• 29Nov

    My previous entry was partly for my personal records, and also a response to a Twittered request by Constantin Basturea for details about social media-related panels at the conference, which I was happy to oblige. However, my conference attendance or interest wasn’t limited solely to presentations regarding the online world. Aside from a very interesting panel on mentoring, sponsored by the Mass Communication Division and which I hope becomes a regular feature of the conference, my NCA experience also centered around one of my central research interests: crisis communication and management.

    I noticed that there continues to be an emphasis, in the public relations research on this topic, on rhetorical strategies regarding image restoration/repair/renewal.This year, I was happy to see a shift away from concentrating solely on the mid-crisis or immediate post-crisis stage, and more discussion of crisis preparation, prevention, and learning. The “pre-crisis” period–aka, any point in time when a crisis is not (knowingly) in full swing, or just ended–also overlaps with risk communication and issues management, and I enjoyed several presentations on these topics.

    Although I believe there is certainly a need for organizations to be aware of the range of image management strategies they might use, and I’m glad there are people researching the topic and applying it to the field, I confess that it is an area of crisis communication that fails to fully ignite my enthusiasm. I am more interested in studying where crises come from, and the role communication plays in their emergence and management when viewed in conjunction with other ongoing social processes. In other words, I prefer to take a big-picture approach, which I think is particularly important in this period of increasingly intertwined global systems, in which a narrow focus on a single organization’s image can risk ignoring or even exacerbating problems on a larger scale. For crises such as the Chinese melamine adulterations discovered over these last couple of years, for instance, or the large-scale E. coli contamination of spinach in the fall of 2006, strategies need to take the full context of the situation into consideration, and move away from the organization-centric approach that has dominated the crisis management literature.

    Which leads me to another fascinating session on crisis that I attended at NCA–and since it was scheduled for 8 a.m. Sunday morning, you know it had to be worthwhile to get me there. (Actually, I did come in late, due to a longer-than-expected line at the hotel coffee shop, but I was technically up and out and ready to attend promptly.) This was a session organized by the Peace and Conflict Communication Division, on macro and micro approaches to terrorism. Among the panelists was my colleague Steve Corman, from the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication here at ASU, and director of the Consortium for Strategic Communication.

    I’ve been lucky enough to have been working with the COMOPS people these last few months, so I was already familiar with the content of his presentation, largely based on some of the excellent white papers produced by the Consortium as well as their book. His talk, titled “Complex Systems and Terrorism: Responses to Terrorism from a Communication and Public Diplomacy Point of View,” explained how the rugged landscape of a complex communication environment requires an ongoing process of developing message and interaction strategies, since it is all too easy to embark on a suboptimal path if one fails to constantly monitor the larger context. In other words, you may believe you are doing everything right, all is going according to plan–until it suddenly turns out success is short-lived, or less than expected, because you’ve misjudged the shape of the territory.

    To further complicate matters, although this aspect wasn’t addressed in the course of the panel, the landscape is constantly shifting underfoot. In a complex milieu, the focal individual or organization is just one among many actors, all of whom are engaging in their own communication and interaction strategies as they negotiate the peaks and valleys. Some of those strategies change the shape of the landscape itself: some peaks become higher as new challenges are suddenly thrown in one’s path; others flatten as new technologies or information render them easier to navigate.

    Anyone who works with complexity theories will find all of the above quite obvious and natural (but the specifics of computing the fitness landscape and developing appropriate strategies remain extremely challenging). Although my focus on crisis has typically been at the level of the organizational or issue network rather than public affairs or public diplomacy, there is a great deal of overlap between the approach outlined at the panel and the one we presented in our book. Most of all, there is something of a disconnect between the linearity of traditional crisis communication responses such as image repair, and the nonlinearity inherent in a complexity perspective.

    I don’t have anywhere near the expertise or knowledge to address the situation in Mumbai in any detail, but I’ll close with an observation related to the above discussion. The emergence of multiple sites of information via Twitter, SMS broadcast, Flickr, Blog Talk Radio, and other social media tools is an example of how even an event-based crisis without an organization at its core (as opposed to a purely organizational crisis of legitimacy, such as ther recent MotrinMoms d├ębacle) can become a moving target in terms of communication management.

    Although not strictly in the same category as the decentered crises mentioned above (spinach, melamine), mainstream media outlets and media consumers are faced with similar dilemmas regarding the speed and source credibility of information. When lives are at stake, whether one is dealing with gunmen or potentially deadly contaminants, there is a need for rapid, accurate information. Organizations have traditionally been positioned as the information gatekeepers for contained crises, with mainstream media working to verify claims and demand accountability. but when there is no central source, and when communication tools allow for both accurate and inaccurate information to spread wide and fast, the fitness landscape is negotiated through a self-organizing process. This self-organization, however, is subject to the same pitfalls mentioned above, and may not emerge with the optimum strategy. I think we need to be ready to study the evolution and information pathways in these kinds of crisis situations, in order to determine what–if anything–can be done to encourage accurate flows of information while stemming the tide of misinformation, including propaganda.