Role of Communication in Crises Research Paper

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Role of Communication in Crises

"In crisis management, the threat is the potential damage a crisis can inflict on an organization, its stakeholders, and an industry. A crisis can create three related threats: a) public safety; b) financial loss; and c) reputation loss" (Coombs, 2007).

Good quality communication is among the most vital components of any good organization -- at any moment, in good or bad times. But during a crisis, good communication becomes even more pivotal to helping solve urgent problems. Without a well-thought-out, professional understanding of the media and how its coverage of the crisis will unfold, the company is at the mercy of a potentially harmful and very negative image. This paper delves into the importance of good communication management in times of crisis and offers an analysis that any company should pay attention to well before any crisis happens.

The Literature on Communication in Times of Crisis

A majority of corporations -- even though they know they are more vulnerable to "crises than they were in the past" -- still are "reluctant to adopt integrated crisis-management plans" (Gonzalez-Herrero, 1995). The authors of this article present a classic case of how a corporation did not handle the media response to a crisis. The incident happened in 1992, when an 81-year-old McDonald's customer suffered third-degree burns after spilling a cup of very hot McDonald's coffee. She was awarded $2.9 million by a jury albeit a judge later reduced that amount to $640,000.

Why did McDonald's not take steps earlier to avoid this embarrassing and expensive bit of publicity. In fact, the authors report, in the previous ten years prior to the third-degree burn incident (which also burned the woman's groin area) there had been "700 complaints of coffee burns ranging from mile to third degree" -- and in fact McDonald's had already settled claims from customers that had been scalded (Gonzalez-Herrero, 25). One has to wonder, why didn't McDonald's, much earlier on, turn down the temperature of the coffee?

"McDonald's knew that its coffee was among the hottest -- if not the hottest -- in the industry," Gonzalez-Herrero explains on page 26. And McDonald's also was fully aware that the extraordinarily hot temperature of its coffee "…sometimes caused serious burns" but even knowing that, the corporation did not "consult experts about the issue," Gonzalez-Herrero continues (26).

Given that crises like the one that hit McDonald's could happen to any corporation, the authors have developed a "Four-Phase Model" that breaks down exactly what the crisis management process should look like. Under the first phase, "issues management," the company must: a) scan the environment "for public trends" that may affect the crisis and the media coverage of it; b) "collect data on potentially troublesome issues and evaluate them"; and c) develop a "communications strategy and concentrate its efforts" on the prevention of further crises (Gonzalez-Herrero, 26-27).

The second phase, "planning and prevention" (which actually seems like it might be better served as the first phase), includes these bullet points: a) be proactive on the issue; b) "reanalyze" links with its constituencies; c) have a contingency plan; d) assign members of the company to a "crisis-management team"; e) identify the person to handle public relations and "determine the message, target, and media outlets" to be used; f) understand the dimensions of the issue and how much control the company has in this matter; g) develop a crisis plan of action (Gonzalez-Herrero, 28).

The third phase involves the actual crisis, and the authors recommend: a) the company should evaluate its response; b) try to "pre-empt negative publicity"; c) target the message to "appropriate audiences" (Gonzalez-Herrero, 29). The fourth phase ("post crisis") includes: a) paying attention to "multiple publics"; b) inform the media on a continuing basis and evaluate how well the crisis plan worked; c) use feedback to upgrade crisis plan; and d) develop a "long-term communications strategy to reduce the damages caused by the crisis" (Gonzalez-Herrero, 29). These phases, while important, are not in the order they should be, given the corporate realities and a media hungry for controversy of 2011. The second phase should actually be the first, and companies should be planning well ahead for potential crises, and have their plans well established and staff trained to manage the crisis before it happens.

Meanwhile, according to a peer-reviewed article in the Journal of Risk Research (Zoeteman, et al., 2010) when there is a crisis or serious problem, globalization "…magnifies the media attention…which poses new challenges for authorities." And once the media picks up on a crisis-type story, the problem becomes huge, in many cases. The article by Zoeteman and colleagues reflects research that was gathered through the interviews with "experts and representatives of authorities" linked to Dutch media attention regarding "external safety events" (Zoeteman, 279). The Dutch government carried out empirical studies to see how the media typically handled "calamities" -- both domestic and foreign in nature.

As an example of how globalization has impacted the world's media, during the crisis in America with Hurricane Katrina -- which received "wide media coverage…worldwide" -- those governments that witnessed the terrible disaster that unfolded in many cases were "…forced…to reassess national safety policies (Zoeteman, 280). Governments know full well that not only will the media -- worldwide -- pay close attention to whatever disaster has taken place (think Japan and the earthquake and tsunami), but the media also will always be "…scrutinizing the adequacy of handling the calamity by the authorities" (Zoeteman, 280).

For governments, like corporations, the problems they encounter dealing with the disaster or crisis is just one of their problems. They must "increase their level of understanding of the mechanisms that impact media responses" and above all corporations and other businesses that have to deal with crises should: a) never withhold information and always be very open (the implication is that media will dig around and find out what is being concealed); b) fully understand the role of the media and the politics associated with it in terms of the media's ability to amplify the perception of risk; and c) understand the type of information that needs "to be used by risk and crisis communicators" (Zoeteman, 281).

Clearly, in the instances of Hurricane Katrina (in which the media portrayed the George W. Bush Administration as incompetent and negligent) and the tsunami / earthquake in Japan (during which the media scrutinized the leaking radioactive water problem to the point that it was almost obsessively biased). This paper shows that alert corporations will learn to expect and even predict what the media will do in the event of a calamity involving the corporation.

In the Journal of Business Communication the author reviews the enormous explosion of the Phillips Petroleum Company's plant in Texas in 2000. The corporate communication officers faced not just that one crisis (the blast) but the media immediately picked up on the fact that there had been explosions in 1989 (that killed 23 workers) and in 1999 as well (that killed 2 workers and injured 4 others) in that same facility.

The question posed by the author was, does the history of similar crises intensify "…the reputational threat posed by a crisis that results from the victimization of an organization or from an accident, not just from an organization's intentional misdeeds" (Coombs, 2004). By surveying 321 undergraduate students in a "large Midwestern city" the author learned that there was a "direct, negative relationship between crisis history and organizational reputation" (Coombs, 284). Because the media uses "…past crises as important part of the interpretive framework of present crisis," response managers looking for correct strategies should "…accept greater responsibility and… demonstrate increased concern for victims' needs than would normally be used for a given crisis situation" (Coombs, 287). In other words, for a corporation's own best interests, the more crises that have occurred in the past, the greater the attention that should be paid -- prior to another crisis -- to potential media coverage and how to deal with it.

In the Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management, Misse Wester asks a pertinent question: since ordinary individuals react differently to a crisis "…depending on what caused it" does that dynamic also hold true for the professionals whose job it is to prevent it and/or respond to it? In order to find an answer to that question, Wester developed a 58-question survey and gave that questionnaire to 321 persons in key communication positions in Sweden; the rate of response was 55% (152 people returned the survey).

The three versions that were presented to participants were as follows: a) one measured the response to an outbreak of smallpox that was brought into Sweden by a tourist; b) another set the scene as smallpox having been deliberately spread by a terrorist organization; and c) the third did not indicate from where the smallpox outbreak had come (Wester, 121).

The results showed that the facts about the disease needed to be communicated to the public no matter how smallpox was introduced to Sweden…

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