rises present opportunities
as well as challenges, opportunities that are not available at any other time”
OPPORTUNITY 2
Organizations that make significant choice a
priority in their crisis communication are more
likely to experience renewal.
Chapter 12 Inspiring Renewal Through Effective Crisis Communication 233
(p. 45). In their research, they describe seven opportunities associated with
crisis: heroes are born, change is accelerated, latent problems are faced,
people are changed, new strategies evolve, early warning systems develop,
and new competitive edges appear (Meyers & Holusha, 1986). In fact, a
number of scholars have suggested more recently that crisis has the potential
to create opportunities (Hurst, 1995; Mitroff, 2005; Nathan, 2000b; Witt
& Morgan, 2002). With this in mind, similar to Fink (1986), we argue that
crisis is a turning point for an organization. The Discourse of Renewal takes
into account the potential opportunities associated with crisis and focuses
on the organization’s fresh sense of purpose and direction after it emerges
from a crisis.
Many cases in this book illustrate communication that is optimistic
about the future. Milt Cole and Aaron Feuerstein were both optimistic
about the futures of their companies and instilled those visions in their
stakeholders. Rudy Giuliani was optimistic about New York and the United
States following the terrorist attacks on 9/11. The leaders and families of
Greensburg, Kansas, were optimistic about
their future and the potential opportunity
that the tornado provided their town. GM
is optimistic about its recovery following
the financial disaster. Crisis communication
failures like Enron and Hurricane
Katrina were much less optimistic and
focused more on assigning blame and responsibility for the crisis.
EFFECTIVE ORGANIZATIONAL RHETORIC
The Discourse of Renewal is grounded in a larger framework of effective
organizational rhetoric (Ulmer, Seeger, & Sellnow, 2007). Cheney and
Lair (2005) explain: “Organizational rhetoric involves drawing attention to
issues and concerns in contemporary organizational life with a focus on
issues of persuasion and identification” (p. 75). The Discourse of Renewal
involves leaders structuring a particular reality for organizational stakeholders
and publics. Managing a crisis most often involves communicating
with stakeholders in order to construct and maintain perceptions of reality
(Gandy, 1992). Establishing renewal involves leaders motivating stakeholders
to stay with an organization through a crisis, as well as rebuilding
it better than it was before. We advocate that organizational leaders who
hope to inspire others to imitate and embrace their views of crisis as an
opportunity to establish themselves as models of optimism and commitment
(Ulmer, Seeger, & Sellnow, 2007; Ulmer, Sellnow, & Seeger, 2007;
OPPORTUNITY 3
Organizations that focus on moving beyond
crises rather than escaping blame are more
likely to experience renewal.
234 Part III The Opportunities
Ulmer et al., 2009). Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca (1969) characterize
arguments based on models as follows: “In the realm of conduct, particular
behavior may serve, not only to establish or illustrate a general rule, but
also to incite to an action inspired by it” (p. 362). Conversely, antimodel
arguments involve behaviors that the leader believes should be avoided.
Several cases in this book emphasize leaders inspiring and motivating
stakeholders to overcome crises. The Greensburg community developed a
vision to be the model of an environmentally sound community following
its tornado. King Car developed a vision to be the model of the food industry
in Asia by testing its products independently from government tests and
disclosing publicly the contamination of its products. Schwan’s chose to
focus on its customers’ needs during its salmonella outbreak and become a
model for food recalls and crisis responses. Milt Cole and Aaron Feuerstein
both serve as models in their industries
of placing importance on employees and
the human equation in crisis communication.
What follows is a summary of the
categories of the Discourse of Renewal
and how this theory can be used in crisis
communication.
SUMMARY OF THE DISCOURSE OF RENEWAL
The Discourse of Renewal provides a different perspective to crisis communication
than is presently examined in the research on Corporate Apologia,
Image Repair Theory, or Situational Communication Theories discussed
in Chapter 2. Rather than protecting or repairing the image of the organization
following a crisis, the Discourse of Renewal emphasizes learning
from the crisis, ethical communication, communication that is prospective
in nature, and effective organizational rhetoric. The Discourse of Renewal
focuses on an optimistic, future-oriented vision of moving beyond the crisis
rather than determining legal liability or responsibility for the crisis.
What makes these responses so effective is they mobilize the support of
stakeholders and give these groups a vision to follow in order to overcome
the crisis. Crises that emphasize threat to the image of the organization
typically lack these qualities and often have the potential to extend the life
cycle of the crisis.
We hope that, after reading this book, you will use this theory to better
understand how crisis responses are constructed effectively or ineffectively,
to determine whether a crisis response was effective or ineffective, and even
to develop crisis responses for your organization or circumstance. Our goal
OPPORTUNITY 4
Organizations that distinguish themselves as
models for their industries are more likely to
experience renewal.
Chapter 12 Inspiring Renewal Through Effective Crisis Communication 235
is to have those interested in better understanding crisis responses to use
the Discourse of Renewal to evaluate crisis responses based on presence or
absence of learning, communication ethics, a prospective vision, and organizational
rhetoric. We also see ample opportunity for practitioners to use
this theory to develop crisis messages and crisis plans for responding to
future potential crises. What follows is a way for practitioners to use the
components of the Discourse of Renewal to plan for crises.
THE DISCOURSE OF RENEWAL AND CRISIS PLANNING
Preparing for a crisis is important for any organization or community. The
Discourse of Renewal provides an understanding of how organizations and
communities can consider developing a crisis plan and, more important,
build their crisis communication skills over time. Learning, the first part of
the Discourse of Renewal suggests that organizations can learn vicariously
from other organizations, or they can learn experientially by going through
a crisis itself. Organizations that want to prepare for crises should examine
case studies of crises that were managed well as well as ones that failed. This
initial form of crisis planning opens discussions about the importance of
effective communication understanding and practice during a crisis. It also
creates an understanding of the choices that are necessary during a crisis.
One choice will be to determine how the organization will define the crisis—
as a threat or opportunity. Another choice will be to determine what will be
the most important communication choices during a crisis. In this case, will
the organization try to protect its image, will it work to communicate openly
and honestly, will it focus on making sure stakeholders are safe, or will it
focus on determining blame and responsibility? By vicariously discussing
case studies and current crises, organizations are better prepared to consider
the definitions of crisis, the communication demands associated with the
event, and the important questions it will need to answer in its responses.
The second part of any organizations’ or communities’ crisis response
is to determine the values that will guide the response. In this case, determining
values such as being open and transparent, or the values the CDC
espouse as being first, right, and credible, or a value statement like the one
we saw with Schwan’s CEO Alfred Schwan during his company’s crisis—How
would we want our company to respond to this crisis if we were a customer—
are essential to an effective crisis response. Organizations should take time
to determine the values that will guide their crisis responses and practice
through case studies and simulations using those values to respond to a crisis.
Without sound values in place, an organization or community is going to
struggle in its crisis communication.
236 Part III The Opportunities
Within the content section of ethics, organizations and communities
that are preparing for a crisis should work to build strong positive stakeholder
relationships, build their capacity to respond to crises with significant
choice, and develop a provisional approach over a strategic approach
to communication practices. Developing sound ethical practices takes time.
Organizations that wish to communicate openly and honestly during a crisis
need to practice these skills day to day. As we mentioned in Chapter 1 in the
section on crisis misconceptions, crises expose the character of organizations;
they do not build character. Organizations must prepare for communicating
effectively during a crisis by developing their ethical skills each day.
Organizations and communities must work to develop a prospective
vision if they are to meet the standards set out in the Discourse of Renewal.
As we mentioned in Chapter 1, another key misconception of effective crisis
communication is to focus on the past. We believe that organizations
and communities need to practice developing responses to crisis through
cases and simulations that build a vision for moving it forward. Since this
approach is counterintuitive, it is going to take some time to develop these
skills. During practice sessions it will feel natural to focus on who is responsible,
who we should blame, and why the crisis is not our fault. However,
effective crisis planning involves building the communication skills to
develop a vision for moving forward and building consensus with stakeholders
to achieve that vision.
The final aspect of crisis planning using the Discourse of Renewal
involves organizational rhetoric. In this case, leaders, organizational members,
and community members need to build their skills in developing
optimism and resilience. Crises are a part of life. Furthermore, as we have
extensively discussed in this book, crises actually produce positive results
that can improve an organization or community if we allow it. Through
effective communication within and outside the organization we can begin
to change our mindsets about crises and their impact on our lives. Crisis
planning then is about developing new mindsets about crisis, building
resilience through effective communication practices within and outside
the organization, and establishing a sense of optimism in responding to
crisis cases and simulations.
The Discourse of Renewal suggests a process approach to crisis planning.
This process approach involves changing mindsets about crises,
building communication skills through practice and vicarious learning,
establishing the ethical character and communication practices of the
organization through discussions and everyday applications, and resisting
our misconceptions of crisis through the applications of case studies,
simulations, and learning. The goal is to build the skills of organizational
Chapter 12 Inspiring Renewal Through Effective Crisis Communication 237
members over time so that regardless of the type of crisis the organization
experiences its members will be able to adapt and meeting the challenges
and opportunities that the crisis presents (Ulmer, in press).
SUMMARY
As we’ve seen, organizational crises are traumatic events that threaten the
existence of organizations, but these events also provide opportunities.
When dealing with crises, it is important to recognize an organization has
the opportunity for renewal, depending on how it has prepared before the
crisis and how it communicates during and following it. For an effective
response, organizations would do well to communicate learning, maintain
ethical communication, have a prospective vision, and sound organizational
communication practices throughout the crisis.
The ultimate goal of this book is to help you view crises differently.
We hope you now view crises as not entirely negative events but rather that
there is potential for opportunity and renewal inherent to these events. By
first examining the lessons of managing uncertainty, effective crisis communication,
and leadership, we established some guideposts for better
understanding and managing the challenges of crisis communication.
Through the case studies, you should be clear about the impact that
your crisis communication choices have on the outcome of a crisis. In
addition, through analyzing the cases, you have had some time to develop
some of your crisis communication skills. As you see crises develop in the
upcoming months and years, we challenge you to continue to apply the lessons
discussed in this book to those examples. In this way, you can continue
to build your own skills and find ways to see the opportunities inherent to
crisis.
Finally, we hope that you will be able to identify the inherent opportunities
in crisis through learning from your failures and clarifying your
organizational values and risk estimates. Organizations that are going to
be successful in managing crisis must be able to communicate effectively
before the crisis, see the opportunities inherent in these events, and learn
to make the appropriate changes or adjustments so that the event does not
happen again. We believe that organizations that follow this advice are
likely to emerge from a crisis stronger, more resilient, and with a renewed
spirit and purpose.
Opportunity 1: Organizations that base their crisis communication
on strong positive organizational values are more likely to experience
renewal.
238 Part III The Opportunities
Opportunity 2: Organizations that make significant choice a priority
in their crisis communication are more likely to experience renewal.
Opportunity 3: Organizations that focus on moving beyond crises
rather than escaping blame are more likely to experience renewal.
Opportunity 4: Organization that distinguish themselves as models of
effective communication are more likely to experience renewal.
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240
Academic disciplines for crisis theory,
20–21, 21 (table)
Accessibility to information,
150, 218–220
Accidental crisis cluster, 28
Accidental vs. intentional crises, 99
Accountability, 107, 217–218. See also
Blame; Responsibility
Adversarial relationships, 43–44
Agenda setting theory, 24
Airport security, 200
Ambiguity, 97–100, 101 (table).
See also Uncertainty
Ambivalency in stakeholder
relationships, 44, 44 (table)
American Red Cross, 220
Anagnos, J., 187–188
Answers, not having, 94
Apollo, Challenger, Columbia
(Tompkins), 185
Arthur Anderson, 126, 131
Audiences. See Stakeholders
Authoritarian leadership style, 146, 147
Automotive crises
Ford Motor Company, 99, 144,
147–148
General Motors, 143, 176–179, 233
Avian flu, 49–50
Bangladesh building collapse,
212–213
Barriers to learning, 229
Bazerman, M. H., 186–187
Behavioral learning, 228–229
Belief structures and uncertainty,
102–103
Benoit, W. L., 27
Bhopal (India) gas leak, 96, 191, 219
Biotechnology, 196–197, 199, 201, 203
Bird flu, 49–50
Blame, 24, 151, 232, 233. See also
Accountability; Responsibility
Blanco, Kathleen, 173–174
Boston Marathon Bombings, 221
Bovine spongiform encephalopathy
(BSE), 204
British Petroleum (BP) oil spill, 7–8,
60–65, 144, 214, 215
BSE (bovine spongiform
encephalopathy), 204
Burke, James, 140–141
Burns, James MacGregor, 147
Bush, George W., 173–174
Business discipline, 20–21, 21 (table)
Button, Gregory, 107
Campus shootings, 220
Cantor Fitzgerald (CF), 167–172, 222
Care, expressions of, 220–221
Case studies, 235
Catholic Church scandals, 145, 213, 214
Causes of crises, 47–48
Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention (CDC)
goals, 40
salmonella outbreaks, 155–157, 163
September 11 attacks, 102
STARCC principles, 149
Certain communication, 49–50
CF (Cantor Fitzgerald), 167–172, 222
Challenger disaster, 185–186
Character of organizations, 29–30.
See also Ethical practices
Checks and balances, 108
Cheney, G., 233
Chernobyl nuclear power plant, 95–96
Chinese symbols, 4 (figure)
Choices during crises, 235
Chrysler Corporation, 141–142,
143, 176–177
I N D E X
Index 241
Cole Hardwood fire, 16, 159–162,
223, 231, 233, 234
College shootings, 220
Columbia disaster, 185–186
Communication
definition, 6–8, 9 (table)
early in crisis, 47
effective rhetoric, 30, 233–234
importance of, 4–5
postcrisis, 47–49, 53–54, 232
precrisis, 52, 218, 230
role of, 114–115
Community contributions, 66
Compassion, 48
Competing world views, 216–217
Conflicting claims, 96–97
Convergence theory, 205–206,
207 (figure)
Coombs, W. T., 28
Coorey, Paul, 66
Corporate Apologia, 26–27,
27 (table), 31
Corporate values, 127–128
Corporations as moral agents, 215, 218
Cosmology episodes, 102
Crisis, defined, 9–14
Crisis-induced uncertainty, 91
Cuite, C. L., 156
Cultural differences in ethics, 214–215
Cultural-centered approach to messages,
45–46
Culturally sensitive approach
to messages, 45
Culture-neutral approach to
messages, 45
Dangerous opportunities, 226
Decentralized organizations, 128–129,
131–132
Deception, 213–214, 219
Decision making, 202, 203. See also Risk
Deepwater Horizon oil spill, 7–8,
60–65, 144, 214, 215
Definition of crisis communication,
6–8, 9 (table)
Democratic leadership style, 146, 147
Dialogue-centered versus technologycentered
dichotomy, 202–205
Dietz, Bob, 49–50
Disasters, 9–10. See also Natural
disasters; specific disasters
Disciplines for crisis theory, 20–21,
21 (table)
Discourse of renewal. See Renewal
from crises
Disease outbreaks
E. coli, 16, 69–73, 99–100, 229
Ebola, 24
H1N1 “swine” flu, 13, 216–217
mad cow disease, 204
mindfulness and, 200–201
salmonella, 13, 16, 154–159,
162–167, 230–231, 234
Diversity of audiences, 42
Domino’s Pizza hoax, 55–56, 84–88, 232
Dow Corning silicone breast implant
crisis, 98
E. coli outbreak, 16, 69–73, 99–100, 229
Early communication, 47
Earthquakes, 216
Ebola outbreaks, 24
Economic crises
crash of 2008–2009, 176–179
downturns, 13–14, 17
failure of leadership in, 144
General Motors, 143, 176–179, 233
See also Enron crisis
Elliott, D., 229
Emergencies, 9–10. See also specific
emergencies
Empathy, 48, 76, 78
Employee relationships, 11
Enron crisis
blame, 233
ethics, 212–213, 215
interactions producing, 197
overview, 126–132
restricting significant choice, 232
values exposed in, 16
Environmentally conscious perspective,
80–82
Epistemological uncertainty, 91
Ethical practices
ambiguity and, 97–98
communications, 29–30, 54, 230–232
242 Effective Crisis Communication
corporations as moral agents, 215, 218
definitions, 213–215
deviating from, 132
humanism, 220–221
information accessibility,
150, 218–220
leadership and, 12
overview, 223–224
precrisis development of, 236
profitability and, 128
Rice Code, 127–128
values and, 215–217, 221–223
See also Responsibility
Evacuations, 132–133, 173–174
Evidence, questions of, 98–99
Exemplars, 23–24
Exhaustion, 65
Experts, 203
Explorer (Ford) problems, 144
Exxon Valdez oil spill
debates on damage from, 96
ethical implications, 213, 218, 219
fantasy messages, 209
ineffective leadership, 143–144
overview, 92–93
Failure
learning through, 185–189, 228
opportunities from, 226–227
organizational memory and, 190–192
overview, 194
product recalls, 13
success as, 188
unlearning and, 192–194
vicarious learning and, 190
Fantasy messages, 209
Fault determinations, 95–96
Federal Department of Agriculture
(FDA), 156–157
FedEx youtube video, 7
FEMA. See Witt, James Lee
Feuerstein, Aaron, 16, 148, 222–223,
230, 231, 233, 234
Financial crises. See Economic crises
Fink, S., 233
Firestone tire crisis, 144
First responders, 75–77
Fishman, D. A., 24
Flexibility in crisis response, 17
Floods, 51, 102, 112–117, 192–193
FMD (foot and mouth disease), 190
Focusing event theory, 22 (table), 24–25
Food crises
global societies and, 14
Jack in the Box, 99–100, 229
Maple Leafs, 142, 143
Odwalla apple juice, 16, 69–73, 229
Peanut Corporation of America,
154–159
product origins and, 219
Schwan’s Sales Enterprises, 13, 16,
162–167, 230–231, 234
See also Biotechnology
Foot and mouth disease (FMD), 190
Ford, William, Jr., 148
Ford Motor Company, 99, 144, 147–148
Framing of crises, 79–81
Freimuth, Vicki, 102
Fukashima Daiichi disaster,
132–135, 213
Garment industry conditions, 212–213
General Motors (GM),
143, 176–179, 233
Genetically altered crops, 196–197, 201
Gibson, R., 24
Giuliani, Rudy
authoritarian leadership style, 146
calmness of, 139–141
effectiveness of, 17, 47
lessons from, 120–121
optimism of, 233
preparedness of, 118
seen as hero, 57
straightforwardness of statements,
94, 119–120
See also September 11 attacks
Global environment, 14–15, 205–206,
207 (figure)
GM (General Motors),
143, 176–179, 233
Goals of crisis response, 39–40
Good Samaritan, 220
Goodwill, 141–142
Greensburg (Kansas) tornado,
16, 79–84, 233, 234
Index 243
Hallman, W. K., 156
Harm, sensitivity to, 220
Hayward, Tony, 8, 144
Hazards and outrage, 203–205
Heath, R. L., 42, 205
Hedrick, Darren, 80, 82
Hermann, C. F., 6–8
Hewitt, Steve, 79–81
High reliability organizations, 201–202
H1N1 “swine” flu outbreak, 216–217
Holladay, S. J., 23
Holusha, J., 57, 232–233
Honesty, 142–143, 218–220, 222
Hostile takeovers, 11
Hotlines, 164
Huber, G. P., 193
Humanism, 220–221
Hurricane Katrina, 45, 172–176,
232, 233
Iacocca, Lee, 141–142
Image
focusing on, 18
Image Repair Theory, 27–28,
27 (table), 31
lack of importance in crisis
resolution, 29
restoration strategies, 217–218
threats to, 8, 9 (table)
See also Reputation
Impression management strategies, 28
Information exchange, 190–192
Informed choices. See Significant choice
Intelligent failures, 189
Intentional crises, 10–12
Interactive messages, 197, 199,
202, 206, 207 (figure), 210
Interdisciplinary approach, 21
International Food Information
Council, 197
Investigation process of crises, 16
Jack in the Box food crisis, 99–100, 229
Jennings, D., 164–165
Johanns, Mike, 204
Johnson & Johnson crisis, 140–141,
143, 187–188, 221–222, 227
Joplin (Missouri) tornadoes, 25
Keating, Frank, 74–79
Kennedy (John F.) assassination,
25–26
Kessler, David, 97–98
Kilgore, Tom, 106, 108–109
King Car crisis, 121–126, 229, 230,
232, 234
Kingston ash slide, 105–112
Kramer, M. W., 91
Lachlan, K. A., 25
Lair, D. J., 233
Laissez faire leadership style, 146
Langer, E. J., 200
Lay, Kenneth, 126–129, 212
Leadership
availability of leaders, 142–143
communication demands, 148–149
continguency approach, 146–147
effective organizational rhetoric, 30
ethics and, 12
importance of, 138–139
ineffective approaches, 143–145
overview, 138, 151–152
renewal affected by, 143, 148,
151–152
spokespersons, 149–151
styles, 145–146
transformational, 147–148
virtues and, 52, 148
visibility of, 139–141
See also Honesty
Leadership cases
Cantor Fitzgerald, 167–172
Cole Hardwood fire, 16, 159–162
General Motors, 143, 176–179
Hurricane Katrina, 45, 172–176
Peanut Corporation of America,
154–159
Schwan’s Sales Enterprises,
13, 16, 162–167
Leadership (Giuliani), 119
Leiss, W., 204
Lessons from crises
focusing events and, 24–25
leaders interpretating, 151
overview, 58, 58 (table)
unlearning, 192–194
244 Effective Crisis Communication
vicarious, 190
See also Opportunities from crises;
Renewal from crises; specific
cases
Lies, 213–214, 219
Listening skills, 46–47, 62
Lutnick, Howard, 168–172, 222
Lutz, Bob, 177–179
Mad cow disease, 204
Malden Mills plant fire, 16, 65–69,
91–92, 222–223, 230
Managers as moral agents, 215
Managing Crises Before They Happen
(Miroff and Anagnos), 187–188
Maple Leafs Foods, 142, 143
Mathematics and risk, 21, 21 (table)
McCain, Michael, 148
McIntyre, J. J., 25
McIntyre, Tim, 86
McKenna Long & Aldridge (MLA), 107
Media
BP oil spill, 62–63
partnerships with, 41–42
refusing to comment, 18
theoretical perspective, 22–26,
22 (table)
traditional, 85–87
training for dealing with, 149–150
visibility after crisis, 139–141
withholding information from,
219–220
See also Social media
Melamine crisis, 121–126
Meyers, G. C., 57, 232–233
Millner, A. G., 157
Mindfulness, 200–202
Miroff, I. I., 187–188
Misconceptions of crises, 15–18,
15 (table)
Misinformation, 208–209
Mississippi River cave, 188
Mistakes. See Failure
Mittelstaedt, R. E., 189
MLA (McKenna Long & Aldridge), 107
Models of motivation, 233–234
Monsanto Company, 201
Montgomery County snipers, 41–42
Moore (Oklahoma) tornadoes, 7
Motivation, models of, 233–234
Nagin, Ray, 173–174
NASA disasters, 185–186
Nathan, M., 31–32
National Research Council (NRC),
197, 202
National Weather Service (NWS),
112–117
Natural disasters
earthquakes, 216
floods, 51, 102, 112–117, 192–193
hurricanes, 45, 172–176, 232, 233
surprise element, 7
tornadoes, 7, 16, 25, 79–84, 233, 234
as unintentional, 12–13
Negative stakeholder relationships, 44,
44 (table)
Networks of support, 141–142
New Zealand government
responses, 190
News diffusion theory, 22 (table), 25–26
News framing theory, 22–24, 22 (table)
Nicotine addictiveness, 98
Nike boycott, 190
Nilsen, T. R., 207–208, 231
“No comment,” 18
Nonexistent stakeholder relationships,
44, 44 (table)
Nonleadership style, 146
Nonroutine crises, 8, 9 (table), 92–93
Normal Accidents (Perrow), 13
Normalcy, 24
North Dakota floods, 51, 102
Northouse, Peter, 139
Novak, J. M., 192
NRC (National Research Council),
197, 202
Nuclear accidents, 95–96
NWS (National Weather Service),
112–117
Odwalla apple juice crisis, 16, 69–73, 229
Oklahoma City bombing, 73–79
Olbrechts-Tyteca, L., 206, 234
One Boston Foundation, 221
Ontological uncertainty, 91
Index 245
Openness, 129–130, 142–143, 150
Opportunities from crises
focusing events and, 25
framing, 56–57
missed, 106–107
overview, 4, 9 (table)
potential for, 31–32
See also Lessons from crises;
Renewal from crises
Optimism, 232–233, 236
Organization defensiveness, 47–48
Organizational learning, 29, 194,
228–229, 236
Organizational memory, 190–192
Organizational Renewal Theory, 27
Organizational structure,
collapse of, 101
Organizational theories,
26–30, 27 (table)
Outrage and hazards, 203–205
Outreach to stakeholders, 150
Palenchar, M. J., 205
Panic, 50–51
Paradigmatic learning, 228–229
Partners, 40–42, 46–47
Pauchant, T. C., 228
Peanut Corporation of
America (PCA), 154–159
Perceptual threats, 93
Perelman, C., 206, 234
Perkins, J. W., 24
Perrow, Charles, 13, 14, 209
Perspectives, awareness of, 201
Persuasive messages, 205
Physics, 21, 21 (table)
“Pink slime,” 23–24
Pinto (Ford) problems, 99
Planning for a crisis, 52, 235–237
Planning for crisis, 66, 236–237.
See also Precrisis communication
Political science, 21, 21 (table)
Population Institute, 196
Positive stakeholder relationships,
43–44, 44 (table)
Positive thinking process, 56–57
Postcrisis communication, 47–49,
53–54, 232
Precrisis communication, 52, 218, 230
Predictions, 113, 186
Preventable crisis cluster, 28
Primary stakeholders, 42–44, 44 (table),
76–77
Process approach to planning,
236–237
Product failures, 13
Profitability and ethical practices, 128
Prospective vs. retrospective vision,
30, 232, 236
Provisional vs. strategic
communication, 231
Proxy communicators, 157
PRSA (Public Relations Society of
America), 216
Psychology, 20, 21 (table)
Public
accessibility to, 76
including in crisis responses, 51
information sessions for, 46
partnering with, 41–42
perceptions of, 23–24
Public health department, 40, 41
Public Information Officers (PIOs),
61–65
Public Relations Society of America
(PRSA), 216
Pyle, A., 62
Questions of ambiguity, 98–100,
101 (table)
Rawl, Lawrence, 92, 143–144, 150
Reactive vs. proactive actions, 108
Reagan (Ronald) assassination, 25–26
Reassurance of stakeholders, 50
Red River Valley floods, 112–117,
192–193
Reliability of organizations, 201–202
Renewal from crises
discourse of renewal theory,
29–30, 31, 234–237
ethics and, 223–224
leadership and, 143, 148, 151–152
opportunities, 226–227, 237–238
Organizational Renewal Theory, 27
planning and, 52, 235–237
246 Effective Crisis Communication
theoretical components, 227–228,
228 (table), 234–235
See also Opportunities from crises
Reputation, 222–223. See also Image
Reservoir of goodwill, 222–223
Resolution of crises, 150–151
Responsibility, 99–100, 207–209,
217–218. See also Accountability;
Blame
Reynolds, B., 198
Reynolds, Barbara, 20, 50, 51
Rhetoric, 30, 233–234
Rice Code, 127–128
Risk
communication definition, 197
determining, 9–10, 48–49, 197–199,
198 (table)
dialogue-centered versus technologycentered
dichotomy, 202–205
management of, 11
mindfulness and, 200–202
overview, 209–210
Ritter, Michael, 110
Rouge River plant, 147–148
Routine procedures, 92, 189
Rowan, K. E., 205
Sabotage, 11
Safety of stakeholders, 50–51
Salmonella, 13, 16, 154–159,
162–167, 230–231, 234
Sandman, Peter, 49, 203
Sandy Hook Elementary School, 24
Schwan’s Sales Enterprises, 13, 16,
162–167, 230–231, 234
Secondary stakeholders, 42–44,
44 (table), 77
Seeger, M. W., 198
Self-defense. See Corporate Apologia
Self-efficacy of stakeholders, 18, 50–51
Sellnow, T. L., 157, 192, 206
September 11 attacks, 117–121, 167–172,
200, 220–221.
See also Giuliani, Rudy
Sewer system hazards, 11
Shark attacks, 200
Sherman, A., 54–56
Short response times, 8, 93–95
Significant choice, 209, 218–219,
231–232
Siloed responsibility, 108
Simon, L., 228
Simulations, 101–102
Sitkin, S. B., 188–189, 228
Situational Crisis Communication
Theory, 27 (table), 28, 31
Skilling, Jeffrey, 128–129
SME (Subject Matter Experts), 63
Social media, 7, 25–26, 54–56,
84–88, 232
Sociology, 20, 21 (table)
Spence, P. R., 25
Spin strategy, 18, 46
Spokespersons, 149
Stakeholders
assigning responsibility, 28
concerns, 16–17
cost to, 71, 73
definition, 95
discontented, 46–47
diversity of, 42, 44–46
impact of uncertainty on, 95–97
partnerships, 40–42
primary, 42–44, 44 (table), 76–77
providing information to, 47–49
reassuring, 18, 50
relationships with, 17–18, 42–44,
44 (table), 52, 62–63, 66–67,
230–231
safety of, 50–51
secondary, 42–44, 44 (table), 77
self-efficacy of, 18, 50–51
values of, 221
See also Communication; Media
Standardization, lack of, 108
STARCC principles, 149
Steltenpohl, Greg, 70
Stelter, Brian, 25
Stracener, M., 56
Subject Matter Experts (SME), 63
Success, failure of, 188
Sundar, S. S., 24
Surprises, 7. See also Uncertainty
Sutcliffe, K. M., 201–202
“Swine” flu outbreak, 216–217
Systemic learning, 229
Index 247
Taleb, N. N., 91
Teamwork, 75
Technologies, 14
Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA),
105–112, 229, 232
TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power
Company), 132–133
Terrorism, 11. See also September 11
attacks
Third party sources of information, 157
Threat bias, 31–32, 226–227
Threats, 7, 93
Tokyo Electric Power Company
(TEPCO), 132–133
Tompkins, Phillip, 185
Traditional media, 85–87. See also Media
Trained mindlessness, 189
Training, 75, 101–102, 149–150
Trust in authorities, 50
TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority),
105–112, 229, 232
Tylenol crisis, 140–141, 187–188,
221–222, 227
Types of crises, 10–14
UAC (Unified Area Command), 61
UAW (United Auto Workers), 176–177
Uncertainty
belief structures and, 102–103
communicating, 49–50
defining, 8, 9 (table), 91
impact on stakeholders, 95–97
midcrisis, 52–53
nonroutine crises and, 92–93
overview, 103–104
reducing, 51–54
short response times and, 93–95
threat perception and, 93
training and simulations, 101–102
unexpected crises, 91–92
Underrepresented populations, 44–46
Unethical leadership, 12
Unexpectedness of crises, 8, 9 (table),
91–92, 186
Unforeseeable technical
interactions, 13
Unified Area Command (UAC), 61
Unintentional crises, 12–14
Union Carbide gas leak, 96, 191, 219
United Auto Workers (UAW), 176–177
Unlearning process, 192–1194
Updates during crises, 55–56
Values, 215–217, 221–223, 235
Veil, S. R., 157, 189
Vicarious learning, 190
Victim crisis cluster, 28
Videos on YouTube, 7, 55–56,
84–88, 232
Viewpoints. See Significant choice
Virtue ethics, 222
Virtuous responses, 148, 150
Visibility after crisis, 139–141
Vision, 16. See also Renewal
from crises
Wagoner, Rick, 176–177
Warnings. See Risk
Watkins, M. D., 186–187
Watkins, Sharron, 129
Weick, K. E., 97, 101, 201–202
Westerman, D., 25
Witt, James Lee, 20, 48, 53, 142
Wood, R. S., 24
Workplace violence, 11
Y2K computer code problem, 93
YouTube videos, 7, 55–56, 84–88, 232
Zillmann, D., 24
248
Robert R. Ulmer is Professor and Chair of the Department of Speech Communication
at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. He also holds two
secondary appointments, as Professor, in the Departments of Health Policy
and Management and Health Behavior and Management in the College
of Public Health at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. His
teaching, research, and advisory roles focus on producing effective risk and
crisis communication through renewal, growth, and transformation.. His
current work is funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
and the Environmental Protection Agency. He has worked in an advisory
role both nationally and internationally for a wide variety of public and private
organizations during risk and crisis events. He has served as an advisor
on several oil spills, issues of homeland security and terrorism, financial
crises, environmental disasters, food safety crises, and public health crises.
He is currently co-director of the Communication Division of the Arkansas
Prevention Research Center funded by the Centers for Disease Control
and Prevention. The center is designed to address health risks and crises in
Arkansas and throughout the United States.
He has published articles in Management Communication Quarterly;
Journal of Applied Poultry Research; Communication Yearbook; Journal of
Business Ethics; Public Relations Review; Journal of Organizational Change
Management; Journal of Applied Communication Research; Handbook of
Crisis Communication, Argumentation, and Advocacy; Public Relations
Review; Communication Studies; Handbook of Risk and Crisis Communication;
Encyclopedia of Public Relations; Handbook of Crisis Communication;
and Handbook of Public Relations.
Timothy L. Sellnow is professor of Communication and Risk Sciences at
the University of Kentucky where he is Associate Dean for Graduate Studies
in Communication and teaches courses in risk and crisis communication.
He is a past winner of the University of Kentucky College of Communication
and Information’s Faculty Research Excellence Award. Dr. Sellnow’s
research focuses on bioterrorism, precrisis planning, and communication
strategies for crisis management and mitigation. He has conducted funded
research for the Department of Homeland Security, the United States
A B O U T T H E A U T H O R S
About the Authors 249
Department of Agriculture, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,
and the Environmental Protection Agency. He has also served in an
advisory role for the National Academy of Sciences, United States Geological
Survey, and the World Health Organization. Dr. Sellnow currently
serves as theme leader for the risk communication division of the National
Center for Food Protection and Defense, a Department of Homeland Security
center of excellence.
His work on crisis, risk, and communication has appeared in the
Handbook of Crisis and Risk Communication; International Encyclopedia
of Communication; Communication Yearbook; Handbook of Public Relations;
Handbook of Applied Communication Research; Public Relations
Review; Communication Studies; Journal of Business Ethics; Journal of
Business Communication, Argumentation and Advocacy; Critical Studies
in Media Communication; and Journal of Applied Communication
Research, Health Communication, Risk Analysis, and Management Communication
Quarterly. Sellnow is the coauthor of five books on crisis and
risk communication and past editor of the Journal of Applied Communication
Research.
Matthew W. Seeger is Professor and Chair of the Department of Communication
at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. Seeger’s research
interests concern crisis, risk communication, crisis response, agency coordination,
health communication, the role of media in crisis, crisis and communication
ethics, failure of complex systems, and postcrisis renewal. He
has worked closely with the United States CDC on communication and
the anthrax attack and on communication and pandemic influenza preparedness.
He is an affiliate of the National Center for Food Protection and
Defense, where he studies issues of food safety and recalls. He is coprimary
investigator on the National Science Foundation Grant, Multi-Agency
Jurisdictional Organized Response, a project involving crisis coordination
in complex social-technical systems. Seeger also works with the National
Center for Border Security and Immigration.
His work on crisis, risk, and communication has appeared in the
Handbook of Crisis and Risk Communication; International Encyclopedia
of Communication; Journal of Health Communication Research; Communication
Yearbook; Handbook of Public Relations; Handbook of Applied
Communication Research; Communication Monographs; Public Relations
Review; Communication Studies; Southern Communication Journal; Journal
of Business Ethics; Journal of Business Communication; Management
Communication Quarterly; Journal of Applied Communication Research;
250 Effective Crisis Communication
and Journal of Organizational Change Management, among several others.
Seeger is the author or coauthor of five books on crisis and risk
communication.
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