South Korean Ferry: Crisis Communication Failure

Recently, I had an argument with my sisters fiance. It was about whether or not communications crisis training is actually helpful during crisis events. His point was that most of the things that happen during crises are out of the hands of crisis communicators, and that good communications are not likely to effect public perceptions very much when an organization is clearly at fault. He also argued that crises tent to correct themselves over time anyway, and that having a crisis communication plan serves only to foster fear.

His points are actually pretty good. Some academics have argued much the same about crisis communication, and in many cases they are probably correct. However, I present to you a case where good crisis communication planning might have saved lives.

On April 16th 2014, the ferry Sewol capsized off the coast of South Korea. 179 of the 475 people on the ferry were rescued, but the rest, most of whom were high school students, perished in the ship.

It took the ship over 40 minutes to sink, but passengers were told to stay inside the ship. Why? The captain defended the decision not to order passengers to evacuate by saying, “The tidal current was strong and water temperature was cold, and there was no rescue boat.”


It is easy to judge having not been there at the time, but this decisions seems supremely stupid. The worst place to be on a sinking ship is inside of the sinking ship. But often it is hard for people to recognize when a crisis has occurred. This is especially true when they have not practiced what to do in a crisis.

The communications officer spent the first 30 minutes of the ship sinking telling people to stay inside. In South Korea, people obey authority, and the consequences of listening to this order were dire.

The New York Times included the following graft in one of their first articles about the tragedy:

“I repeatedly told people to calm themselves and stay where they were for an hour,” Kang Hae-seong, the communications officer on the South Korean ferry that sank on Wednesday, said from his hospital bed. He added that he could not recall taking part in any evacuation drills for the ship, and that when a real emergency came, “I didn’t have time to look at the manual for evacuation.”


Making an evacuation manual is not enough! Drills need to be held, people need to be assigned roles, and an effective crisis team needs to be cultivated and maintained.

The crisis communications position is an essential part of any crisis response team. Crisis communication professionals are not just interested in protecting corporate reputations; they sometimes have the task of disseminating urgent messages that can save lives.





South Korean Ferry Sewol: Fake Text Messages

Official organizations have very little power to prevent terrorism. From a communications perspective, terrorism is the intentional creation of crisis from an external source.

When parents first started receiving text messages and seeing social media posts seemingly from their trapped children, it fueled hope and a sense of desperation. Parents clamored for a faster recovery effort, and the emotional tension heightened the sense of confusion within the situation.

These texts fueled rumors and false hope across South Korea.

As stated on CNN:

“The texts also fueled a tense atmosphere at Jindo — where distraught families viewed them as proof several passengers were alive. This led to remonstrations and the hurling of objects at authorities, who relatives accused of not doing enough to save their children.


South Korea has been gripped by this tragedy and the pronouncement of these fake social posts added to the collective anguish — especially as social media has been playing a crucial role in relaying information from the site.”


As it turns out, however, the texts and messages were not real. South Korean police authorities communicated this information from their Twitter account. They said:

“An investigation from the Police Cyber Terror Response Center verified that all texts in question [from passengers still within the ship] are fake.” South Korean police further urged the terrorists to stop tormenting the families affected by the tragedy.

This message was well crafted. Families needed to know this information, and they probably should have been told in person. However, the news media also needed to know. The texts parents were receiving had been widely publicized, and getting this information out was essential.

This being said, the simple reality of the situation was a hard barrier to overcome. The fake messages had done their damage:

“The revelations of fake posts have added to a growing sense of public confusion, mistrust and escalating frustration — particularly among the passengers’ relatives — over the handling of the search and rescue operations, media coverage and official releases of information.”


This effect is exactly opposite to what crisis communications professionals want to happen. If we are going to use social media to help us communicate with stakeholders during crises then we need to be vigilant about breaches in the security of those communications platforms. 



South Korean Ferry Sewol: School and Company

I have stated before that I do not like to negatively judge organizations for communicating during a crisis. It is too easy to judge from a distance and in hindsight. But sometimes there is an event that shows exactly why preparing for crisis is so important. Sometimes criticism is warranted.

The communications surrounding the recent (2014) South Korea ferry disaster were atrocious. This story is so ridiculous that it requires multiple blog posts.

The School

Many of the parents of the students from Ansan Danwon High School went to the school to wait for word about their loved ones. At one point early in the crisis the school announced that everyone had been saved. The school later rescinded that statement, causing extreme distress to the parents.


One of the most basic rules of crisis communication is that no organization should ever state that people are alive or dead until the information has been confirmed beyond doubt. Making an error in this respect is a quick way to lose credibility and public sympathy.

It is important to note that the administration at the school is also likely going through extreme grief. They will likely be forgiven, and their error has already fallen by the wayside in the media coverage of the tragedy.

The Company

The CEO of Chonghaejin Marine Co., which owned and operated the ship, made only a brief public appearance. He apologized and stated “I committed a sin punishable by death . . . I am at a loss for words. I am sorry. I am sorry.”


Apologizing was likely a good message to communicate, especially considering South Korean culture. However, this message did nothing to help fill the void of uncertainty enhance in this crisis. Chonghaejin Marine Co. probably does not have the resources to assist in the recovery effort anyway, but informing the public that they will cooperate with any investigation might have helped. To compound the issue, all of the top executives and shareholders in the company have been ordered not to leave the country. As it stands, Chonghaejin Marine Co. looks guilty.



Social Media Collaberation: Hypothetical Biological Weapon Crisis

It is important to be prepared for crises. A great deal of communication preparedness has to do with training. Crises require communicators to have dynamic abilities, flexible mentalities, and expertise. You cannot just plan for the possibility of a crisis– you need to practice.

There is a great deal of literature in crisis communication research that argues for the use of social media during crises. This means we need to practice our crisis communication using social media. But, I am critical of this idea. I am not sure how useful social media can be when a crisis is uncertain. I would like to see how well it works.

Here is a hypothetical (i.e. not true) situation: There is a possible chemical leak of a deadly material in a research lab at the university where you work. The lab exploded, and is now on fire.

Your informant told you that it looks serious, and he is generally pretty reliable. He said that it might have been intentional, but this is speculation. He also tells you that the lab with the leak was studying a new and more volatile version of a Novichok biological weapon. You do not want to go to the scene because you might die. This is all the information you know.

Your crisis communication team is dispersed. You are alone with your computer/smartphone in a relatively safe place in the city. You do not know how safe it is to go outside. The media is knocking on your door (in the form of a flood of emails and phone calls) to get information about the explosion, but they do not appear to know about the Novichok yet.

How would you use social media in this situation? What social media would you use? How would you use it to collaborate internally with your crisis team?

For my classmates in our communications class: Using the comment section of this blog, collaborate to create a communications action response. I will post situation developments throughout.

Edit: Having completed this short exercise it is clear that practice really is necessary for good crisis communication. A good social media platform is also key. Finally, having assignments beforehand is very important.


Political Crisis: Ukraine and Yanukovych

Politics is the struggle for power. So, what is the difference between political crisis communication and corporate crisis communication? Unlike corporate crisis communication, political crisis communication is less about money (though, money matters) and more about legitimacy.

In political crises, the court of public opinion is paramount. If we accept the tenants of modern political theory, then we can understand why this is the case. “The people” are the final check on government. If the leaders of a country or nation fail to adjust their policies to satisfy the public, then they risk being overthrown. Political leaders everywhere do things that displease the publics they serve, but usually they are able to complicate the issues enough to retain power. Usually, they communicate well enough to get enough people on their side. Some populations also have a higher tolerance for political ambiguity; other populations are largely content with authoritarian rule. But, where there is low tolerance and strong democratic ideals, communication among publics and governments is key.

International political communication is used by nations to gain influence across boarders. This communication is no longer just among political actors, however. More and more we see leaders appealing to publics in other nations. This communication is primarily about political posturing on a global scale.

What does it look like when political communications goes wrong?

Last month the president of Ukraine, Viktor F. Yanukovych, failed to effectively communicate with the Ukrainian people.

Yanukovych failed to recognize how much public support there was for a EU association agreement that would have connected Ukraine more to the Western world. Citing pressure from Russia, Yanukovych rejected the EU agreement and turned toward Russia instead.

See more:

Yanukovych tried to complicate this decision by explaining that the EU agreement would have been insufficient to help their economy. But, his abrupt change in position did not allow the public to become accustomed to the idea. Furthermore, Yanukovych told the public that it was in part due to pressure from Russia. This damaged his credibility as the leader of a sovereign nation.

Not long after, protests broke out in the capital, Kiev. This created unrest, and it involved violence between protesters and government police.

In the midst of this political crisis, Yanukovych disappeared. Protesters took control of Kiev.

See more:

In any crisis, the last thing you want to do is to disappear. This makes you appear both guilty and incapable. It also allows those who oppose you to define the situation against you. Politically, it also leaves your allies out in the cold, leaving them no option except to abandon your side.

When Yanukovych reappeared a week later in Russia (of all places), he had lost all support. He still called himself the president of Ukraine, but he had already been replaced. He cited threats to his life as the reason he fled, but at that point his excuses (no matter how good) did not matter.

Yanukovych’s explanation also fell flat because he had cut off communications while on the run. With modern technology, staying in contact with his power structure should not have been that difficult.

See more:

Yanukovych’s communication errors did not stop with his disappearance. Following his reappearance, Yanukovych insisted upon Russian action in Ukraine. This helped to legitimize Russian military intervention. Yanukovych did say that he opposed Russian military actions in Ukraine, but he failed to specify exactly what he thought Russia should do to help. Russia eventually took Crimea through military action.

Yanukovych asked for troops to get his power back with no success, denounced those he had abandoned as “fascists,” and blatantly lied about his lavish lifestyle. These are, of course, not good messages to send during a crisis.


Malaysia Airlines Media Communications about Flight 370

The current case of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 is unprecedented. The media coverage surrounding this crisis is ridiculous and confusing. To the date of this posting it has been 13 days since the plain went missing.

This post is not supposed to be a step-by-step analysis of this crisis. That task is far to large for the scope of my blog. Instead, I wish to analyze and make suggestions to improve Malaysian Airlines’ communication around this crisis.

I am not so arrogant as to expect my suggestions to me listened to. I am also not so bold as to pass judgment on Malaysia Airlines. I cannot possibly know all the factors involved in this situation.

See Malaysia Airlines’ updates:

Things those at Malaysia Airlines have done well:

Malaysia Airlines has focused primarily on the families of those who are missing, as well they should. According to their own accounts, Malaysia Airlines have provided transportation, money, and counseling for all family members. They have communicated this focus very well on their Website.

Malaysia Airlines has updated their status at least once every day. They have done so in both English and Mandarin Chinese.

Multiple press conferences have been held, and some false information has been addressed (see link above for more details).

Malaysia Airlines has also communicated with the media fairly well, considering the uncertainty of the situation.

Malaysia Airlines has not prematurely said that the plane had crashed. Malaysia Airlines has not officially speculated about the fate of the people on the plane. This is good, but it is also a situation that should be remedied as soon as possible (by determining the fate of the plane, of course).

Contact information for the press and for families of those who are missing is posted.

Things that could be improved:

I cannot speak to how well the statement updates are written in Mandarin, but the parts written in English need some work. They use overly complex technical information full of acronyms and logical errors. The updates are repetitive, and the new information is not emphasized as much as it should be.

The format of the information provided should be consistent, and it is not.

Using links to credible information that goes beyond that provided by Malaysia Airlines might be beneficial.

Posting videos of the press conferences and posting other graphics might also be useful. Better imagery and organization could help with transparency and for improving clarity of information.

Providing the families of those who are missing the opportunity to speak with the media would also help with transparency. It might have a therapeutic effect, and would be ethical if done correctly.

Finally, Malaysia Airlines has a tendency to over communicate about information that is not particularly useful. For example, they said, “As a mark of respect to the passengers and crew of MH370 on 8 March 2014, the MH370 and MH371 flight codes will be retired from the Malaysia Airlines’ Kuala Lumpur- Beijing-Kuala Lumpur route.” While this was an admirable thing to do, it was out of place with the other media updates.

Final comments:

There really is not a lot more that Malaysia Airlines can do communications wise. They can only wait for further developments, and improve their communications as I have outlined.


Social Media: Costco’s Cod Worms

The role of social media in crisis communication has become very important over the past five to ten years. This post will briefly outline some of the pros and cons about social media in an organizational context.


Social media are useful tools for organizations to spread their messages. Social media sights are absolutely great advertising platforms. They provide organizations with direct channels of communication to stakeholders.

Organizations use social media to monitor risks, track issues, address rumors, and identify crises. Every major company should have employees who are dedicated to monitoring and using social media.


A major problem with social media is that everyone has the same opportunity to create and share content. Social media consumers are generally more likely to believe something that was shared by a friend than they are likely to believe something shared by a consumer organization.

Another problem is that social media is selective. If a YouTube video is posted that damages your organization’s reputation, then the general rule is to post another YouTube video addressing the issue. This way, you will be presumably reaching the same audience. But, the truth is that you are not actually reaching the same audience. People seek out content that they want to consume. Often, they only care about content that reaffirms their worldviews. If something is generally accepted as true, there is not a lot that you can do to refute that worldview on social media. People will not seek out your response to a damaging message unless it aligns with their worldview, or it is particularly interesting.

A case:

Costco has had trouble in the past with viral videos showing worms in their fish. In 2012 a video (see link below) was posted to YouTube that showed worms in a piece of cod purchased at Costco. The video has 53,695 views and 92 comments.

2012 video:

The comments on the video were varied. Some of them condemned Costco as a company that only “…cares about money. Not health.” Other comments were actually informative and pointed out that “cod worms” are pretty common. The worms are safe if the fish is cooked correctly, and most cod lovers are aware of the possibility of worms.

In this case, the comments on the video helped to stem a minor crisis for Costco. Recently, however, a similar viral video was posted to Facebook (see link below). This video was posted on March 14th, 2014. It currently has 273,182 shares, only five days later.

Link to Facebook video:

In this case, the comments are not contained in one thread. Unlike the first video, many of those who viewed this video were not educated about the worms by fellow users.

Taking my own friend group (which is generally educated and primarily native to Colorado) as an example, all of the comments were negative. Some examples are, “um. don’t buy meat from a place like costco,” and “The FDA is a joke. All they care about is $$$.” While I do not want to overgeneralize from my friend group, I am sure this sentiment has reoccurred without being challenged in many communities where the video was shared.

The concern around the video became so strong that a local news source took up the story after receiving multiple emails (see link below). This story, however, has yet to go viral and has likely only reached a limited population. The article is not very reassuring, but it was more informative than the original video.

News link:

Unfortunately, there is not a lot that Costco can do about this situation. If they made a public statement it would likely only serve to raise awareness about the commonality of the worms. The fact that the worms are generally harmless would likely be less important to consumers than the reality of their existence. But, at least Costco would know why their produce sales were dropping. Costco might be able to address the issue by removing or reducing the amount of cod sold in Colorado stores for a time.