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Proactive Crisis Communication in Public Affairs

 Dan Hunter
Darren Berry
Rebecca Goodrich-Hinton
Bill Lincicome

DOD Joint Course in Communication
March 2, 2000
Class 00-B

The purpose of this study is to conduct a systematic analysis of extant literature on crisis communication strategies, both in the civilian and military environment, to explicate a typology of an effective crisis communication strategy for Department of Defense (DoD) public affairs professionals.  O’Connor’s (1987) social-political theory on crisis is used to examine the importance of a proactive crisis communications plan over the commonly used reactive response to crisis.  The proactive crisis communication typology identifies 12 key strategies that need to be included or omitted from an effective public affairs crisis communication plan.

Proactive Crisis Communication in Public Affairs

     This study examines the difference between the positive benefits from a proactive internal information plan compared with the negative consequences resulting from a reactive information plan.  The study looks at crisis communication planning, and how to best incorporate the theories associated with crisis management into the organization’s operational procedures.  Moreover, the study compares and contrasts different crisis communication plans that were both effective (positive) and ineffective (negative). This research applies the convergence of two crisis management theories to apply a single crisis communication typology consisting of 12 strategies to the Department of Defense public affairs practitioners.
Communication strategies and guidelines
     A crisis arises from a breakdown in shared meaning, legitimization, and institutionalization of socially constructed relationships (Pearson & Clair, 1998).
O’ Connor’s (1987) social-political theory on crisis indicates how the realm of cultural symbols and lived ideologies affect perceived reality.  This theory is germane to this research because an individual’s qualitative view of symbols and experiences affects their perception of reality.  Reality is based on how someone views a crisis in reference to past experiences, knowledge and understanding of crisis situation.  There is no "true" reality, O'Connor (1987) states, everyone’s perceptions are influenced by past individual experiences. 
     However, reality can be shaped with information and a proactive public affairs crisis response plan.  The way public affairs officers proactively engage individuals when dealing with sensitive issues will have a dramatic effect on planning for the way the crisis, responding to the crisis, and how the after effect of the crisis is perceived. 
     Specifically, the social-political perspective of crisis management assumes that: 1) All crises share a breakdown in the social construction of reality; 2) organizations will experience a crisis of leadership and cultural norms following an event which will draw close scrutiny by both the internal and external audiences; 3) organizational members are likely to question the organization’s beliefs during a crisis; and 4) crisis management is unlikely to be successful without a reformation of organizational leadership and culture (Pearson & Clair, 1998).
     The result of this assumption is a meltdown of social order, followership, and commonly held values and beliefs, where extreme individualism, incivilty, and violence may increase if the crisis is not handled properly (Pearson & Clair, 1998).  In a crisis involving the U.S. military, the meltdown would undermine support of the U.S. military, an institution the American people hold in high regard (Woodyard, 1998).
     Cutlip and Center (1971) assert that the military has a unique problem in the area of disasters or accidents.  Regardless how severe or routine a mishap may be, the taxpayers’ investment or lives are always inherently involved.  These factors increase immediate public attention when the circumstance, mismanagement, or misunderstanding, create a crisis.  As a result, the military public affairs officer has unique challenges because of the sensitivity to all segments of society and the responsibility to move that information to the public. 
      It is important to understand the structure of the military and its organizational communication process as a perfect example of classical management when examining crisis.  Hill (1984), describes the military as a highly formal, rigid organization where information flows one way.  Hill (1984) also describes the military as a closed organization because it must cultivate self-sufficiency.  Further, the military has perimeter fences, stockpiles of food, fuel, and weapons, along with other necessities.  Finally, the personnel wear uniforms that distinguish service members from civilians.  Hill (1984) describes this independence as social isolationism. 
      The civilian counterpart to military public affairs is public relations.  Public relations provide civilian organizations with internal and external information dissemination.  Public relations has guidelines and principles that are part of the crisis management process (Seeger, Sellnow, & Ulmer, 1998).  The principles are developed from the experiences of practitioners and from case studies.  The principles are central tenets that the practitioners can draw both negative and positive conclusions when faced with a crisis. 
      A negative role of public relations in a crisis would be to deny the problem, refuse media queries, and resist appropriate government agencies' involvement (Seeger et al., 1998).  Conversely, this research states that positive roles of public affairs' practitioners includes being be open, prompt, candid, and honest (Seeger, Sellnow & Ulmer, 1998).  An accurate, quick response to media, and the people for whom the public relations practitioner is responsible to, allows for an organization's reputation and integrity to be held intact in the long run.  However, this openness is often times contrary to input from an organization's legal representatives in hopes to limit future liability claims that could result from the crisis.
      The public relations practitioner therefore employs strategies in both planning and implementing crisis communication  (Seeger et al., 1998).  The four steps of a crisis communication strategy include: Identifying and developing a crisis management team; appointing an appropriate crisis spokesperson, or spokespersons; identifying areas of high risk; and structuring, implementing, and maintaining a crisis communication plan with checklists and contact lists (Seeger et al., 1998). 
      The crisis communications team should be comprised of individuals who can create positive results during a crisis.  Public relations practitioners, members of top management, legal counsel, and a crisis spokesperson should be considered the primary members of a crisis management team.  Organizations may also include in the team's composition members such as security, operations, marketing, and human relations, depending upon the nature and scope of the crisis (Seeger et al., 1998).  Furthermore, this research finds that in some instances, teams might also include members from outside the organization.
      The organization's chief executive officer should be considered the primary spokesperson during a crisis.  The team should have a focal point, a single formal representative who can ensure consistency, and minimize rumors and second-source messaging (Seeger et al., 1998). 
      "The role of public relations in crisis management also has a proactive dimension in the identification of high-risk areas faced by the organization" (Seeger et al., 1998, p. 246).  Organizations must anticipate possible crises and then prepare for them.  An organization can try to avoid a crisis, or it can try to mitigate its impact.  Additionally, an organization must use risk assessment to develop response actions when faced with different types of crises (Seeger et al., 1998).
      Finally, an organization must have a crisis communication plan.  The plan must take into consideration limiting factors such as resources and information that is anticipated to be available (Seeger et al., 1998).  The crisis communication plan must be a living document, meaning that it must be updated regularly, and have been properly coordinated through agencies that will be involved during the crisis (Bird, 1986).
Crisis stages
     Crises will still occur, even with the best planning and prevention.  But total preparation is absolutely essential to crisis communication (Woodyard, 1998) (See Appendix 1). Similar to Seeger et al. (1998), crisis management expert, Fink (1986) identifies four key stages to most crises: prodromal, acute, chronic, and crisis resolution. 
     Prodromal is the initial stage that alerts someone to the problem. The "turning point," a key element of crisis management, occurs in this stage.  According to Fink (1986) being able to predict and plan for the turning point is essential in determining if the crisis will have positive or negative outcomes for an organization.  Fink (1986) embraces a Chinese concept that translated means where there is crisis, there is danger and opportunity.  Woodyard (1998) emphasizes the importance of being able to use a crisis not only to relate facts of a crisis, but to also tell the external audiences the organization's story.
     In planning for a crisis, Bird (1996) says an organization must first identify its external and internal customers.  External customers are people who receive whatever the crisis is producing, such as the general public.  Internal customers are the individuals who are working the crisis.  For successful crisis planning, an organization must clearly define who its external customers are in each incident, and outline standards for success.  Internal customers should be provided the tools they need to meet the external customers' requirements. 
     Bird (1996) emphasizes that quality, not quantity, should be the primary focus in crisis planning.  Successful planning, Bird (1996) says, should be measured on how well a task is accomplished, not necessarily how fast. Planning must be practiced as well with a critical eye for making improvements.  Bird (1996) and Fink (1986) stress that regular training, drilling, or simply reviewing a plan with all customers with the intent to constantly improve will help assess the effectiveness of the plan.  It also builds confidence and efficiency among members of the organization, avoids stagnation or complacency, and reduces the possibility of making mistakes when a crisis does occur.
      Although the research indicates that an organization can effectively rebound from a crisis by merely using "reactive" crisis management techniques, many potential negative effects could also result.   For example, the organization could lose credibility in the eyes of the public, which occurred after the Exxon Valdez incident (Fearns-Banks, 1996).  Additionally, a company could face elimination from the marketplace, similar to what happened to Union Carbide following thousands of death from a gas leak in India.  Knowing about these potentially negative effects is important for a crisis response typology to be constructed.  The need for this typology solicits two research questions. 
      The first question is based on research from Cutlip and Center (1971) who assert that the military has a unique problem in the area of disasters or accidents.  Examining actions from private industry and public organizations provide a good place to compare actions that occurred recently.  Organizations have taken both an active and reactive approach to handling crisis. 
     RQ1) Will using a proactive public affairs crisis communication typology decrease the trauma of the crisis event? 
     The study of one of the most well-publicized crises leads to the second research question. The watershed moment in all companies' public relations crisis communication planning was the Exxon Valdez oil spill catastrophe in 1989 (Fearn-Banks, 1996).  Exxon's CEO did not take lead in the crisis communication and therefore became a negative asset for the company.  Neither responsibility nor sincerity was displayed by Exxon's CEO in the public or the media.  Additionally, Exxon's CEO made independent decisions about public communications without first seeking input from the company's public relations department.  Furthermore, the company ignored relationships it had with the media, customers, environmental groups, and employees (Fearn-Banks, 1996).
     Compared to most civilian institutions, the U.S. military has enjoyed a consistent record of high trust with the public.  Military public affairs leaders believe this trust is due to commanders being prepared to tell their organization's stories (Woodyard, 1998). Because the military is a highly formal, rigid organization where information flows primarily in one direction, from top to bottom, preparation for crises cannot solely lie in the hands of the commander's public affairs office and its planning for crises (Hill, 1984). 
     RQ2) Will using the proactive communication typology restore organizational image quicker than a reactive response plan? 
     In the acute phase (Fink, 1986), the public knows that a crisis event has happened.  Depending upon the type of crisis and with proper planning, an organization can have great control on how, when, and where a crisis unfolds and possibly its impact which is agenda setting (Woodyard, 1998).  For example, an organization may release perceived unfavorable information to media right before publication or broadcast deadlines to minimize the media's reaction.  This method was often used during the Base Realignment and Closure rounds of the late 1980s and 1990s where Pentagon officials would often wait until late Friday afternoon to make public announcements (Woodyard, 1998). 
     Sometimes, an organization may have very little, if any, notice that a crisis is about to occur or know it is coming, but unable to prepare for it.  When this happens, there is no time to prepare for the acute phase (Woodyard, 1998).  A recent example is when an U.S. Marine Corps EA-6B Prowler accidentally cut down a gondola cable, killing 20 skiers in Cavalese, Italy in 1998 (Aviano Public Affairs After Action report, 1998).  Although the nearest public affairs office at Aviano had reliable response plans for aircraft accidents, the extremely intense magnitude of international and civilian response to the Cavalese tragedy could not have been predicted.
     However, some organizations' effective handling of a crisis that leapt automatically to the acute phase yielded very strong results. For example, Fearn-Banks (1996) stated that the 1993 crisis of hypodermic syringes reported in Diet Pepsi had effective communication results stemming from the company's openness with the media.  The Alpac Bottling Company, which was the local canning and distributor of the Diet Pepsi, immediately opened its doors to media and invited them to tour and film the plant's canning operations, along with other crisis communication strategies. 
     The Pepsi and Alpac crisis communication team established six guidelines in their acute stage to follow throughout the ordeal.  First, treat the crisis seriously.  Second, appraise and support the Food and Drug Administration.  Third, demonstrate concern for the customer.  Fourth, communicate quickly and openly with a limited number of spokespersons.  Fifth, share company's quality assurance facts.  And finally, communicate lack of health risks, once it was established that the syringe found posed no risk  (Fearn-Banks, 1996). 
     These guidelines served Pepsi and Alpac well throughout the ordeal and helped both Alpac and the parent company, Pepsi, maintain faith with the consumer.  The acute stage of the crisis lasted nine days, with the crisis communication team working 15 to 20 hours a day (Fearn-Banks, 1996).  The team's efforts resulted in positive media coverage during and after the crisis, which in turn reflected positively for the companies involved.
Analytic Process
     O'Connor's (1987) social-political theory of crisis relates cultural symbols to lived ideologies, indicating that our "perceived" realities are based on our experiences.  This study gathers relevant extant literature on crisis communication from military and civilian sources.   The research team uses qualitative research methods to unveil meanings that people assign to their experiences in crisis (Hoshmand, 1989).  The goal of this study applies qualitative research methods using O'Connor's (1987) social-political theory of crisis. 
     The team gathered relevant extant literature on crisis management from military and civilian sources.  Crisis management is defined based on a unifying meaning or underlying structure derived from textual descriptions of each event.  The research group compared methods employed throughout the texts.  The research team used three categories to code the text that were reviewed based on: 1) effective and ineffective response plans, 2) communication strategies used, and 3) communication guidelines used. 
     For the purposes of this study, effective communications plans are described as those that decrease the trauma of the organization. Effective plans also maintain or promote the organization's image. Conversely, ineffective plans are described as those that did not decrease the trauma of the organization.  Ineffective plans also did not maintain or promote the organization's image. 
     Strategy is defined as the overarching long-term themes applied to crisis communication.  Elements of the strategy include guidelines.  Guidelines are the tactical application of techniques in a crisis communication plan.  These techniques combined make up a strategy. 
     This study examines these three categories to extract major themes to incorporate into a typology for proactive crisis communication.  The study uses O'Connor's (1987) social-political theory of crisis to make the distinction between effective and ineffective strategies because an individual's view of experiences affects their perception of reality. This study uses qualitative contextual analysis to uncover themes and patterns of crisis management in order to create a typology for effective crisis communication.
     After collecting, compiling, and ascertaining various positive and negative reactions to communication crises, the research found significant, universal considerations in all of the crises, which resulted in our 12 strategies for a typology of a proactive crisis communication plan (See Appendix 2).  The 12 strategies in the typology include: openness, agenda setting, relevance, legal limitations, legal implications, release coordination, public think, responsiveness, message, cultural, single spokesperson, and firefighter.
     Openness refers to releasing all information about an issue immediately.   Public affairs representatives should seek internal and external media channels to capitalize on opportunities to tell their side of the story. (Seeger et al, 1998) Diet Pepsi did this during the hypodermic needle scare (Fearn-Banks, 1996).  Diet Pepsi opened its canning center, its employees and its CEO to the media, showing that there was nothing to hide and that they were willing to do every thing they could to work through this crisis.
Agenda Setting
     Agenda setting is crucial when dealing with the media (Woodyard, 1998).  Remember that everything is on the record, especially during the beginning phase of a crisis.  It is important to communicate your values first (i.e. concern for the environment, concern for individual’s safety) then worry about answering the questions that the media is asking.  This lesson was learned by studying the Exxon Valdez crisis.  Exxon did not have an agenda in responding to issues with the media (Fearn-Banks, 1996).  They were reactive, resulting in media-driven issues and information being released and reinforced.  They lost any control over what information was being emphasized and disseminated to the public.
     Relevance refers to what you are communicating.  Focus on the importance of the issue that caused the crisis and what is going to be done to remedy the situation.  Address relevant issues proactively, do not allow the importance of actions to be called into question later.  A good example of this occurred in the late 1980’s, during the BRAC rounds, the Pentagon announced base closures by showing the relevance to overall military force strengths and goals associated with BRAC (Woodyard, 1998).
Legal Limitations
     Legal limitations are an extremely important factor in any crisis management plan.  It is imperative that the spokesperson understands what is releasable information, what should be addressed, and what should not.  At the onset of a crisis it is important to seek internal legal counsel immediately.  However, counsel advice must be equal to the rate of inquiries received from the media in order to keep the media from focusing on their own agenda.  Through examining the case of 1stLt. Kelly Flinn, it is determined that the Air Force public affairs did not receive their legal advice quickly (Capaccio, 1997). The delay in this legal advice adversely affected their case against Flinn (Seeger et al., 1998).  Public relations practitioners should keep in mind that legal input may contradict what is acceptable release of information because legal is wary of future liability claims. 
Legal Implications
     The understanding of legal implications is important not only in the United States, but in whatever host country a crisis has occurred.  Counsel addressing a crisis must understand legal implication in the host country and how the law will be enforced in that country.  The Union Carbide gas leak in India killed thousands.  When their CEO arrived the next day to assist in the recovery operations he was immediately arrested at the airport (Fearn-Banks, 1996).  Had these legal implications been researched and considered the escalation of this crisis could have been prevented.
Release coordination
      Release coordination is the process of keeping everyone involved in dealing with the crisis informed of all the issues surrounding the crisis.  This coordination needs to be done in order to prevent the release of conflicting information, which can be detrimental to the crisis communication plan.  According the Aviano EA-6B after action report (1998), release coordination and authority was not clear during the beginning of the crisis.  This allowed for conflicting messages and information to be released to the public, adversely effecting the perception of the armed forces.
Public Think
      Public think refers to taking the public into consideration when examining what to release or focus on concerning the crisis.  In planning, an organization must first identify their internal and external publics who receive what the crises is producing (Bird, 1996). Address internally and externally the issues that have been determined as important and that the public has shown in interest in.  This was not done by Exxon (Fearn-Banks, 1996).  After the oil spill Exxon communicators only addressed the company’s concerns, they did not focus on other environmental and wildlife issues that weighed heavy on the public’s minds.
     Responsiveness is acting quickly and responding to any requests for information or requests about issues affecting the crisis as soon as possible (Seeger, et al., 1998).  Being attentive and responsive to the media and the public shows concern for solving the crisis and that there is nothing to hide.  Again, Exxon did not do this in their crisis response plan (Fearn-Banks 1996).  The CEO did not respond quickly following the oil spill, which resulted in a media-controlled, one-sided response being covered in the newspapers and on television.
      Be proactive and firm with the message that you want to release to the media.  Make sure the message is appropriate and is addressed at all opportunities, especially during the initial phase of a crisis.  The Air Force did not emphasize their key goals in the case of 1stLt. Flinn, leaving the media an opportunity to publish their own agenda (Capaccio, 1997).  The media played on America’s heartstrings of a girl being wronged and did not give the Air Force fair coverage because their messages were not emphasized.
     Cultural concerns describe the awareness of cultural and ethnic sensitivities in the language that is used in your messages and your crisis campaign in general.  Several days after the Cavalese tragedy, the U.S. ambassador to Italy laid a wreath at the tragedy site where the gondola had fallen. In their after action report (1998), the Aviano Public Affairs staff suggested that a similar sincere symbolic ceremony by the first U.S. officials to visit the site may have prevented considerable Italian furor in the first tumultuous days.  U.S. officials observing a moment of silence, laying candles or flowers, and respectfully removing their hats would have been a "powerful visual image that would have conveyed our message of sincere condolence throughout the world.  It would have made a more powerful statement than any words we could have expressed at that point" (Aviano After Action Report, 1998, p. 3).
Single Spokesperson
      Having a single spokesperson is key for consistency (Seeger, et al., 1998).  Identify, train, and equip a single source to answer all internal and external queries regarding your role in the crisis.  The CEO, wing/base commander, or the equivalent is preferred and necessary for larger crisis.  Exxon CEO did not respond to media queries and was no where to be found during the first phase of their crisis.  This resulted in negative publicity for the company and put the CEO’s concern for the tragedy into question (Fearn-Banks, 1996).
      A firefighter is a single person or a group of people who examine issues during a crisis that can flare up and/or intensify the situation further.  Diet Pepsi put together a team at their headquarters that was in charged of finding the latest media reports and getting that information quickly to others (Fearn-Banks, 1996).  Having this person or team who can create positive results during a crisis is important.  They must be ready, staffed and trained at maintaining and reducing the negative impact that the crisis may have on an organization (Seeger, et al., 1998).
     Studying crisis communication is important to Department of Defense public affairs practitioners because many of them have to work through crises while the public may not understand.  The military is a highly formal, rigid organization that the public does not always relate to (Hill, 1984). 
     According to Cutlip and Center (1971), the military has a history of unique problems in the area of disaster and accidents.  No matter how small the problem, the public's perception is not the same as the military chain of command.  Thus, it is important for the public affairs officer to study past crises and not wait for a crisis to occur at their installation to act.  A public affairs officer, after looking at the past, should make a proactive plan in conjunction with the rest of the commander's staff to formulate a great, proactive crisis communication plan.
     This research group's study of extant civilian and military crises and 12-strategy typology answers the two research questions that are fundamental to the success of any crisis communication situation. These proven strategies are based upon O'Connor's (1987) social-political theory which states that lived ideologies affect perceived reality. In order for DoD public affairs officers to successfully plan for crises, they must be prepared to release all cleared information as soon as possible, ensure their values are communicated, their messages are appropriate and relevant to the crisis and considered legal limitations and implications as well as cultural sensitivities.  Also, PAOs should ensure proper release coordination, taking into consideration how the public will perceive their message and be responsive to requests for information.  Finally, a crisis communication planning team must identify a single spokesperson to act as the sole source of information during a crisis, and a person or group of people to handle crises that crop up within a crisis.
     Successfully implementing elements of these strategies have paid huge positive public relations dividends for several organizations before, during, and after a crisis.  By using them in the prodromal and acute stages, these strategies answer the first research question: greatly lessening the trauma created by a crisis.  The data also answers the second question: a proactive strategy will repair an organization's image faster than a reactive one.
     Not utilizing or ignoring them can irreparably damage an organization's image.  As the spokespersons for the world's most capable military, DoD public affairs officers must use these strategies.