Crisis Communication Strategies
coverage centered on: the events at the plant; the loss of life; and rescue
efforts by the Indian Government. Subsequent coverage also focused on
the cause of the accident, the economic effect on Union Carbide and its
collective corporate response to the tragedy (Wilkins, 1987).
leadership was divided between attempting to distance itself from the
events in Bhopal (Avoidance Strategy) and providing maximum information
about the event, as well as direct support to the victims and full cooperation
with the Indian Government (Attachment/Forgiveness Strategies). The decision
was made in favor of openness and a crisis communication team was established
and instructed to conduct daily press briefings at a minimum.
They and several
senior executives continued to advise that, seeing how the Bhopal Plant
was actually operated by a subsidiary of Union Carbide (Union Carbide
India Limited) (Shrivastava, 1987, p. 51) and that the U.S. based corporation
only owned about half the publicly traded stock in the Indian operation,
the best strategy would be to distance Union Carbide' leadership in the
U.S. from the events in Bhopal. This might serve to limit future liability
as the inevitable flood of lawsuits started to roll in and protect the
corporation's stock price.
rejected this advice (Kurzman, 1987, p. 115). He felt the scope of the
tragedy was so significant and already connected in the mind of the public
with Union Carbide that efforts to distance the Company from the tragedy
were futile. Anderson traveled to India and was promptly arrested by Indian
authorities upon arrival (Kurzman, p.108).
also experienced severe difficulties in getting accurate information from
the plant in India regarding the specifics of the incident (Kurzman, p.89)
Phone lines were scarce and already packed with calls. The Indian Government
was not forthcoming with information, as they intended to shift blame
away from themselves to Union Carbide (Shrivastava, p.97). As a result,
the company's first formal release regarding the Bhopal incident came
one week after the tragedy (Smith, p. 154).
efforts were also hampered by the often conflicting interests of the various
stakeholders in the tragedy. The Indian Government saw events one way;
it wanted to ensure, (1) that it was not held accountable for the events
in Bhopal, (2) that it was seen as a victim of Union Carbide's lax safety
and maintenance procedures, (3) that it visibly demonstrated that the
Indian Government could handle the disaster and medical relief response
and (4) that the local government retained its credibility with the population
(Shrivastava, p. 118-120). This strategy placed the Indian Government
at odds with Union Carbide and led to the arrest of the CEO when he arrived
Secondary Evidence. The impression derived from mass media coverage of the incident focused on the drama of the initial event rather than on in-depth coverage of its possible causes (Wilkins, 1987). More than 85% of the print and television news stories on the Bhopal incident centered on the events themselves (i.e. the chemical release, number of deaths/injuries, immediate relief efforts, etc.) while approximately 15% focused on the larger framing of the event (i.e. industrial hazards, corporate responsibility, the survival of Union Carbide, etc.). Initial coverage, particularly television, also focused on images of the human tragedy experienced by the people of Bhopal.
Union Carbide's initial crisis communication strategy centered on the financial costs of the tragedy, limiting its legal/financial responsibility for the deaths of thousands of innocent people, the future of the corporation, the stockholders and Wall Street analysts who valued the company's stock and pressure from worldwide consumer and environmental groups (Higgins, 1985, p.14).
in getting accurate information from India severely hampered Union Carbide's
ability to get information out quickly to the media. This led to an overall
impression of "stonewalling" by the company and thus reduced
the effectiveness of their overall attachment strategy (Shrivastava, p.
Scholarly Journals. Communication scholars and those who study crisis management remain divided about the overall effectiveness of Union carbide's communication strategy regarding the Bhopal incident (Wilkins, 1987; Higgins, 1987). Some note that given the horrific nature of the tragedy, Union Carbide's strategy was about as effective as could be expected under the circumstance, (Higgins, 1987).
point to Union Carbide's lack of preparation in planning for a crisis
(Shrivastava, p.99) which led to a lack of available information and a
perception that the company was unsympathetic to the victims.
Union Carbide's leadership was faced with what could be described as a
mix of crisis types (Coombs, 1995, p. 455). The Bhopal incident contained
elements of both an accident in that the events at the plant were beyond
the company's ability to entirely control and transgression in that allegations
of the plant's lax safety and maintenance standards directly contributed
to the deadly chemical leak. Union Carbide's executives were, at first,
divided between emphasizing avoidance strategies and attachment strategies
in response to the Bhopal tragedy. Although, the company initially decided
it would adopt an attachment strategy toward the crisis, its execution
of the communication plan was hampered and resulted in mixed impressions
in the media and among the general public (Shrivastava, 1987).
communication's staff clearly intended to adopt a strategy of publicly
accepting moral (if not legal and financial) responsibility for the incident
and focused the company's efforts on the human cost of the accident. This
was widely perceived to be the correct strategy (Kurzman, 1987).
Communication staff of Union Carbide was quickly overwhelmed by the complexity
of the issue and the number of media inquiries were received. Despite
their best efforts, they lacked the manpower to respond to a crisis of
this magnitude. Failure to have a Crisis Communication Response Team (on-call)
was a major factor in the media's immediate perception that Union Carbide
was not forthcoming with information (Higgins, 1987).
failed to account for the fact that the Government of India might have
substantially different communication goals than the corporation had.
The Indian government had a vested interest in doing all it could to shift
blame and responsibility for the accident to Union Carbide in order to
divert attention away from the government's failure to properly monitor
safety conditions at the plant (Shrivastava, 1987).
had no means of established communication with its plant in India. When
the accident occurred they were reliant on a small number of phone lines
in and out of Bhopal. This compounded the company's inability to get accurate
information out to the public. Union Carbide's first formal news release
to the media came a full week after the accident (Higgins, 1987).
from the Bhopal tragedy forever changed Union Carbide.
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