Category Archives: Crisis Communication

The Conservative Government, Image Repair & the F-35 Crisis

It’s been a very bad week for the Harper government and it’s likely to get worse.

The release of the Auditor-General’s Spring 2012 Report last Tuesday contained explosive allegations that senior Department of National Defence (DND) officials flouted government rules, misled ministers and Parliament, and concealed cost overruns to ensure the military would receive the F-35 jet fighters it wanted. And it suggested that senior government officials likely played along.

In his assessment of the A-G report, Ottawa University defence policy expert Phillipe Lagassé explains that DND officials intentionally underestimated the cost of the F-35, embellished the possible industrial benefits associated with its acquisition, failed to analyze the risks involved in the deal, and did not provide adequate evidence to support the sole-sourced acquisition of the stealth fighters. The A-G also reported a $10 billion gap between what the government publicly communicated the program cost would be (first $9B and then $14.7B) and what it’s own internal estimates, and working figures, revealed (at least $25B). This was a gap the A-G suggests the government may have whitewashed: “That $25 billion number was something I think that at that time was known to government…It would have been primarily members of the executive.” Or as Lagassé put it more directly: “although DND and the Chief of the Air Staff are identified as the main culprits in this saga, there is no question that Conservative ministers are also to blame.”

One of the factors which led to the May 2011 federal election was the government’s refusal to present a full costing of the F-35 program, among other major spending commitments, in addition to details about the procurement process. When the Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO), Kevin Page, released his own report in March 2011, pegging the cost of the stealth jet program closer to $30-billion (over 30 years), he came under fire from the ruling party. Conservative MP Laurie Hawn challenged the report’s methodology and dismissed the PBO’s data as “speculative” and “illogical”, an argumentative strategy advanced by other government and party spokespeople at the time. When the issue was raised during the election, the Prime Minister claimed repeatedly that the program would cost roughly $15-billion and even dismissed Pentagon data putting the per-jet cost at more than double official estimates.

The PBO and A-G reports raise serious allegations of mismanagement and pose a significant communications problem for the government. Neither Page nor Michael Ferguson, the Auditor-General, have a partisan axe to grind. Both are Conservative appointees, and the latter holds one of the highest profile and most respected public offices in the land. The government cannot dismiss their allegations of fiscal mismanagement and obfuscation as mere politics. The A-G report in particular, and the fallout that we are now beginning to observe, deals a serious blow to the Conservatives’ carefully and (arguably) effectively crafted image of itself as the party of fiscal prudence, competent administration, ethics, and transparency.

The Harper government is now fully engaged in a crisis management exercise that began more than a year ago. William Benoit, a communications professor at Ohio University who specializes in political campaigns and crisis communication, presents a theory of image repair which describes five general strategies an organization (government or corporation) will use to manage the damage to its reputation after it has committed or been accused of wrongdoing. The theory is both analytical and prescriptive–we can use it to make sense of a strategy or as a guideline for developing strategic options. Benoit argues that it’s not reasonable to form a negative impression of an organization unless the organization is believed to be responsible for the offense it is alleged to have committed. Responsibility can take many forms: an organization can be blamed for acts it has directly performed, ordered, or facilitated. Responsibility can also appear as a result of acts of omission, such as the failure to properly prevent something bad from happening, or of looking the other way and permitting that event to occur.

Ultimately, when it comes to responsibility and blame, perceptions are more important than reality. Thus, it may not matter whether the Conservatives actively misled Parliament and Canadians about the cost of the F-35 program, whether they were manipulated by DND officials,  or whether they were complicit in allowing the latter to game the procurement process. What matters is whether Canadians believe they are guilty of wrongdoing. The government’s image and reputation is highly vulnerable and at risk.

Benoit’s theory of image repair allows us to ask and answer: what can a government or corporation say when they have committed wrongdoing or face the perception that they are guilty of wrongdoing? He suggests that in managing a real or potential threat to its image, organizations will deny the existence of the crisis, evade responsibility, seek to reduce its offensiveness, offer corrective action, and/or apologize and seek forgiveness.

The’ response to the F-35 crisis suggests both an awareness of Benoit’s theory and an application of some of its key components:

Denial: there are two possible tactics for denying the existence of a crisis. Simple denial involves the refusal to acknowledge that something bad has happened, whereas blame displacement involves accusing others of having committed the act. The refusal to accept the PBO’s $30-billion price tag and to deny allegations of a multi-billion dollar program cost gap was the first step in the managing the threat to its image of sound fiscal management.  A variation on this strategy of denial would be to suggest that blame for the differences in cost projections should be rest at the feet of senior DND officials, although the government has not pursued this line of argument and defence.

Reduce Offensiveness: facing allegations of wrongdoing, organizations can stress the benefits of their actions, minimize the seriousness of their actions, differentiate their harmful actions from even more serious ones, argue that there are more important considerations to account for, reduce the credibility of their attacker, or offer to compensate or reimburse those who have been harmed. The government has clearly pursued this line of image defense in three key ways:

1. It has repeatedly defended the purchase of F-35 stealth jets as the best equipment for Canada’s military, an argument it’s pursued since 2010 when the cost of the program first surfaced as a major problem;

2. It has dismissed the seriousness of the allegations by describing the $10 billion cost gap as a simple difference in accounting. Key to this tactic has been the mobilization of third party support, from academics to former defence department officials;

3. It has claimed that no jets have yet been purchased and, in contrast to the Liberal sponsorship scandal, the government has not yet misspent public money

Corrective Action: the key characteristic of this image repair strategy is to present a plan that will solve or prevent the recurrence of the problem from happening again in the future. The Conservatives were quick to respond to the A-G report by accepting its conclusions and acknowledging the importance of improving transparency in the procurement process by promising a complete and public review of the program, and setting up a new secretariat inside of the Department of Public Works to oversee the project. More serious corrective actions might involve changes in personnel, including demoting the Minister or senior DND officials. However these steps would indicate that the government acknowledges the seriousness of the offense it is alleged to have committed and an admission of culpability or guilt. Neither of those options appears tenable at the moment; yet, as more information comes to light, including a clearer sense of how Canadians are responding to the crisis, this could change.

The Harper government has 3 years remaining in its majority mandate so isn’t vulnerable to an imminent collapse. Nevertheless, the long term implications for the Conservative image and brand are significant. The government has spent several years framing itself as trustworthy, competent fiscal managers who exercise sound governance and are committed to ethics. The allegations contained in the A-G report (and suggested in the PBO report before it) strike at the heart of that image and suggest a serious failure in regulation, oversight and transparency. Images, brands, and reputations are only ever virtual, which is why the Conservatives have also acquired a reputation (with equal amount of resonance) for secrecy, information control and evasive spin doctoring. Language and rhetoric, both in terms of how images are attacked and how they are managed, once they’ve been damaged, are crucial, particularly in times of crisis. The full implications of the F-35 scandal remain unclear, and will continue to take shape in the coming days and weeks as all sides engage in a battle over its framing. The Conservatives are likely to keep the debate focused on the issue of total cost, where they can continue to emphasize differences in budgeting formulae; the opposition are likely to remain focused on questions about the procurement process, and why the government appears to have been cagey with Canadians over the numbers it shared publicly against those it used privately. However the debate unfolds, there should be no question that the government is on the ropes, that it has taken a significant reputation hit, and is bringing the full force of its crisis communications capacity to the situation.

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Ottawa Public Health, Risk Communication & the Endoscopy Infection Scare

In a hastily organized media conference on Saturday, October 15, 2011, the City of Ottawa’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Isra Levy, announced that a local, privately owned “non-hospital” medical clinic failed to follow proper infection control measures, resulting in the potential exposure of 6,800 patients to Hepatitis and HIV.

According to Dr. Levy, there was no evidence that a single patient had been infected as a result of treatment, and following consultation with infectious disease specialists he confirmed that the estimated rate of possible infection was “very low”:

  • 1 in 1 million for Hepatitis B
  • 1 in 50 million for Hepatitis C
  • 1 in 3 billion for HIV

On his Twitter feed Dan Gardner, author of the critically acclaimed book, Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear, described the risks cited in this case as “indescribably tiny…dwarfed by the risk of driving to the corner store.”

Despite the exceedingly low possibility of infection, the announcement by Ottawa’s health authority predictably generated outrage and intense public and media scrutiny.

Situation summary

Ottawa Public Health (OPH) first became aware of this clinic’s problems in July 2011, when the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long Term Care advised that an inspection by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario discovered infection prevention and sanitation protocols had not always been followed. It was then that OPH began its own investigation to assess the risk to public health and identify all patients who might be affected.

This involved a lengthy process of tracing several thousand patient records over a 10-year period. This volume of patient records, combined with restrictions on patient confidentiality set by Ontario privacy laws, made the task of informing those affected extremely difficult.

The final list of patients who may have been exposed to infection was not confirmed until Thursday, October 13th. On Friday, October 14th, OPH put its risk communication plan into effect. The first step involved finalizing the preparation of registered letters that would be immediately sent to all 6,800 patients. This included coordinating with the physician at the centre of the health scare, a professional obligation involving medical errors. Second, it involved notifying local physicians to ensure they would be able to address public demand for information and requests for blood testing. And it involved training as many as 50 public health nurses who would be redeployed from other units (e.g., sex education, home visits with new parents, etc.) to staff a call response hotline.

This plan was developed over the course of the health department’s three-month investigation. Given the possibility of an information leak, only a select number of key individuals were involved in the investigation and planning process.

A threatened media leak

Ottawa Public Health originally intended to hold its media conference on Tuesday, October 18th, at which time all information about the findings would have been disclosed. By this point, all affected patients would have been informed directly about what had occurred, physicians would have been prepared to respond to demands for information and testing, and the call response unit would have been up and running.

On the morning of Saturday, October 15th, Dr. Levy’s office was informed that a national news organization had become aware of the investigation and was preparing to break the story on the basis of inaccurate information.

This placed the public health authority in a difficult situation: the risk that a news report containing misinformation was real—certainly not unprecedented—and had the potential of creating vastly more harm than good.

OPH was faced with three options:

1.  Do nothing and respond to the report and the fallout that would ensue after the fact.
2.  Provide full disclosure of the situation, including identifying the name and address of the clinic and physician and the types of procedures which had placed patients at risk.
3.  Provide partial disclosure that would strike a balance between patient needs, the public interest and the capacity of the system to absorb increased demand for information, testing or treatment.

Communicating risk

The risks that kill people and the risks that upset people are completely different.Sandman, 2007

The health department scrambled to organize a media conference for later that afternoon. At this time, Dr. Levy announced what had occurred, confirmed that there were no known cases of anyone becoming ill and reported the very low numerical probability of infection. He acknowledged that some people might feel anxious or nervous about the announcement, and offered an explanation about what actions his office had put into place and would be following in the coming days, including a promise for new information early in the week.

To this extent, he acted in a manner consistent with the basic tenets of risk communication. He did not over-reassure, acknowledged that people would feel anxious about the announcement and described the discovery and response processes.

However, when pressed by journalists for a fuller disclosure of information, Dr. Levy refused to identify the name or location of the medical facility, the physician who operated it, or details about the patient population affected (i.e., children, adults, seniors, etc.).

This was a risky move for two major reasons.

First, it guaranteed that the health department would clash with the media over competing values: whereas the health department values only pertinent information in the interest of protecting public health, journalists value full disclosure, immediacy and thrive on controversy and outrage. Second, the decision to provide only very general information risked intensifying ambiguity and uncertainty, where the objective of risk communication is to lessen it. People aspire for control over their lives, even if they cannot change what might happen.

Ottawa Public Health called a second media conference on Monday, October 17th, where Dr. Levy disclosed all of the known information about:

  • where the breach had occurred (a private health clinic operated by Dr. Christiane Farazli on Carling Avenue in the city’s west end)
  • what caused the lapse in infection control (improper sanitation of equipment associated with the performance of endoscopies)
  • what patients should do next (contact their physician or the public health department’s call response centre to discuss whether they should be tested)

Media response

The news media’s framing of risk has more to do with its reproduction of moral outrage than with “scientific” notions of calculable risk. —Brown, Chapman & Lupton, 1996

Ottawa Public Health and Dr. Levy in particular, came under fire for the decision to provide only partial disclosure in its first media conference.

In a post to his Greater Ottawa blog on October 17thOttawa Citizen reporter David Reevely initially described Dr. Levy’s shift from partial to full disclosure as a “volte-face” move, a “classic emergency communications error,” and mused about whether the public health unit might be “sitting on something more shocking.” (He later revised his position, explaining the full context of Dr. Levy’s shift in tactics, characterizing it as a “judgment call…that makes a whole lot of sense when viewed from inside.”)

In a story published on October 18th, the Ottawa Sun did not report the low levels of infection risk but did note the “potentially fatal” nature of Hepatitis and HIV and cited demands from evidently uninformed patients for full disclosure: “You can’t keep the public in the dark…We have the right to know— it’s not fair…. Especially HIV, when there’s no treatment.”

On CTV National News, public relations consultant Barry McLoughlin characterized Dr. Levy’s decision to not release all of the information at once as “a mistake” that intensified public anxiety.

And in an October 18th editorial, the Ottawa Citizen blamed Dr. Levy for causing “undue public concern by mismanaging the release of the information.”

Risk communication: normative and situational perspectives

These criticisms and the demand they represent regarding full disclosure are consistent with normative recommendations for risk communication.

The World Health Organization defines risk communication as “an interactive process of exchange of information and opinion” among authorities, citizens, news media and other stakeholders.

In the past authorities typically acted on the basis of what they believed was the best course of action. Oftentimes this meant shielding the organization itself from blame. Risk communication hinges on therecognition that citizens deserve to be treated honestly, respectfully and with a view to enhancing their autonomy. The objective is to reduce uncertainty so that people will be capable of making informed decisions that affect their lives. Organizations achieve this objective, in part, by communicating as openly as possible.

Notwithstanding the normative appeal of full disclosure, the ability to report all information needs to be considered against a variety of situational factors, including the seriousness of the threat (i.e., the scientifically measured level of hazard or harm), the organizational resources required to manage the response that full disclosure will produce, and the conflict between patient rights to privacy and the public and media’s right to know.

Focus assessment

The focus on whether the release of partial information was sufficient needs to be determined in light of the probability of harm and in relation to the ability of the health system to absorb the effects of full disclosure.Given the low hazard for harm and the state of system readiness, and the fact that this event was not caused by the public health department itself, it’s not unreasonable that OPH proceeded cautiously in its first communication with the media and public.

The problem, however, is that this limited the flow of information to journalists, whose occupational values—more information is always better—and “nose for outrage” positions them in opposition.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “scientists want data to be released when it’s ‘seasoned’—the media want fresh data now.” Consistent with previous cases of low hazard/high outrage events, the Ottawa health department and media differed not only in their treatment of information, but also their definitions of how to define what’s in the public interest. The health department’s partial disclosure not only strained its relationship with the media; it also kept the wider public under-informed and in a state of uncertainty.

Risk communication conclusion

The question of when to release risk information is a serious one, not to be taken lightly. It is vitally important to communicate openly and to communicate early. As the CDC advises, public health authorities need to “be first, be right, be credible.” And according to the World Health Organization, “the benefits of early warning outweigh the risks,” even when faced with uncertainty and the possibility of error.

Although prescriptive recommendations such as these are important in guiding decision-making about disclosure, such decisions cannot be made by virtue of normative standards alone.

Rather, as argued here, they must be made in relation to situational factors. They need to be made in a context that acknowledges:

  1. It guaranteed that the health department would clash with the media over competing values.
  2. The resources that will be required to manage the system impacts such announcements tend to produce.
  3. The legislative environment that balances patient privacy rights against the rights of the public to know

In this case, it’s possible that a full disclosure of all available information in its first media conference would have created undue pressure on local physicians, public health clinics and hospital emergency rooms. Keeping in mind that risk is about both uncertainty and possibility, the scenario of an overwhelmed healthcare system surely played out in the health department’s decision making.

It’s important to note that this risk event was not caused by the health department itself, but by a private clinic regulated by the province of Ontario. Ottawa Public Health responded to an investigation by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario, and to an alert by the Ontario government. It proceeded with its own investigation and a strategy of public disclosure only when it became evident that the other agencies involved would not do so. The decision to provide only partial disclosure was made on the basis of the health department’s interpretation of the scientific evidence relating to infection risk. That this decision wasallegedly forced by a news organization threatening to break the story with erroneous information, is significant in terms of assessing the response.

Ottawa Public Health acted appropriately in balancing the needs of patients in relation with system capacity, but only to the extent that this event involved infinitesimally low levels of health risk. Had the probability of infection been higher, or had there been evidence of patients who had actually been infected, its response (and this assessment) would likely have been different.

Response problematic in one area: social media

The OPH response is problematic in one other way.

In the most recent edition of his book Ongoing Crisis CommunicationW. Timothy Coombs describes the “increasingly important” role of social media for issues management and as a channel for responding to public questions and sharing information. It’s unclear to what extent social media sites are used by Ottawa Public Health to scan or monitor media and public discourse; but for the dissemination of public information sites have been used only sparingly.

For example, (at the time of writing this post) the health department’s under-used Tumblr account does not contain a single update about the infection scare, although it’s been used for other health information purposes during this time. And while its Facebook page and Twitter account have posted synced updates to a low number of fans (363) and followers (5,000+), the fact that both were dormant in the 36-48 hours following the initial media conference suggests social media outreach represents a low priority within the health department’s communication plan.

Given that the period immediately following a public announcement is a critical time when reporters and members of the public are discussing an event and forming their initial impressions, social media platforms present an important space not only for assessing the tone of the public conversation, but for also correcting misinformation if and when it occurs.

Risk events such as the Ottawa endoscopies infection scare can be disorienting because of the intense feelings of uncertainty, anxiety and fear they produce. But to the extent that these situations are potentially destabilizing, they also afford unique opportunities to think critically about how we discuss and practice risk communication.

** This post originally appeared as a guest column on PR Conversations. I thank Judy Gombita and Heather Yaxley for the invitation and their community of readers for the excellent comments and feedback.

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Dirty Politics 2.0: Social Media and Election Black Ops

**This column was originally published online at The Mark News

From the telegraph to the Internet, new communication technologies have influenced the lives of citizens and the functioning of governments. With voters increasingly turning to the Web for information to guide decision-making, candidates and political parties are becoming more experimental and increasingly sophisticated in how they utilize social technologies, such as YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, to promote policies, mobilize supporters, and attack opponents.

Yet we have little, if any, regulatory framework within which to navigate this changing mediascape, and that needs to change. The 2010 municipal election in Toronto, won by Rob Ford, provides a valuable case in point.

Shortly after the election, The Globe and Mail and Maclean’s published feature stories detailing how Ford’s team delivered its improbable candidate to victory as mayor of Canada’s largest city, handily defeating his main opponent, former provincial Liberal cabinet minister George Smitherman.

The coverage focused on how Ford’s campaign team, spearheaded by Nick Kouvalis, made “creative” use of social media. But this was not creativity of the typical social media variety. There was no evidence of engagement, authenticity, and two-way communication, terms normally reserved for talking about social media.

Instead, it documented how Team Ford set up the phony Twitter account, @QueensQuayKaren (“a downtown Toronto gal who likes politics, my cat Mittens, and a good book”), who was in fact a member of Ford’s PR team, posing as a Smitherman supporter.

Ford’s team used this account to befriend a man who Kouvalis learned had provided the Toronto Star with a recording of Ford allegedly offering to help him illegally acquire OxyContin. This allowed Ford’s team to secure a copy of the recording, to leak it to a sympathetic Toronto Sun columnist who broke the story, and, in doing so, to minimize the fallout. It was a brilliantly executed crisis communication strategy.

The Ford campaign’s use of Twitter in this case raises a number of questions about political campaigns and social media.

For some, it raises the question of ethics. If a candidate or their staff is willing to act deceitfully during an election, can they be trusted to govern with integrity once they are in office?

This question has normative appeal for those who believe that dirty tricks undermine politics and that we should do what we can to reduce their impact. Nevertheless, history is filled with examples of campaign black ops from candidates across the political spectrum because politics is a contact sport, as Bill Clinton famously said. Rob Ford is not the first politician whose campaign has done whatever it takes to win, and he surely won’t be the last.

Others might question the Ford team’s vision. In the short term, this was a cleverly conceived ploy that killed a potentially damaging story at a key moment of the campaign. However, it raises questions about longer-term implications. Boasting of the move may have scored points with hard-liners who already support the mayor, but would it turn off Toronto voters who did not back his campaign but who he must now lead? And would it serve as notice to the City Hall media gallery that the Ford team sees them as little more than a nuisance to be manipulated and managed at every turn?

Most importantly, the case alerts us to a gap in the regulatory framework governing municipal campaigns. The ethical and strategic dimensions of this case can be debated. However, Ford’s actions were clearly within the boundaries of the law.

The City of Toronto’s 2010 Municipal Election Candidate’s Guide says absolutely nothing about how social media can or can’t be used. And although the City Clerk can respond to complaints about alleged criminal activities, the Municipal Elections Act guides her decision-making. This is provincial legislation which provides equally unclear guidelines about the rules and regulations governing election-time social media use. And according to a Ministry spokesperson, “there are no immediate plans to revise it.”

Elections are not determined by the use of social media. Nevertheless, sites like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter now play prominently in the branding of political candidates, the promotion of their platforms, the mobilization of supporters, and as part of the repertoire of election campaign dirty tricks to undermine or attack opposition.

Dirty tricks are as old as politics itself but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do something about activities that discredit the political system, no matter how “creative” they may be. It’s high time the regulations governing election campaigns reflected the media technologies and practices of the day.

 

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Climategate: A crisis of science or communication?

A version of this post previously appeared in The Mark News (click here)

The past few weeks have offered a cornucopia of scandals: allegations of Canada’s complicity in the torture of Afghans; the arrest of top officials at the Toronto Humane Society on charges of animal cruelty; Tiger Woods’s run-in with a fire hydrant at the end of his own driveway.

But in terms of its global political and economic impact, one story stands above all others: “Climategate.”

This was the story about how an unidentified computer hacker stole upwards of 4,000 documents from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia in the UK, the world’s leading scientific authority on global warming. These illegally obtained materials consisted mostly of personal email correspondence between CRU scientists and their international collaborators. They were first posted to a Russian web server and quickly circulated around the world.

Although the email correspondence has been de-contextualized by climate change skeptics to maximize the political impact, the messages are still very damaging. One excerpt suggests that the world’s most trusted climate science experts conducted a methodological “trick” to amplify the severity of projected global warming; another suggests there were efforts to systematically delete evidence that could undermine the established scientific paradigm; and a third suggests that leading climate scientists attempted to control the peer review process by bullying at least one journal editor who was willing to publish research challenging the scientific consensus about climate change. As the Guardian newspaper columnist and environmental activist George Monbiot acknowledged, “some of the messages require no spin to make them look bad.”

In very little time critics of the CRU seized upon the documents, claiming they offer unambiguous “proof“ of a vast conspiracy by the climate science establishment, which, if you believe the skeptics, had apparently been working in consort with the UN, George Soros, environmental NGOs, Al Gore, the “left wing” media, Hollywood, and several thousand climate scientists around the world to execute an elaborately conceived carbon-based tax grab. “An Inconvenient Hoax,” reported the Examiner.com. “The skeptics are vindicated,” opined one conservative Canadian columnist. “Botch after botch after botch,” said another. Not surprisingly “Climategate” has become the focus of countless news columns, op-eds, letters-to-the-editor, and several radio call-in shows. It’s been a hot topic on Twitter; it provided grist for The Daily Show; and there is even a Facebook Fan Page.

I want to suggest that “Climategate” is important not just because it sheds light on the politicization of climate science. It is important because it brings the human and normative elements of science front and centre and illustrates the central role of communication in scientific debates.

Pierre Bourdieu famously wrote that “scandal, in the form of revelation by the [media] of an ethical transgression by an eminent personality, underlines the rule of devotion to the general interest, in other words, disinterestedness, which is required of all individuals designated to be the official incarnation of the group.” For Bourdieu, a scandal was a breach of expectation: just as we expect our law enforcement officials to police fairly, and our physicians to “do no harm,” we expect scientists to operate independently of the social world. The problem, however, is that scientific facts can never be fully divorced from their social and political contexts. The key question we must confront, therefore, is whether the context for climate change research has become so overtly politicized that it has damaged the way scientists interact—with the media, the public, and each other.

With this problem in mind, it is worth reflecting, as my colleague Chris Russill has done, on the work of climatologist Steven Schneider, who argued that climate scientists have been forced into a “double ethical bind.” Schneider believes that the image we have of science as an overly technical endeavour compromises its potential to mobilize necessary political and public actions. He argues that scientists ought to make an impact on the world outside of their labs, especially when their research deals with issue of human and planetary survival. Yet to do so, they must not only be excellent researchers—they must also be convincing communicators.

The problem with this recommendation is that the world of public communication demands a very different set of core competencies from the world of climate science: effective oratory skills, an ability to make a persuasive case with image and metaphor, an intuitive sense about how to drive the media agenda by mastering the machinations of its ecology. These are not skills easily acquired and can place enormous pressure onto scientists, particularly when their research is under constant political scrutiny and sits in the crosshairs of a well funded and relentless contrarian movement that has taken aggressively to the airwaves, that appears to be influencing the screening agendas of the film festival circuit, and which continues to burn up the blogosphere.

In the face of what must be monumental institutional pressure, CRU director Phil Jones was forced to step down from his post pending the outcome of a university investigation. Michael Mann, the Penn State University paleoclimatologist famous for originating the infamous “hockey stick graph” is reportedly also under investigation by his employer. Their international colleagues, for the most part, have gone silent. Supportive journalists, bloggers, environmental activists, political figures, and others with a stake in the issue are in damage control mode, forced into playing defense yet continuing to press the case that the overwhelming majority of scientists, policy-makers, and almost every government in the world acknowledges the probability that the planet is warming and will continue to do so because of human activity, and that it is our moral, economic, and political imperative to do so something about it now.

Ultimately, the CRU is not facing a crisis of science, but a crisis of communication. Such communicative “stumbling” has, seemingly, provided a new opportunity to the global warming skeptics to advance their central message, that the science is junk because the scientists can’t be trusted. Importantly, this does not mean that the skeptics’ frame is empirically adequate. It simply means that the interpretive labour involved in reconciling the gap between this message and our mediated experiences has been reduced. Given the high stakes of the Copenhagen talks beginning next week, and the importance of achieving an international agreement, this is a crisis that will be resolved only through a sincere explanation of what happened and a promise to never let it happen again. Until this occurs, the strength of the scientific argument for anthropogenic global warming will continue to come under attack.

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H1N1 and the “crisis in the clinics”: Apathy, risk, and the problem of communication

Aristotle famously stated, “It is equally unreasonable to accept merely probable conclusions from a mathematician and to demand strict demonstration from an orator.” He also wrote that virtuous behaviour is accomplished when one finds the mean between excess and deficiency. “Where adherence to the mean preserves perfection, excess and deficiency destroy it.”

In normal times, we expect a lot from the news media. In emergency or crisis, our expectations intensify. If hazards or risks are underreported or played down, the media face accusations of indifference; if they are amplified to the point of excess, charges of sensationalism inevitably follow. For journalists and health communicators, the goal is to find virtue in the mean. It is an extremely difficult task.

The goal of this column is to offer some reflections on the dynamics in how the media report on health emergencies and risks, and to address the implications for public health communication. The case of the novel H1N1 virus provides a compelling illustration.

Observation No. 1: In times of crisis, people want information quickly. Although the vast majority of us continue to receive news and information from traditional sources, social media such as YouTube, Twitter and Facebook are supplementing our information-gathering activities. Their decentralized nature allow them to relay commentary, opinion, speculation and even thoughtful analysis faster. Most importantly, they provide a mechanism for citizens to bypass traditional media and communicate directly with one another.

Yet, the nimble and flexible nature of social media is also a weakness. The lack of sourcing, review and professional norms compromises its integrity. The fact that we live in a globalized media environment has undoubtedly expanded our horizons, but it has also created a lot of “noise” that makes it hard to convince people that health officials have the best evidence and are acting in the public interest.

Observation No. 2: News media don’t just mirror what’s going on in the world, they actively contribute to shaping our understanding of it. For this reason, they are recognized by health communicators as assets in crisis and risk situations. Competency in crisis and risk communication are thus expected to be a key element in the public health official’s toolkit. Yet, a review of the media’s H1N1 coverage suggests that the rollout of one of the most ambitious immunization initiatives in Canadian history might have been more effective had officials been attuned to lessons learned from previous events.

For example, they claim they were caught off guard by the surge in demand for the H1N1 vaccine. They shouldn’t have been. Although surveys indicated Canadians were ambivalent about the need for inoculation, research indicates this is an entirely predictable response. Indeed, the most common reaction of citizens to situations involving high levels of health risk is not panic, as many mistakenly believe, but apathy. Communication expert Peter Sandman argues that the mainstay of a health communicator’s job is to determine how to make people recognize that a risk is serious, to become concerned about it and to take action: “If people are apathetic, we try to get them more concerned – sometimes by arousing fear.”

Observation No. 3: News values are a central consideration in how the media report health emergencies and are thus a key component in any communication plan. Attitudes can shift dramatically if a famous or featured person becomes the public face of the crisis. Evan Frustaglio, the hockey-playing teenager, became the high-profile face of the H1N1 virus. His death was heart-wrenching evidence that while the virus may place some segments of our society at greater risk, no segment is immune. The media attention heightened fears among Canadians.

Mr. Sandman reminds us that the goal of risk communications in such circumstances “is to help your public bear its fear, rather than try to persuade your public not to be afraid.” Some officials have gone overboard by overamplifying the risk of serious illness; many others have responded by arguing that we really have little to fear. The problem is that neither side is attuned to what citizens actually feel or believe. This shows a profound lack of empathy and compromises officials’ ability to build trust with the public. And a foundation of public trust will be critical when the next health emergency or crisis occurs.

Observation No. 4: Media interest in a public health crisis is itself viral. As coverage about H1N1 increased, story angles mutated: Sports pages reported that professional athletes had been granted special access to the vaccine; business pages considered the impact on economic recovery; the society pages speculated about the proper etiquette for dinner parties. Policy debate about two-tier health care was given an H1N1 angle with news that some private clinics had access to the vaccine, implying that the wealthy enjoy special privileges.

Each of these narrative developments was predictable. News accounts were shaped by an “accountability frame” and conflict that surfaced between political jurisdictions. How risks are understood and how people respond depends on the “circuit of communication” within which institutional relationships are embedded. The H1N1 case has revealed a remarkable lack of co-ordination in the risk messaging from public health officials at different jurisdictional levels, as well as a lack of clear political leadership, especially at the federal level. In other words, the circuit of communication has been repeatedly short-circuiting.

Pandemics inflict devastation on individuals and families, communities and nations. They affect us biologically, psychologically, spiritually and culturally. As we have seen, they also impose significant burdens on our public infrastructure. Pandemics are also democratic in the sense that they do not respect the social divisions of race, class, gender or nationality – yet the burdens they present do not affect everyone equally. We process and come to understand the meanings of these challenges through communication, and it’s critical to use the best tools and research available.

**Note: this column is co-authored with Bill Fox from The Gandalf Group, an issues management consultancy. It originally appeared as a web exclusive column in The Globe & Mail.

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The Janus Face of the Financial Crisis

There is a temptation when crises hit to turn inward: marshal the troops, focus on the immediate needs of your organization or sector and weather the storm. This applies whether the crisis is localized (e.g. accusations of malfeasance) or more global in context — major natural disasters, massive outbreaks of food borne-illness or disease, and dramatic economic downturns are good examples. With the global financial meltdown we are firmly in the throes of such a crisis.

Despite the gloomy predictions crises are not intrinsically negative forces in society. In fact, the research on crisis provides evidence that crises can sometimes lead to positive outcomes. In a recent book about crisis communication, Robert Ulmer, Timothy Sellnow and Matthew Seeger (all recognized leaders in public relations and organizational communication) argue that crises are opportunities for learning and development. While a crisis is a “dangerous moment” it can also be a moment of decisive intervention, providing opportunities for organizations to be stronger than they were when the crisis hit.

In this context, a recent NCVO survey of UK-based charities found that although the vast majority of leaders in the charity sector expect the economic situation to worsen over the next year, slightly more than one-third of them “are staying positive and have identified new opportunities and areas for growth … choosing to see the current economic decline as an opportunity, either to focus their organisation on their mission or to play a vital role in supporting their local areas.”

Rather than focusing on the constraints before them, leaders in the charity sector plan to increase their activism and service provision. While there is no question that we are all experiencing heightened levels of risk and uncertainty, the contingent nature of the present situation can also create opportunities for those who are in a position to seize them.

It is not surprising therefore that many voluntary sector public relations officers (PRO’s) are advising their executives to increase their public and media visibility throughout 2009. As reported in Brand Republic, it is expected that spending by voluntary organizations on advertising and marketing will decline; yet the need to communicate strategically by delivering high levels of on-message, targeted editorial content will only become more important.

This is especially sage advice at a time when funders and donors are expecting greater levels of adherence to norms of accountability and transparency. According to Sarah Miller at the Charity Commission, the economic situation will lead to greater scrutiny of the voluntary sector: “It is vital that charities are absolutely clear in their communications about what they do, how they do it and how they use their money. That’s the basis for increasing public trust and confidence in the sector at a time when funders and individuals may reassess their giving.”

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Crisis & Empathy Goffman Style

I’ve been thinking a lot about Maple Leaf Foods and its crisis communication response following the listeria outbreak. I’ve posted about the political dimensions of this event already, but even while working through these reactions I was having a hard time reconciling: (a) my admiration for how the company handled the crisis (admiration in terms of how it relied so well on best practices for communicating during a health emergency) with (b) a sense of unease about the dramaturgical components of the response – the ways in which actors (individuals or organizations) seek to manage the impressions others have of them through a series of carefully staged performances. I’m drawing here primarily on the writings of the Canadian sociologist Erving Goffman (see especially his seminal book The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life). 

Here’s Maple Leaf CEO Michael McCain in the video news release the company posted on YouTube:

Several points worth mentioning here.

1. From the perspective of effective crisis communication, Maple Leaf’s McCain was immediately visible and accessible to the media. Crises such as this one are all about framing, and if you are not the first to establish the conceptual parameters of what the issue is about, then you will have to react to the ways the issue/event has been framed by others. And once a frame has been established it’s awfully difficult to change.

2. McCain immediately called a media conference and before speculating on what may have caused the outbreak he expressed concern for all of those affected. The demonstration of empathy, crisis communicators will tell you, is absolutely paramount to effective leadership in times of emergency. McCain then went on to explain what the organization was doing about the problem today and where the investigation would go over the period that followed. 

3. Responsibility for what happened was absorbed entirely by the company. McCain stated clearly that the failure was an internal one – it was not a result of bad public policy (the meat inspectors union and many others in the food industry have argued otherwise) or any other external forces. Unlike the case of the Tylenol poisonings of the early 1980s, where the crisis was caused by others and responsibility for a resolution was generalized to the entire industry (leading eventually to the adoption of tamper proof packaging — a cost not just to Johnson & Johnson but their competition as well), this was a crisis caused in-house and dealt with entirely in-house. This not only helped to mitigate any possible reactions by the government to reconsider its policy action on meat inspections (giving the industry more self-monitoring power), but it also effectively protected the values of all those brands which source their meat from Maple Leaf (McDonalds, Kirkland/Costco, Schneider’s, to name just a few). I would argue that it was a crisis response strategy designed to manage the policy process, to manage consumer expectations and protect market share.

Here’s where Goffman may be handy. There are several elements to the dramaturgical performance, but a few are noteworthy.

1. Goffman argues that the actor must demonstrate a genuine “belief” in the part s/he is playing. Although it is difficult for others to ascertain whether or not the performer believes what they are doing to be authentic, they overcome this perpetual uncertainty by making specific references to sincerity.

2. They must also maintain what he calls “expressive control,” to stay ‘in character’ and convey the correct signals and mitigate the occasional compulsion they may have to communicate misleading ones that might detract from the performance.

3. As in a theatrical performance, the management of impression requires the actor/individual to pay careful attention to settings, clothing, words, and nonverbal actions. In the video above, McCain appears not in the setting of a high-powered executive but in what looks to be his own living room – the colours of the set elicit warmth and the dress shirt is pressed but there’s no tie or jacket. As my colleague and good friend in PR Bernie Gauthier argues, “clothes speak by allowing people to communicate some things about themselves, their status, and their lifestyle” (OK, it’s a back-handed plug: Bernie’s argument is in his chapter “More than words: Why image matters so much in politics,” part of a collection of debates about controversies in communication studies co-edited by yours truly). They also convey affect and articulate a ‘sense’ of sincerity.

Maple Leaf’s response to the outbreak was a brilliant demonstration of why organizations develop and pre-test crisis communication plans. There is no question that a plan was in place long before the crisis hit, and I suspect PR scholars will come to rank this among the “best practice” cases in crisis communication.

The issue to which I keep returning in my mind is the dramaturgical aspect of empathy, i.e., of whether authenticity and sincerity can be “operationalized” as part of a strategic plan, as this case surely illustrates. Of course, we will never know how truly heartfelt McCain’s response was – it surely seemed that way and I won’t dare from the sidelines pass judgement on the character of the man. We would also do well to look at what happens when empathy isn’t operationalized as part of a crisis communication plan – Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, please stand up. Lastly, Goffman’s assertion that “the stage presents things that are make believe; presumably life presents things that are real and sometimes not well rehearsed” and his more provocative argument that “the individual puts on his show for the benefit of other people” is eerily resonant.

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Filed under Crisis Communication, Food-borne illness, Politics