Public Relations Management
Michael W. Corrigan
Michael W. Corrigan (Ed.D., West Virginia University, 2004) is an assistant professor, Educational Foundations and Technology Department, Marshall University, Huntington, WV, 25755, firstname.lastname@example.org, Daniel Mortensen, (Ph.D., UW- Madison, 1999), is an adjunct professor, Communication Arts Department, Edgewood College, Madison, WI, 53711, email@example.com.
Special thanks to Chandler Campbell (Web Design), Amanda R. Corrigan (research assistance), Rich Path (Flash Design), and my MBA students from the Edgewood College MBA Fall 04’ Executive Communication Class: Lynn Clement, Gabriel Dantas, Mary Francois, Scott Francour, Joni Herbert, Randy Malmquist, Andrea Naef, Chris Pedretti, John Prevost, Elliot Rivera, Robyn Shore, and Jarod Walker.
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|KEY WORDS: public relations, reactive, proactive, communication process, crisis communication, Cognitive Behavior Therapy, & Instantaneous Media|
This paper assesses the verbal and nonverbal crisis communication (e.g., internal and external organizational communication, news coverage, legal outcomes) experienced by a wide variety of organizations. The study utilizes communication process model research (Berlo, 1960; Brooks & Scheidel, 1968; and Smith,1972), to develop a strategic crisis-communication public relations (PR) model. The proposed model ideally would assist PR-practitioners to achieve more beneficial paths, processes, and outcomes experienced by organizations in a state of crisis. The new model goes beyond the standard variables of the communication process model (i.e. sender, message, channel, interference, situation receiver, and feedback) to address new components such as: a dualistic receiver function; an unrestrained, instantaneous media force; and the sub-processes of reactive and proactive public relations approaches. These additional components provide insights into why some organizations survive a crisis and some do not, and similarities of the crisis experience to Panic Disorder Syndrome.
Conceptualizing a Strategic Communication Process Model
for Crisis-Mode Public Relations Management
The causes of public relations (PR) problems for an organization are often similar in nature (e.g., employee misconduct, fraud, product malfunction, environmental catastrophe). Though common and consistent, however, these problems historically have been disruptive to many organizations. Organizations benefit greatly by having effective systems in place that will mitigate the public relations damage to the organization, and so give the organization time to address the problem (Ressler, 1982). Yet with research stating such logical advice for several decades, close to 40% of the worlds largest corporations have yet to formulate such systems or proactive PR plans (Fink, 1986; Lewis, 2003; Tiller, 1994).
In an age of the instant transfer of information, however, a common PR problem can be transformed quickly into a full-blown PR-crisis. Suddenly, the once small anomaly beeping quietly on the radar screen is now a screaming, flashing siren demanding a paradigm shift in organizational behavior. Variables such as: (1) the threat that the PR problem poses to the public, (2) the salience and breadth of the media coverage, (3) liability and risk implications, and (4) the degree of time sensitivity are just a few other factors that can trigger a crisis. While research and advice on how to handle such crises is abundant (Gonzalez-Herrero & Pratt, 1996), it also often is full of contradictions and conundrums. For instance, should one circle the wagons and protect the employees and company, or throw caution to the wind and focus foremost on the safety of the public? A study conducted by Arpan and Pompper (2003) inquired as to whether it was preferable for an organization to steal the thunder of the press and release the story before it is discovered, or to attempt to cover up or develop plans to stonewall? If one decides to speak, what should one say? Do they put off the inevitable with “no comment at this time,” provide a generic politically correct response, tell the whole truth and tell it fast, or even lie? As a result of the range of choices, one must practice caution when critically assessing crisis communication as it relates to PR. In order to strategically select the words or nonverbal actions that one chooses to communicate, this essay proposes that the participants of the crisis also should visualize the whole communication process of the crisis. By melding the research of communication studies, psychology, and public relations, this essay seeks to define a successful, more therapeutic methodology to surviving a PR-crisis.
Unlike decades past when a crisis PR situation meant that one had a minimum of a day to develop a strategic plan of action (or more often reaction) before the media coverage reached maturity and the visual news went national or international, today we are challenged by a pervasive instantaneous media force. For instance, a bystander can videotape or digitally record an incident with a cell phone or digital camera, and within seconds of witnessing an event email the footage directly to a news network with satellite connections to the world. Add to this mix a thousand additional blog sites and then multiply by a hundreds of thousands more emails. Consequently, there is a greater need for diagnostic tools for public relations that more accurately reflects today’s crisis communication process.
CRISIS MODEL EXAMPLES
According to Gonzalez-Herrero and Pratt (1996), “Crisis communications should be a long-term activity by which organizations use formal procedures to respond proactively to the crises” (p. 101). In other words, handling a crisis situation should be envisioned as a pre-planned necessity, rather than something that can be solved by reactionary measures. Though research into PR crisis management is rich in studies regarding the life cycles of crises and effective strategies beneficial to helping organizations survive occurrences (Arpan & Pompper, 2003), scholarship and practice has yet to discover a definitive proactive model that successfully prepares an organization for navigating crisis-mode PR. One probable reason for this deficiency is because a given organizational situation often demands a personalized response.
For instance, to your left are two examples from the many crisis models that can be found on the Internet and within research databases. These models consider specific variables like violence and chaos that are unique to the crisis experienced by the entity or organization. They focus, however, on the life cycle of the crisis itself while ignoring the communication that fuels the life cycle. This essay proposes that a more complete model of a crisis situation should include components reflective of the entire communication process. A PR-crisis communication model should examine the circumstances that lead to the crisis, encompass the crisis, and should continue even after the life cycle of the crisis theoretically has ended. In this way the essay applies the basic components of the communication process (senders, receivers, encoding and decoding messages, channels, etc.) to a PR-crisis.
Further, this essay will argue that the anxiety associated with a PR crisis is similar to the symptoms experienced by an individual suffering from Panic Disorder. As many therapists would agree, it would be unwise to treat such panic-associated symptoms without an understanding of their underlying causes, and a plan for avoiding a relapse of the panic disorder (O’Hanlon & Weiner-Davis, 1989). By integrating research of communication process models with psychoanalytic approaches to Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), this essay seeks to create a therapeutic diagnostic tool that can be used effectively for proactively addressing the anxiety associated with PR challenges. Therefore, this essay will: (1) reflect on the media-induced anxiety associated with a PR crisis, (2) diagnose some of the symptoms, emotional triggers, organizational behaviors, and consequences previously experienced by crisis-challenged organizations, (3) consider research relating to clearer cognition through Cognitive Behavior Therapy, (4) build a broader schema in relation to the communication process of PR crisis management, and (5) apply the proposed PR-crisis communication model to past PR-crises to illustrate the benefits that might come from the proposed model.
Reflective regression: Analyzing a root cause for increased PR anxiety
In the 1960s the United States of America (USA) had three national television networks. In a time before CNN, MSNBC, ESPN, and the hundreds of other cables networks, the USA had only NBC, CBS, and ABC. This was a time when video editing was still performed on tape reels that often had to be duplicated in one location and then delivered physically to other broadcasting studios in order to be aired. It was a time when the Associated Press (AP) wire was still the quickest and broadest source of news. This was an era when the visual impact of news traveled a little slower than the verbal, and organizations threatened by public relations crises had more time to react to a crisis situation.
On July 10, 1962, however, NASA technicians in Maine transmitted fuzzy images of themselves to engineers at a receiving station in England using the Telstar satellite. This historic event marked the beginning of a paradigm shift in broadcasting when orbiting communications satellites became a routine method to deliver television news and programming between companies and to broadcasters and cable operators (www.museum.tv). Yet, it was not until the mid-1980s that the networks used these satellites to broadcast programming directly to viewers for distribution of advertising, and to provide live news coverage. Prior to the mid 1980s, therefore, the turn-around time for television news footage was much slower than today.
For instance, in 1982 when the classic Tylenol cyanide poisoning case took place, national distribution of the news of the poisoning was delayed until a connection between the killings and Tylenol were made. While the nation unknowingly waited to be informed by all three national networks on the evening news about the deaths due to the contaminated over-the-counter drugs, police and city officials drove through Chicago announcing the warning over loudspeakers. A whole day later, the Food and Drug Administration advised consumers to avoid the Tylenol capsules, "until the series of deaths in the Chicago area can be clarified" (Tifft, p. 18). The use of loud speakers, the reliance upon the evening news (not 24 hour/ instant news), and the Food and Drug Administration’s day delay provide a perfect contrast to today’s media.
Imagine if the Tylenol case took place today. Instead of waiting on the evening news, the news would have been international instantly possibly accompanied by gripping video footage of the dead bodies. As the Los Angeles Police Department has learned, amateur videographers/paparazzi are everywhere and the powerful imagery of a video clip creates an unforgettable memory (Baddeley, 1998). From hand-held video recorders to digital cameras, raw footage of events is a hot commodity to journalists and networks that will pay great prices for use in a breaking story. This formula for instantaneous media is magnified by the phenomenon of bloggers, and the proliferation of undocumented images sent through email. This explosion of media technology has had implications for the courtroom, which itself has lead to further coverage. According to the New York Times (Dwyer, 2005), nearly 400 of the 1,806 people arrested for alleged misconduct during the protests of the 2004 Republican Party National Convention in New York City were found innocent of charges because amateur video footage clearly showed that the police and other prosecution witnesses blatantly provided false testimony in court. Nearly eight months after the first news coverage of the protests, evidence of video footage was still surfacing. Yet, despite a revolution in the way the society views and uses media, it would appear that very few companies have fully understood the PR implications.
A study by Fink (1986) reported that 89% of the chief executive officers (CEO) of Fortune 500 companies stated that a crisis that would threaten their business was inevitable. The CEO’s responses confirm that a crisis occurrence is not a question of if, but rather when. Yet 50% of those same CEOs admitted they did not have a plan to handle such a company threatening crisis. A later study by Tiller (1994) on the Fortune 1,000 industrial and 500 service companies found only a slight increase in preparedness, with 60% of the companies claiming to have a crisis-management plan. A decade later, according to the Boston Globe (September 7, 2003), the American Management Association reports that of 146 companies and executives surveyed, 64% said their firm has a crisis management plan in place, up from only 49% in 2002.
Although the figures above on the number of companies prepared for crises differ slightly, they do show that the number is gradually increasing over time. These figures, however, are based mainly on large companies or corporations and highlight that approximately 40% of the companies are not yet prepared for the inevitable crisis. One should also not overlook the preparedness of small companies. Given that small businesses create two-thirds of new private sector jobs in America, employ more than half of all workers, and account for more than half of the output of our economy (http://www.whitehouse.gov), and that most of these companies can not afford public relations staff or agencies, one can only speculate as to the number of small businesses not prepared for such challenges. And quite often, a smaller business means smaller capital reserves, which could impair their ability to survive a recovery period associated with a PR crisis. Yet such crises are not solely confined to for-profit companies.
Media focus on events like the Columbine shootings and government corruption also remind us that PR-crises can take a toll on local governments, school systems, and other not-for-profit entities. Furthermore, with the admittedly poor performance by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (F.E.M.A.) in response to Hurricane Katrina that ravished New Orleans and the gulf coast in August 2005, we have also come to realize that even those responsible for emergency response to crises are not always prepared (see F.E.M.A. crisis model below). Yet as The Daily Show's Jon Stewart suggests (www.comedycentral.com), if the below chart is accurate as to the approach that F.E.M.A. had planned, "They did exactly what they had planned to do" by taking a disaster and creating another disaster due to the lack of preparedness in the first place. Please note that since such criticism has been aired, the chart has been removed from the website but the words still stay the same.
"They did exactly what they meant to do."
Jon Stewart on F.E.M.A
The research on the number of organizations and companies ready for such PR nightmares brings up several concerns and questions. The first question constitutes prepared? In the course of collecting this research we uncovered that a common response from small business executives and larger company protocols was that being prepared meant stating that they should "say nothing to the press in the event of a crisis." Sometimes the plan was to "only allow one person from the company to speak to the media." The fact that many of the plans do not include attention to response/timing strategies, perceptions of stonewalling/cover ups, or the need to show immediate concern for the public, suggests that though they think they are prepared, in reality it is a false security. On the other hand, an honest approach that admits responsibility and takes full accountability might work with the public and the media, but could backfire later when it comes to the court’s involvement in regard to liability.
As a result, the technological advancement of visual media and mass communicative power of the new internet and satellite enhanced media has become a root cause for higher levels of anxiety associated with PR challenges. High levels of anxiety often lead to irrational behavior. Combine this increased anxiety with a lack of preparedness, and one is challenged by the need to think quickly in an environment not conducive for clarity. Suddenly, a simple mishap can mean the demise of the organization if not handled correctly. Very few organizations have the means to wait for the coverage to die away or allow the life cycle of the crisis communication to run its course. Whether the crisis is a threat to the public or just the organization’s reputation, the response is critical to the success of surviving. To highlight these concerns the next section provides several classic case studies used in conceptualizing the symptoms, behaviors, and communication associated with crisis-mode PR.
Case studies: Diagnosis of symptoms, organizational behavior, and consequences
The case studies to follow are a just a few examples among many that highlight the symptoms or emotional triggers, organizational behavior, the internal and external communication associated with a PR crisis, and the consequences experienced.
On March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground, spilling 250,000 barrels and causing one of the worst environmental disasters in history. With more than 10 million gallons of oil contaminating Alaska’s Prince William Sound, media from all over the world had converged on this breaking story from all sides. "By the time the media was finished, the Exxon name was synonymous with environmental catastrophe" (Holusha, 1989). Typically, for those who had learned from the 1982 Tylenol lessons, several things were expected protocol:
"The company must do well solving the actual problem - in this case, cleaning up 10 million gallons of spilled oil. And the company must create a positive perception of how the problem is handled” (Elliott, 1989).
Yet Exxon’s nightmare and Alaska’s stark reality held no such characteristics. The initial response did not come immediately from the corporate office verbally or nonverbally. It took ten hours after the accident to even deploy the clean up booms to contain the spill. In addition, according to a study by the University of Florida (http://iml.jou.ufl.edu), Exxon was criticized for refusing to acknowledge the extent of the problem due to the advice of the company's legal counsel. To further stonewall, company executives refused to comment on the accident for almost a week. The biggest criticism the company was the fact that CEO Lawrence Rawl waited six days to make a statement to the media and that he did not visit the scene of the accident until nearly three weeks after the spill. These actions left the public with the impression that the Exxon Corporation did not take this accident seriously.
Matters did not improve much when the Exxon executive staff based themselves exclusively from Valdez, Alaska, a town too small to even house the media covering the story. They told the press, "It was Valdez or nothing" if they wanted to talk (Holusha, 1989). In addition to a lethargic response and unwillingness to communicate, there was little consistency in the executives’ statements. One Exxon official blamed the state and federal officials for the delays in containing the spill. When asked how Exxon intended to pay the massive cleanup costs, another Exxon executive responded by saying it would raise gas prices to pay for the incident (Elliott, 1989). These attempts to evade responsibility and defer blame angered consumers. Ten days after the spill, Exxon bought $1.8 million worth of full-page ads in 166 newspapers (Elliott, 1989). In the ad, the company apologized for the spill but still did not accept responsibility. Many saw this gesture as insincere and inadequate.
According to explorenorth.com, the initial cleanup of the spill took three years, and the cost was over $2.1 billion. The death toll in terms of wildlife was staggering, and the full impact may never be known. On October 8, 1991, an agreement was reached between the State of Alaska, the federal government, and Exxon on both criminal charges and civil damage claims. In settlement of civil charges, Exxon would pay the State of Alaska and the United States $900 million over a 10-year period. The monies would be used for restoration and would be administered by six government trustees, three federal, and three states. In settlement of criminal charges, Exxon would pay a fine of $250 million. Two "restitution funds" of $50 million each were established, one under state control and one under federal authority. Against strong opposition from many Alaskans, $125 million of the balance was forgiven due to Exxon's cooperation during the cleanup, and upgraded safety procedures to prevent a reoccurrence. The remaining $25 million was divided between the Victims of Crime Act account ($13 million) and the North American Wetlands Conservation Fund ($12 million).
Joseph Hazelwood was the captain of the Exxon Valdez the night she ran aground. Despite his admission that he had consumed at least three drinks before boarding the ship, Hazelwood was acquitted in 1990 of operating the tanker while drunk. He was convicted of the misdemeanor offence of illegally discharging oil, and on July 8, 1998, the Alaska Appeals Court upheld Hazelwood's sentence on that charge. He spent a summer completing 1,000 hours picking up garbage along Anchorage-area highways. As one can see, for most of those involved, the price for not handling a PR crisis correctly is very high. The symptoms stemming from a relentless media in search of answers produced a great number of emotional triggers for the Exxon executives to manage. An unprepared organization facing mass chaos resulted in many misstatements and inconsistent communication that resulted in more negative media attention which theoretically could have been avoided. Moving from the one of the world’s worst environmental crises, let us now revisit one of the world’s worst industrial accidents.
Union Carbide Bhopal Pesticide Plant
According to Jackson B. Browning (1993), a former executive in charge of safety for the Union Carbide Corporation, in the early hours of Monday, December 3, 1984, a toxic cloud of methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas enveloped the hundreds of shanties and huts surrounding a pesticide plant in Bhopal, India operated by Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL). While the local residents slept, the deadly cloud slowly drifted through the streets. By the time the gas cleared at daybreak, 1,430 people were dead and thousands more were injured. The first report of the disaster did not reach Union Carbide executives in the USA until 12 hours after the incident. By 6 a.m. in the USA, Union Carbide executives were gathering with technical, legal, and communications staff at the company’s headquarters. The first press inquiry had come at 4:30 a.m., marking the beginning of what would become 500 calls a day for several weeks. This front page story would not disappear for months to come.
As was discovered two years later, the accident was caused by a disgruntled employee who wanted to ruin a batch of MIC by adding water to a storage tank. The water caused a reaction that turned the chemical compound into a lethal gas. The first contact from plant officials to Browning suggested that an accident had occurred, no employees had been injured, but 8 to 12 civilians had been killed. In his 1993 article, Union Carbide: Disaster at Bhopal, Browning explains that as he was listening to the radio on his way to the 6 a.m. meeting when he heard the death toll had rose to 50.
Because the Union Carbide headquarters was serving as a crisis response center, the first press conference was held at a nearby hotel at 1 p.m. that day in the USA. They explained that a disaster had occurred at a plant that they owned a 50.9 percent share. Union Carbide explained that they were sending medical and technical experts to aid the people of Bhopal, to help dispose of the remaining MIC, and to investigate the cause of the tragedy. They also announced that they were immediately halting production at their only other MIC plant in Institute, West Virginia. The press conferences served as a more efficient way to answer the hundreds of questions and phone calls they were receiving from all over the world. Meanwhile, make-shift hospitals were set up at the plant in Bhopal to treat the thousands of victims.
The magnitude of the negative press resulting from the tragedy was so overwhelming that Warren Anderson, the worldwide chairman of Union Carbide, in a statement expressed with great anguish said, “We entered December with one of the best safety records in the safest of industries. We end the year implicated in what people are calling history’s worst industrial disaster!” This honesty was common among Union Carbide executives. Browning (1993) reported that colleagues recalled him often quoting his mother’s advice, that if you tell the truth; you will never have to remember your lies. Yet despite the honesty, the CEO, managing director, and plant management were arrested upon arriving in India, the Bhopal plant was closed down, and 1,800 workers were transferred elsewhere or given appropriate compensation. The Indian courts and government demanded $3 billion in damages, which took much time to reach the true victims. Additionally, every court case brought new headlines to the forefront. The net results of being honest, caring and providing genuine relief for the people of Bhopal, however, kept an adequate percentage of the employees on the company’s side, improved moral, gained sympathy from stockholders, and gained enough support needed to survive this catastrophe. Dow Chemical purchased Union Carbide, however, and to this day still is facing harsh criticism for the incident and settlement (http://www.bhopal.net/).
Another case that is likely to become a classic PR crisis study is the fall of Enron and Arthur Andersen. This corporate fiasco’s public record began on December 2, 2001 (www.cnn.com). The story began with the release of the news that Enron was filing Chapter 11 and seeking bankruptcy protection. The company’s initial response to media inquiries was positive and confident. “While uncertainty during the past few weeks has severely impacted the market’s confidence in Enron and its trading operations, we are taking steps announced today to help preserve capital, stabilize our businesses, restore confidence of our trading counter parties, and enhance our ability to pay our creditors,” said Kenneth L. Lay, then Enron Chairman and CEO.
Unfortunately, as Jim McAuliffe, an analyst with Morgan Stanley, Dean Witter, pointed out on CNN on December 2, 2001, at the time of Lay’s statement Enron had not yet secured the debt financing. Failing to gain such financing before making such an announcement created a "tricky one." A second response came from Enron later implying that they would pay some of the creditors by filing a suit against the company Dynegy for pulling out of a merger deal. Yet Dynegy told CNNfn that Enron’s claims were without merit. Slowly the fate of Enron started to crystallize.
Their fate was sealed when the accounting firm of Arthur Andersen came under investigation for admittedly making mistakes on Enron’s audit. But Arthur Andersen stopped short of taking the blame for the business failure. “At its base, this is an economic failure,” said Arthur Andersen CEO Joseph Berardino on NBC’s Meet the Press, “The stock was sliding all year in 2001, and it lost about 80 [percent] or 90 percent of its value before any of these accounting issues came to light.” Worse yet, as Enron and Arthur Andersen closed many or most of their doors leaving thousands unemployed and many more holding worthless stock, the court cases still continue. Until the courts and congress have made the final decisions about the fate of the Enron scandal, one cannot be sure exactly how this PR-crisis case will turn out. Given that the home web site of Arthur Andersen provides only a street address with no hyperlinks (http://www.andersen.com/), Enron.com claims to still be in the midst of restructuring, and the charges against Kenneth Lay were dropped on account of his unexpected death, the final fallout of the Enron scandal remains cloudy. One conclusion that can be made is that the negative media coverage resulting from non-strategic, reactionary, and inconsistent communication will forever define the reputations of these companies and their executives.
Scholarship on PR crises is supported abundantly with many more examples of experiences as extreme as the ones discussed above. And even if an organization’s problems do not reach the headlines, when it is one’s own organization and livelihood that is being threatened, no crisis is small.
From the examples noted above and others we can see that there are some definitive stages and pivotal reflection points within the PR-crisis communication process. The crisis initiates with a specific event, but the crisis inevitably spreads to affect all parts of the organization. The organization is then expected to provide an initial response or plan of action. This message is sent through a multitude of channels, and then depending on the substance of the communication, the receivers (i.e. the public, stock market) form an opinion and the various media fine tune a direction for future coverage of the occurrence. These examples begin to highlight that a PR-crisis is a communication process that holds more serious consequences for miscommunication. In order to understand this process, a more thorough analysis of the basic communication process models is needed. First, however, let us consider one additional stage not always shared in the public record, and how to possibly recognize and handle this challenge more effectively.
PR psychoanalysis: A call for applying cognitive behavior therapy
Although the above case studies attempt to highlight the communication process that organizations commonly experience during PR challenges, there is one stage that is often impossible to document from a review of public records. This stage is the initial moment when the unfortunate event first occurs. Typically, symptoms accompanying this event begin with an emotional trigger that activates a series of chemical reactions within the physical minds and bodies of the organization’s management and staff. This is a stage where communication often feels as if it is spinning out control, and though the executives want to say something, the words do not seem to materialize. With an overwhelming feeling of anxiety, associated with silence, disbelief, and discomfort, this stage is similar to the syndrome known as Panic Disorder.
Panic attacks are the hallmark of Panic Disorder. For many who have experienced a true PR crisis with one’s organization, the symptoms below will be immediately recognizable. According to the American Psychological Association:
A panic attack is a sudden surge of overwhelming fear that comes without warning and without any obvious reason. It is far more intense than the feeling of being 'stressed out' that most people experience. Symptoms of a panic attack include: racing heartbeat, difficulty breathing, feeling as though you 'can't get enough air', terror that is almost paralyzing, dizziness, lightheadedness or nausea, trembling, sweating, shaking, choking, chest pains, hot flashes, or sudden chills, tingling in fingers or toes ('pins and needles'), and fear that you're going to go crazy or are about to die. (www.apa.org)
One difference that appears to exist between Panic Disorder and the panic associated with a PR crisis, however, is that the anxiety associated with the PR is being caused by an obvious reason that pushes the boundaries of reality with feelings that are almost surreal. “Many therapies attempt to resolve such mental challenges by providing clients with awareness of both their nature and their origin” (O’Hanlon & Weiner-Davis, 1989, p. 27). Additionally, a therapeutic approach called Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) focuses on the panic attack as well as possible positive outcomes to follow the panic attack (O’Hanlon & Weiner-Davis, 1989). Realizing, therefore, that the event taking place is the origin of one’s anxiety is a good first step. Once one understands that the panic attack is separate and independent of the crisis trigger, then the trigger begins to lose some of its power to induce an anxiety attack. When the first wave of panic and anxiety is acknowledged, and the patient is able to “catch their breath,” so to speak, practicing cognitive restructuring or changing the patient’s method of thinking also helps people replace the panic-ridden thoughts with more realistic, positive ways of viewing the attacks. According to the APA, additional relaxation techniques can further assist someone in “flowing through” an attack. These techniques include breathing, retraining and, positive visualization. In other words, by carving out an essential amount of time for visualizing how one might see such an unfortunate event as not being the end of the company, but rather just a new challenge, or transition point, can contribute greatly to thinking more clearly. By gaining this perspective, the victim of the panic attack begins to understand the problem and its causes more clearly.
This process of understanding the meaning of an event or better grasping one’s feelings can also be accomplished by utilizing an approach sometimes referred to as a hermeneutic circle (Geertz, 1983). By distancing one’s self from their own view, and looking back as if they are a stranger or other seeing the situation from an outsider’s perspective for the first time, a new viewpoint sometimes can be illuminated. This approach is often used in helping one navigate through the stages of culture shock (Klyukanov, 2005). Culture shock is basically a psychological condition that occurs when someone enters a new or foreign culture, yet remains mentally grounded in their home culture. Furthermore, once a serious PR crisis takes hold, it is important to realize that the organizational culture often will quickly transform into a completely different culture, and getting back to that more comfortable context will take time, patience, and hard work.
The goal of this section is to clarify that using a more calm and logical diagnosis of the initial stages within the PR-crisis communication process (e.g., valence of the media coverage, reception of the company’s response, receiver’s feedback) is an essential first step to survival. Applying techniques similar to CBT to alleviate the anxiety affect can lead to more logical and adaptive thinking. Unfortunately, history would suggest that many get caught up in the moment, do not think clearly, and end up handling the PR challenge with a non-strategic, reactionary approach. An objective of this essay is to clarify that a proactive, strategic approach to crisis communication is essential to surviving. Numerous communication models propose a decoding and encoding stage. Given that one is often not thinking clearly when in the midst of a PR-crisis, instead of the decoding and encoding stage, the model to be proposed in this paper combines the coding with the insights of CBT to provide a reflection point in the communication process. Let us now consider, therefore, creating a conceptualization of the communication process reflective of a bigger picture associated with a PR-crisis.
A model for crisis communication: Determining one’s path
Although many models exist to better define the life cycle of a crisis, this essay provides a more definitive, all-encompassing crisis communication process model. This model highlights the differences between proactive and reactive communication, and the challenges associated with an instantaneous media. According to Miller (1966), the act of defining communication is capable of generating a heated debate. Similar to the debate among sociologists struggling with defining the construct of community, scholars in the field of communication studies have had difficulty pinpointing a definition for communication. A common characteristic, however, among the many definitions put forth is that communication is often seen as a process. Berlo (1960) described the process of communication as dynamic, ongoing, and “without a beginning or end, or boundaries” (p. 12). For this essay, we will build upon Berlo’s and other communication scholars’ heuristic insights to help demonstrate how such communication process beliefs more thoroughly illustrate the on-going life cycle of the crisis communication associated with PR.
Whitehead (1929) defined a process in which an entity’s “being is constituted by its becoming” (p. 34-35), and that “process is the becoming of experience” (p. 252). Yet, Brooks and Scheidel (1968) posited that too many researchers have focused on the outcomes of the process and not the process itself. In other words, much of the seminal research on communication process has focused more heavily on the outcomes (dependent variables) rather than the existing factors (e.g., independent variables that make up the process). Another debate amongst communication scholars is whether or not process is that of the Whitehead concept, where definition itself is created through interaction, or a more Newtonian linear-based approach that the preceding stage in the process is actually determining/effecting the next stage (Smith, 1972). Without rekindling a century of debate or a transition into the minutiae of System’s Theory, including concepts such as nonsummativity or equifinality, a goal of this essay is to create a pragmatic tool for helping an organization navigate a PR crisis through a deeper understanding of communication process. In other words, understanding that which one does in the initial stages of a PR-crisis communication process can greatly affect the next stages to follow (e.g., Newtonian). Furthermore, understanding that the outcome of the communication process can define the salience of the interaction (e.g., Whitehead) is also paramount. Therefore, the objective of this essay is to not debate the different opinions of communication process but to consider some of the many insights discovered through communication process research and how such insights can compliment the new PR challenges brought forth by an instantaneous media. Let us now consider some basic process models of communication put forth and the variables involved.
The Shannon-Weaver Model (1949) of communication often is used for an introduction to the communication process. Shannon and Weaver created a linear model that proposed all communication must include six elements: (1) source, (2) encoder, (3) message, (4) channel, (5) decoder, and (6) receiver. These six elements are shown graphically in Model 1. As Shannon was researching in the field of Information Theory, his model and variables such as encoding, decoding, and noise were initially very technology-oriented. Similar to Lasswell’s formula for communication (created around the same time), the Shannon-Weaver model hypothesizes that the communication starts with the source, who creates a message (encodes), transmits the message through a channel, through which the receiver intercepts and subsequently decodes into meaningful stimulus.
Model 1: The Shannon-Weaver Model
At first glimpse this idea of communication following a straight line from source to receiver all seems relatively simple; one must remember, however, Berlo’s view that there is no definitive beginning or end, or boundaries. Does the communication have to initiate from the sender? This question relates to a variable of great debate as to whether or not intent (e.g., a desire to communicate by the source) is necessary for communication. For instance, imagine if a viewer of the media perceives that the executive’s nonverbal smile suggests they are happy with the crisis, yet the smile was due to an uncontrollable nervous response. Did this nonverbal behavior count as communication? The executive (sender) did not intend to make the receiver think that they were happy with the crisis, yet the message was received and decoded in such a way. Some would say that this was not a form of communication, but rather a misconception of behavior. Yet what if the smile did mean they were happy with the crisis, however, they did not mean to allow such emotional leakage to be perceived by the receiver. Would this nonverbal behavior now count as communication? Not a semester goes by that this question of intent is rightfully debated in college classrooms across the world.
Additionally, there are many other variables to consider in the process. Consider the noise factor that Shannon-Weaver includes in their model. In Shannon’s research into Information Theory and the invention of the telephone, he determined that the variable of noise was needed within the model. Since that time, however, noise has come to represent much more than the static on the telephone line. The extraneous variable of noise can become a great barrier to the communication process. Noise can represent physical noise (e.g., loud music, screaming reporters) as well as mental noise such as stress, anxiety or time constraints that distracts one’s thoughts.
Basically, one of the principal problems with Shannon and Weaver’s model is that it evaluates communication based on the efficiency of the channel (Bowman & Targowski, 1987). Yet in today’s model of communication we are forced to deal with multiple channels working simultaneously. Furthermore, not all process models of communication are linear. Others resemble more of an interactive model that follows more of a circular path rather than a straight line (Schramm, 1954) (cf. Model 2 for the Schramm Model.). By considering a circular model that captures a process more descriptive of the dynamic (ongoing) give and take of communication, it throws into question the Shannon-Weaver model that proposes that communication theoretically starts with the source or ends with a receiver. Other variables missing from the Model 1 linear model (that are presented through the Model 2 circular model) are feedback and the interpretation of meaning. Communication often demands that the receiver assume the role of sender and reply back or offer reflection on what they just heard. Furthermore, the act of decoding a confusing or contradictive message can create a never ending process. Rarely is communication censored or restricted to the sending and reception of one message. Dilemmas such as these lead some scholars to reject the initial models that represented a linear conceptualization of communication with several weaknesses. The linear models lacked the flexibility for communication to originate from some place else other than the sender (e.g., receiver decoding nonverbal leakage to be communication). Additionally, the straight lines did not represent the full interactiveness and ongoing, dynamic qualities of a process that never stops.
Model 2: Schramm Model
With respect to the dynamic quality of communication, Watzlawick, Bavelas, and Jackson (1967) state that "one cannot not communicate” (p. 49). In other words, even after the words have stopped, does not a frown carry on meaning in the communication process through sending non-verbal cues and affecting ones encoding, interpretation, and decoding? When a spouse decides to give the significant other the cold shoulder for not completing their chores, is the silence not a message that speaks volumes? When a child slowly tries to hide behind the furniture when the white dog covered with finger paint is found, does this not sometimes serve as an admittance of guilt? When someone has yelled at you for falling short of their expectations, doesn’t the on-going sting of the disappointment affect your mood and communication that follows? And how does one forget the pictures of chemically burned dead babies and oil soaked birds? Therefore, communication rarely ever completely stops, and feedback comes in many forms.
As mentioned earlier in this essay, our channels of communication also are multiplying and transforming greatly with new technology. This advancement provides other challenges that have been discussed as it relates to public relations. These channels are creating and changing the contexts with which we communicate within. Our world is more instantaneous. Our modes of communication are far beyond the interpersonal voice, newspapers, and handwritten letters of centuries past. The time once allowed for encoding or decoding a message (or reply) has dwindled down to nearly nanoseconds as instant messaging has become a fad. Considering all of the communication variables mentioned above in the various models, one can see that defining communication as an informational exchange implies that there is always something being transmitted through some sort of channel; however, few researchers specify what that something is (DiPaolo, 1997). With this in mind, let us now propose a process model that attempts to reflect the specifics of the crisis communication associated with a PR crisis.
From previous research we can assume that there are good ways and bad ways to handle a PR situation. The bad ways seem to be more often associated with companies that have not planned for any type of crisis, show no concern for the public, offer little explanation to the press, and decide to not take any strategic approach to reacting to the incident. This non-strategic, reactionary approach often is received negatively by the media, and consequently by the public, which inevitably results in more bad press. This often leads to a spiral effect and many times companies get stuck in a cycle of just reacting and digging a deeper hole with the use of politically damaging statements and the lack of nonverbal gestures that could provide a beneficial picture.
On the other hand, the good approaches to PR seem to be more often associated with companies that have prepared for such an event; they show and express immediate concern for their customers, environment or the public in danger from the incident; they take some sort of immediate action to fix the accident and prevent future events; and they use a more strategic, consistent approach to communicating. One possible difference between these two approaches is related to the anxiety level affecting the decision making process. In order to navigate through such a stressful incident, this essay proposes that members of an affected organization should identify the stage that they are experiencing, and visualize a more strategic path to handling the information overload. Model 3 serves as rough conceptualization of the communication pattern common to a PR-crisis situation.
Model 3: A Proactive Process Model for PR Crisis Communication
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Unlike previous conceptualizations of the crisis life cycle (e.g., Gonzalez-Herrero & Pratt, 1996) that basically represented the crisis as a curvilinear bell curve moving through stages from birth, growth, maturity, to decline, in Model 3 we see the crisis with a life cycle that is dependent upon a number of additional variables. Unlike previous life cycle models that had a definitive beginning and end, in this model we see that the life cycle could last indefinitely if the organization remains locked in the lower sub-process (colored red in Model 3) representative of a reactionary, non-strategic tactics. Furthermore, as we discussed above, the nonverbal impact of visual footage or the verbal stories from horrific events can impact greatly the severity of the incident and leave a receiver decoding such information for quite a long time. This model also was designed to illustrate that the crisis quite often is like a bomb that sends dangerous fragments in every direction. Consequently, it is nearly impossible to smother the explosion and even more difficult to try and treat each wounded area at the same time. It would be more affective to adopt a triage approach and select the worst injury and begin there. In addition, however, to first attending to the victims of the crisis, others also related to the PR-crisis communication process (and in need of immediate simultaneous attention) are most likely the receivers of the news (e.g., the public or customers), and the media.
In this model one finds that there is a dualistic receiver function. This division between the receivers’ perceived positive or negative valence was designed to show that the news of a crisis can leave the public very divided on how to feel about the actions of the company or individual under scrutiny. This often is the result of two different types of media coverage, (1) the instantaneous media that prefer to air a story before the facts have been checked, and (2) a more professional side of the media that believes in collecting both sides of the story before going public. This model supports a proactive, strategic approach to PR that illustrates how essential it is to build a positive relationship with a targeted media group or groups so that if a potential crisis event does occur, the organization has at least tried to build a rapport with the media based on goodwill, concern for the community, and professionalism. An example of the efficacy of this approach is supported by considering how groups like the Red Cross and United Way were able to get through fraud allegations relatively quickly. The fact that they had done so much good prior to the corporate misappropriations, most likely went along way in earning the respect and leniency of the press and public. Proactive PR, therefore, is placed within the upper half of this process for a good reason. By taking the higher road and building positive rapport with the media, an organization’s proactive efforts can help greatly to save such social capital for a rainy day.
Yet, beyond whether or not your company has practiced proactive PR, what does one do once they have triaged the wounded, and now are suffering from a slight case of exhaustion, shock and an overwhelming sense of anxiety? Remember that practicing Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) can help reduce this anxiety that clouds the decision process. Thus, seeking to retreat to the Cognitive Restructuring: Diagnosis Point is a good place to regroup. By taking time to reevaluate the bigger picture, one can make a strategic decision to avoid continuing on the reactionary path, and move upward to a more conducive form of encoding. It is one thing to be reactive and non strategic, it is another to be reactionary and strategic. Of course, it would be even more conducive to be proactive and strategic in the encoding practice, but no matter how much doomsday preparation an organization performs it is nearly impossible to prepare for every unforeseen event. Yet by seeking the higher ground, it is supported by the literature that strategically planning communication can go along way to reducing the damage.
Finally, one must remember that strategic verbal communication is good for the company, but the truly significant effects come from the nonverbal actions. The physical efforts of Tylenol (e.g., removing all Tylenol products from the shelf), Union Carbide (e.g., closing the sister plant back in the USA, sending medical help), and thousands of other companies who survived a crisis are what have saved many organizations from bankruptcy. The pictures of Martha Stewart giving her prison inmates and their families a Thanksgiving holiday dinner are the images that attach more readily in a receiver’s long term memory. As communication research has discovered, words do not always hold meaning, often it is the actions of people that provide emotion and definition.
Discussion and application of the PR-crisis communication process model
During a recent discussion with a colleague who handles the PR for a small college, we asked if he was prepared for a public relations crisis. With a look of serious worry he asked, “Why, do you know something I don’t know?” After putting his initial worries to rest and telling him about our research, and that we ask about the PR-crisis out of pure scholarly interest, we then proceeded to scare him much worse. We began by pointing out all of things that could go wrong at a small co-ed college. In the wake of Columbine and other more recent murderous rampages that have taken place within the USA school systems, we began by listing murder, rape, armed robbery, theft, or God forbid a professor is labeled “liberal.” His face went back to showing signs of concern once again. We reminded him of how a football coach at a large university when told that his female kicker had been raped replied by pointing out that she was a bad kicker to begin with. We reminded him that his school did not have any policy that directed the faculty and staff to follow a protocol with media if something unfortunate happened on campus and they were contacted by the media for comment. And then we asked him again as to what he would do if something happened today. Like many in the corporate world, silence is often the answer to this question.
The goal of this essay was to provide insight as to new strategy and methodology to handling a PR-crisis. Although PR literature is rich with effective ways to win the public over, the advancement of technology is challenging such practices to be adapted to handling today’s instantaneous media. Given that PR practitioners practice many inventive ways as to how to encode the intended messages strategically, this study sought not to replicate past work but to help in creating a tool that can assist one in reducing the anxiety associated with accomplishing the necessary tasks that have been supported by research. Similar to a board game, this model allows one to see more clearly one’s place within communication process of the life cycle of a crisis (e.g., the stage of the game), and what might be the next or most strategic move needed to move forward. Yet in the game (if you will) of PR-Crises, no one seems to actually win; the goal is to stay in the game and not lose. By applying the classis PR challenges discussed within this essay to the proposed process in Model 3, let us trace the paths of a few organizations and consider what moves might have helped the organizations’ efforts.
Applying the model
When tracing the Exxon Valdez incident through the proposed process model, the majority of the steps taken (or more reflective of not taken) by Exxon fall within the reactive/non strategic loop (outlined in red). Basically, by refusing to comment for a week, the media was forced to replay the footage from the wreckage and the oil-covered wildlife. The media was left to discuss the rumors of the captain being drunk and contemplate why Exxon would not comment. The delayed deployment (ten hours) of clean up booms also did not provide an effective nonverbal message that showed Exxon was on top of things or overly concerned. With no comment as to how Exxon would be dealing with the crisis for nearly a week, the reactive/non strategic loop was worn thin do to over use.
Finally, after a week of “no comment” a plan for dealing with the media was hatched. Unfortunately, given that the messages were not consistent or strategic (e.g., “It’s Valdez or nothing”, “We will raise gas prices to pay for the incident”, “It was the state and federal officials that caused the clean up delays”), even once they started talking they still stayed in the reactive/non strategic loop by practicing reactive, non-strategic encoding. This in course fueled another feeding frenzy by the media.
At some point it would appear that the executives did retreat to some sort of cognitive restructuring: diagnosis point, but such efforts (e.g., newspaper ads) came too late in the process and did not supply the answers the public wanted to hear. And any effort that was made to take the company’s communication to the higher reactive sub-process was nullified by ongoing images of environmental devastation, the impending economic hardship of Alaska, court cases, and avoidance to pay the whole fines set forth by the courts. Therefore, this model does a sufficient job in showing how delays to react accordingly can initiate a repetitive loop in the lower sub-processes and negative decoding of the messages, thus leading to more difficulty to obtain the higher process where the media begins to subside on negative coverage and the public begins to understand and appreciate the efforts of the corporation to make things right.
The fate of Enron was similar to the Exxon experience. Plagued by poor timing, placing blame on others (not taking responsibility), and a disastrous reaction by the stock market, Enron found itself also stuck in the reactive/non strategic loop. If the executives at Enron actually did reach the cognitive restructuring: diagnosis point and implemented a strategic reactive plan, it would appear that the strategy did not work. Strategic nonverbal messages, such as trying to protect the jobs and stocks of the employees, could have helped the situation. This case study brings to light how the media can impact the stock market. So if it is not the negative coverage that ruins the company image with the public or the crisis itself places the company in legal trouble, the fall of stock value can still mean the end of the organization. The Enron crisis also highlights how others are affected by such outcomes. Enron’s demise additionally meant the end of Arthur Andersen.
Tylenol, on the other hand, handled their crises much better. Although the media was not as instantaneous in the early 1980s, Tylenol did not wait to react to this unfortunate event. They did not hesitate to make a wise decision to pull all of the Tylenol products from the shelves nationwide. In the midst of panic and a pharmaceutical company executive’s worse nightmare, they were still able to reach the cognitive restructuring: diagnosis point and realize early in the game that despite the great loss of income due to pulling products off the store shelves that in the long run caring for the public was the best message they could send. The pictures of products being removed provided a perfect strategic nonverbal message of this mentality. Tylenol was able to move the communication upward from the lower reactive/non strategic loop early. And when the news came forth that the product was poisoned on the shelves (not in the factory), thus placing blame elsewhere, the public and media were more forgiving to the circumstances.
Union Carbide appeared to be as prepared as Tylenol in regard to rational thinking and management of PR-crises. After receiving word of the incident, the first action was to meet as an executive group (restructuring: diagnosis point) and decide on a course of action. They set up a crisis response center. They closed a similar plant in Institute, West Virginia. They sent medical and technical experts to help the poor victims in Bhopal, India. The chairmen made a statement that expressed anguish, concern, and responsibility. Union Carbide reacted quickly, and while the first loops of the reactive/non strategic loop were taking place, they moved simultaneously to the restructuring: diagnosis point and formulated strategic nonverbal messages and strategic verbal messages. Such actions redirected the media to cover Union Carbides positive messages, thus shortening the time spent focused on the negative coverage. Unfortunately, the cause of the accident was not discovered until two years later which left Union Carbide under the microscope. One can only speculate, but if Union Carbide had not practiced such strategic communication they too could have been destroyed by the reactive/non strategic loop and the images of the chemically burned babies and outrage of the Indian government would have meant the end of the corporation.
Though we feel the model provided offers aid to those who might find themselves in a PR-crisis induced panic attack, one limitation is that the model is still a work in progress, or more specifically constantly evolving. This model, however, was recently used to help some administrators of an organization assess the stage they were in during a PR-crisis plagued with serious allegations by local community members and statewide media coverage. With in minutes of sketching the model on a white board and explaining the basis of this research, the individuals proclaimed that they were on their second or third route through the reactionary, non-strategic sub-process. A nervous, abruptly-ending laugh followed this announcement. Their next question was, “How do we get out of this unhealthy loop?” Weeks later when the media coverage subsided, and their strategic nonverbal actions (e.g., press conferences, open discussion forums) had made progress, the administrator explained that by just utilizing the PR-crisis communication model, it helped so much to gain an outside view and different perspective. After that meeting, however, we once again made a few corrections to the model due to the unique challenges of the situation at hand. The point of this example is to show that this model, though useful for a typical PR-crisis, also can be or should be personalized for each specific event. By using this model as a template and adding variables unique to the specific crisis, one can create a truly reflective and improved model of the distinctive communication factors challenging one’s organization.
Another limitation is that much of this exploratory research was reflective in nature and did not necessarily test the proposed model through experimentation or action research. Even though PR-crises occur nearly on a daily basis, the challenge for a researcher to embed oneself within the crisis in order to apply and observe the model’s efficacy (though not impossible) is quite great. Therefore, future experiments applying this model to improvised PR-crises or action research utilizing this model (completed by PR practitioners embedded within the crisis) would help to further develop a more conclusive and effective PR tool.
This qualitative study compared a number of crisis communication situations and public relations challenges to the communication process. The research efforts assessed the verbal and nonverbal communication experienced by a wide variety of organizations and corporations. The information collected consisted of internal and external organizational communication, press releases (written and spoken), news coverage of the event, legal outcomes, and other factors that assisted in promoting further coverage or terminating the attention to the event. Additionally, this investigation identified some thematic communication components most commonly found within the lifecycles of public relations crisis situations.
By utilizing the research of Berlo (1960), Brooks and Scheidel (1968), Smith (1972) and others for conceptualizing a basic process model of communication, a strategic communication public relations model was created to assist in tracking the outcomes experienced by an organization in a state of crisis. Beyond the typical sender, encoding, message, channel, decoding, receiver, noise, and context variables often assumed to be a part of the model, this study added to the mix a dualistic receiver function due to the role of the unrestrained, instantaneous media force that operates simultaneously on multiple channels. The final model created resembles a compilation of several sub-processes (some more effective than others) due to the differences between reactive and proactive, as well as strategic and non-strategic, public relations approaches.
This manuscript highlights the importance of an organization’s verbal communication and the necessity for being prepared with the right words to say. Additionally, this essay strives equally to support the important contributions of the organization’s nonverbal communication and the power that such actions and behavior have on the public’s perceptions. Attention should be given to how approaches may differ in regard to the type and size of the organization experiencing the public relations crisis. For example, it would appear that no matter what professional athletes continue to do immorally wrong, the sport is very unlikely to ever be shut down. Typically, though they suffer serious damage to reputation and leadership, larger corporations and government/state entities also seem to endure the hardship. With this in mind, the smaller organizations should consider even more carefully the implications of this essay. Adopting ethical principles, pursuing transparency and disclosure in one‘s actions, and making trust a fundamental precept of corporate governance, can go a long way to proactively navigating the many stages essential to working one’s way through the lifecycle of an organization-threatening crisis.
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