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.”

Source: http://www.cnn.com/2014/04/18/world/asia/south-korea-ferry-social-media-reax/index.html?iref=allsearch

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.”

Source: http://www.cnn.com/2014/04/18/world/asia/south-korea-ferry-social-media-reax/index.html?iref=allsearch

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. 

 

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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.

Source: http://www.cnn.com/2014/04/16/world/asia/survivors-korea-ferry/index.html?iref=allsearch

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.”

Source: http://www.thestar.com/news/world/2014/04/17/287_passengers_still_missing_after_south_korea_ferry_disaster.html

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.

Source: http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2014/04/22/south-korea-ferry-owners-barred/7997897/

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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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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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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/

 

 

 

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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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