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: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-25162563

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: http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/ukraines-president-open-to-early-vote-polish-leader-says-scores-reported-killed-in-clashes/2014/02/21/05d3de46-9a82-11e3-b931-0204122c514b_story.html

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: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/01/world/europe/ukrainian-ex-president-speaks-out-from-russia.html?_r=0

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.

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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: http://www.malaysiaairlines.com/my/en/site/dark-site.html

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.

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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.

Pros:

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.

Problems:

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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d76tB2dCqw0

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: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=685511298174152&set=vb.100001458647453&type=2&theater

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: http://www.wspa.com/story/25020699/worm-in-package-of-fish-at-spartanburg-costco-goes-viral

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.

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West Virginia Water Contamination Crisis

This post is intended to identify professional communication errors in the West Virginia water contamination crisis last January. I recognize that it is easy to criticize in hindsight, but many of these errors could have been prevented.

Background

In early January, a storage tank for chemicals used in coal mining began to leak into the Elk River. The tank was situated just up river of the Charleston water municipality. On January 10th, 300,000 people were notified that their water was unsafe to use for anything except for flushing their toilets (Gabriel, Jan. 10, 2014).

This event caused businesses to close and schools to shut down. Parents were left worried about their children, pregnant women worried about their health, and everyone worried about the water. The void of uncertainty needed to be filled; this crisis called for a quick response from authorities.

For more background information see these news articles:

http://mobile.nytimes.com/2014/01/11/us/west-virginia-chemical-spill.html?referrer=

http://www.cnn.com/2014/01/09/us/west-virginia-contaminated-water/          

http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/west-virginia-water-emergency-nears-fifth-day-with-no-end-in-sight/2014/01/12/9d0959bc-7b88-11e3-9556-4a4bf7bcbd84_story.html

Authorities Respond

Many authorities responded to this crisis with varying degrees of success. The following is an assessment of some of the primary communicators.

West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin—Tomblin quickly communicated to the public where to get bottled water, and he called on the public to support each other. But, his short-term solutions did not alleviate public concern for longer-term issues. He gave no timeline, and that left people with a high degree of uncertainty.

In a crisis, communicators should do everything possible to accurately fill the void of uncertainty. Even telling the public about your plan to make a plan is better than nothing. Tomblin should have said something like: “I will meet with my team tonight and we will make a plan we can start implementing first thing tomorrow.”

Overall, Tomblin communicated fairly well. He alleviated the public’s most pressing concern—access to drinking water— and he created a reassuring persona of leadership. However, there were some questions Tomblin alone could not answer.

President of Freedom Industries Gary Southern— People wanted someone to blame, and Freedom Industries was the target.

Southern started his press conference by saying that Freedom Industries did not know how the leak occurred. This did not invite a positive response from journalists or the public. Apparently the cause of the leak was fairly clear, and it seemed like Southern was hedging the responsibility. Southern should have admitted that Freedom Industry was at fault. If he really did not think they were at fault, he should have outlined alternative possibilities.

Southern was further discredited when the West Virginia Environmental Protection Department (EPD) contradicted his account of events. Southern claimed that a work crew from Freedom Industries had found the leak that morning. EPD said their inspectors found the leak first. EPD added that no cleanup effort was underway an hour after Freedom Industries has supposedly found the leak (Gabriel, Jan. 10, 2014; Achenbach, Jan. 12, 2014).

In crisis communication, if you do not think you are at fault, then you need to provide information about who you think is at fault. But, when you are at fault, it is best to admit it early. Southern did apologize, but people were still left wondering if Freedom Industries would take responsibility.

Siting a long day, Southern tried to end the press conference early. This did not sit well with journalists, who guilt-tripped him into answering more questions (Gabriel, Jan 10, 2014; Achenbach, Jan. 12, 2014). Southern did not prioritize public communication in this crisis, which was a mistake.

However, Southern did attempt to address pressing questions about health effects. According to Southern, the chemical (4-methylcyclohexane methanol) had a low toxicity. He said, “If you look at the technical data avail, it has no effect on aquatic life” (Gabriel, Jan. 10, 2014).

Southern’s description of the chemical was limited by the information available. Long-term effects of ingesting the chemical were (and currently are still) unknown. The chemical is apparently most dangerous if it is inhaled (TCI America, 2013). However, it is still recommended for people to seek medical attention if it is ingested (TCI America, 2013).  Southern evidently picked the most mitigating information about the chemical (the fact that it has no known effect on aquatic life) to use in his press conference. The information he gave was not out-of-place, but it was convenient.

For more information about 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, view a safety fact sheet at https://drive.google.com/file/d/0ByrwlYHEv1V7dVh3SV9Cd1Q2enc/preview

Charleston Mayor Danny Jones— Jones was not given much time or space in the media coverage, so it is hard to say how well he actually communicated the issue to stakeholders. Trip Gabriel (Jan. 10, 2014) from the New York Times provided this information:

“Mayor Danny Jones of Charleston said the do-not-drink order was strangling businesses. “You can’t imagine what it’s like to function like this, or not function like this,” he said, speaking as he drove home on Friday evening in uncommonly light traffic and passed a mall he said was nearly deserted.

The mayor and everyone else said their greatest worry was that no one in authority would say how long it would be before the water supply was potable again.”

The journalistic reason for using this information in a news article was to impart a sense of urgency to readers who were not directly affected. For the people directly affected, this information was less than useful, and it likely only added to the fear and the uncertainty in the situation.

West Virginia American Water’s president Jeff McIntyre—The West Virginia American Water Company was responsible for providing water to most of the buildings in the area.

Early in the crisis McIntyre said, “We don’t know that the water is not safe, but I can’t say it is safe” (Gabriel, Jan. 10, 2014). This statement likely caused more uncertainty. Was the water safe or should people have been really worried about the health effects? Many residents had been drinking and bathing in the water for hours by the time they were informed. McIntyre succeeded in raising the question of safety, but he did not alleviate the public’s uncertainty about their own health. However, McIntyre did make it clear to residents that they should not use the water. He said, “The only appropriate use for this water is toilet flushing” (Gabriel, Jan. 10, 2014).

McIntyre told reporters that the whole water system needed to be flushed, but he did not provide any additional details about the process. This was probably his biggest communication error. Given McIntyre’s position it is surprising he did not think to provide more information. He should have had access to a contingency plan detailing the steps that are required to flush the system in the event of water contamination. Even if he did not have a timeline, he could have at least provided a set of steps.

Companies that are responsible for providing water to homes should have a plan in the event that the water is somehow contaminated and already in the system. This is an essential element of crisis planning for any major population center. Sharing this plan can mitigate public stress.

West Virginia Attorney Booth Goodwin: Mixed into the confusion was the worry about financial compensation and financial loss. Would property values drop? How could people get financial compensation?

The only official legal information came from Booth Goodwin. As an attorney for West Virginia, Goodwin informed the public that an investigation into the incident was underway (Gabriel, Jan. 10, 2014). This information was fairly well-timed, but it again did not go into much detail. (To be fair, investigations tend to be slow.)

Information about where people could go to file official complaints/reports would have been helpful. It would have given people something proactive to do, and it might have helped with assessing the extent of the damage.

Conclusion

Communicators in this crisis both failed and succeeded. The time they had to respond was constrained. In some cases they were gripped by just as much uncertainty as everyone else. The grades have been given, even if the issue is still not settled. Nobody won, but hopefully we learned something about how to communicate.

For more recent news about this issue see: http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2014/02/07/3263491/west-virginia-water-crisis/

 

Sources

Gabriel, Trip (Jan. 10, 2014). Thousands Without Water After Spill in West Virginia. New York Times. http://mobile.nytimes.com/2014/01/11/us/west-virginia-chemical-spill.html?referrer=

Achenbach, Joel (Jan. 12, 2014). West Virginia residents cope, with days of water woes still ahead after chemical spill. The Washington Post. http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/west-virginia-water-emergency-nears-fifth-day-with-no-end-in-sight/2014/01/12/9d0959bc-7b88-11e3-9556-4a4bf7bcbd84_story.html

TCI America. (2013). TCI AMERICA SAFETY DATA SHEET: 4-Methyl-1-cyclohexanemethanol (cis- and trans- mixture). https://drive.google.com/file/d/0ByrwlYHEv1V7dVh3SV9Cd1Q2enc/preview

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