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.


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.


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: 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.


Mindfulness and the Atlanta Snow Crisis of 2014

Planning for a crisis is nearly impossible. If you have a plan, and the plan works, you have probably prevented a crisis. Crises are surprising, require a quick response, and have some level of threat. We can create risk management plans, but these are never full proof.

Imagine the most likely crisis that can occur in your city. Now imagine the least likely crisis that is still within the realm of possibility (no alien invasions please). Which one are you more likely to care about? Which possibility seems closer to home? Which emergency plan is most forefront in your mind?

On January 28th the city of Atlanta, Georgia received two inches of snow. This slight snowfall caused a transportation crisis in the unprepared southern city.

It was not like the city had not imagined the possibility of snow. In fact, it had snow equipment, and it had a plan. The problem was the recognition of a problem. The snow was falling, but it did not seem close to home.

A Jan. 30th news article from CNN stated:

“At Thursday’s news conference, the director of the Georgia Emergency Management Agency acknowledged having made “a terrible error in judgment” in not opening the emergency operations center six hours earlier than he did.

Charley English said he first talked to the governor about how serious the situation was becoming, particularly around metro Atlanta, as the forecast shifted at 9 or 9:30 a.m. Tuesday. This was some six hours after meteorologists upgraded to a winter storm warning.” (Botelho & Watkins, Jan. 30, 2014) (see more at: http://www.cnn.com/2014/01/30/us/winter-weather/)

English, who informed the governor about transportation issues, was caught off guard. Gov. Nathan Deal claimed to take full responsibility, but the truth is that it was a joint failure. Mayor Kasim Reed also admitted a “lack of experience” when it came to winter weather conditions (Botelho & Watkins, Jan. 30, 2014). They told everyone to go home at the same time, which created a massive traffic jam that lasted for over 25 hours.

How can we call their response to this crisis a failure if crises cannot be planned for? Crises cannot be anticipated, but recognizing when a crisis is happening is possible. In this case the government of Atlanta failed to recognize the crisis.

The streets were not clear, and the street clearing teams were hardly underway. They knew this, but they still ordered half of Atlanta onto the streets. They were not mindful of the situation within the moment, and that is what turned two inches of snow into a transportation crisis.

It is not possible to have good crisis communications until a crisis is recognized.

Botelho G. & Watkins T. (Jan. 30, 2014). “Georgia officials under fire for actions before, during, after snow.” CNN. http://www.cnn.com/2014/01/30/us/winter-weather/