Lesson 2: Access To Information During A Crisis
Significant Choice Ethical Framework
An important ethical principle that can be applied to crisis communication involves the concept of significant choice, because a crisis has the potential to create great harm while disrupting daily routines. Based on the significant choice ethical framework, individuals must be given enough information to make a reasoned decision.
According to Nilsen, significant choice is “choice based on the best information available when the decision must be made."
He believes that a good share of human dignity resides in the capacity to make rational decisions. Nilsen defined the concept of the ethic of significant choice as choice making that is voluntary, free from physical or mental coercion, and based on all the information available when the decision must be made. Significant choice is founded on the principle that when a group has vital information the public needs in order to make important decisions concerning their well-being, that information must be disseminated as completely and accurately as possible. It represents the ideal circumstances for free and informed decision-making. Nilsen explains the role of communication in significant choice: “When we communicate to influence the attitudes, beliefs, and actions of others, the ethical touchstone is the degree of free, informed, and critical choice on matters of significance in their lives that is fostered by our speaking.”
Therefore, the holder of key information – whether individual or organizational – has power when it controls the communication process, as well as the obligation to use that power ethically.
For example, organizations dealing with toxic chemicals have an ethical obligation to inform residents of the surrounding community if there is a risk of contamination, so community members can understand their options, and make informed choices on how to respond. Similarly, when a hurricane is approaching, the government agencies have an obligation to inform residents of the potential destructive power and approximate arrival time of the threat, so the residents will make decisions on protection of their property and evacuation.Next Page: Five Standards For Significant Choice
Five Standards For Significant Choice
Nilsen states that stakeholders engage in significant choice when the following standards are met:
- Stakeholders are free from physical or mental coercion.
- The choice is made based on all the information available.
- All reasonable alternatives are included in the discussion.
- Both short-term and long-term consequences are disclosed and discussed.
- Both senders and receivers of messages are open about the personal motives they have that may influence their decision-making.
With free flow of information and reasonable judgment based on their understanding of the situation, stakeholders can make objective decisions that they believe to be in their best interest.
Problems of Misinformation
There are also several forms of communication that could diminish the opportunity for significant choice, according to Nilsen. If an organization provides unclear or biased information to stakeholders, it can corrupt the decision-making process. Some forms of communication such as bias, ambiguity and emotionalized language could distort meaning or create unnecessary alarm among the public. The following is considered to be miscommunication that can lead to problematic consequences:
- incomplete information
- biased information
- statistical units that may be inadequately defined or incomplete
- vague or ambiguous terminology in which listeners find erroneous meanings
- relationships that may be implied between the issue under discussion and other issues, when in fact no relationship exists
- false sense of urgency or false sense of importance
- highly emotionalized language which may distort meaning
In times of crisis, disclosure of timely, relevant, and complete information is particularly important when lack of information can be particularly harmful. In many cases, crisis communicators must perform the dual role of organizational spokesperson and counselor. In both instances, stakeholders’ informational needs and interests must be considered.
“No comment” should not be an option for ethical crisis communication.
Public relations professionals need to take responsible communication actions built on principles of openness and transparency.
Challenge of Information Uncertainty in Crises
Crises and disasters are by definition, sudden, dynamic, and unpredictable events. Due to the unexpected nature of many crisis situations and consequences that are often hard to foresee, crisis managers need to acknowledge the uncertainty and ambiguity inherent in a crisis situation. Uncertainty is the inability to determine the present or predict the future. Organizations experience uncertainty “due to lack of information, due to the complexity of the information, or due to questions about the quality of the information.”
Uncertainty created by a crisis about what to say and how to make sense of the situation is a key communication challenge. When a crisis occurs, there is usually the public inquiry about responsibility, causes, and the impact on stakeholders. The public would like to know who is responsible, why the crisis happened, and how they can protect themselves. While stakeholders often want clear and quick answers to these questions in order to make sense of what happened and make decisions about what actions to take to protect themselves, it is often difficult to meet these information needs. The crisis events might be still unfolding, the full scale of the disaster may still be unknown, and the investigation process may take a long time to reach a conclusion. In some cases, such as nuclear contamination, the ultimate impact on stakeholders could be uncertain, complex, and open to public debate and argument.
This inherent uncertainty often complicates the decision to issue warning messages, such as recalls of food products that may be contaminated. Warnings and recalls often must be issued even when some level of uncertainty exists about the exact nature of the harm. If the crisis manager waits until all uncertainty is reduced, this could mean that the warning comes too late.
Communication Ambiguity in Crises
Due to the complexity of organizational crises, there could be multiple interpretations of evidence, intentions, and responsibility surrounding the crises.
Communication ambiguity is defined as multiple interpretations of an event.
It is not possible to have a clear-cut, precise answer to every important question following a crisis. For example, even if organizations could provide information on when and what happened in an industrial accident, they may not know why it happened or who is responsible immediately after the incident.
Also, during a crisis, various groups may have communication goals and viewpoints that potentially conflict with each other. This could also become a source of ambiguity.
“Those organizations associated with a crisis or disaster may seek to limit damage to their reputation, avoid responsibility, and even shift blame. Governmental agencies may prioritize reestablishing public order while the public may prioritize being informed, protected, and even reimbursed. During a crisis, the media seeks immediate information for wide distribution while public health is likely to be concerned with clarifying the facts and protecting patient privacy.”
Coordinating messages enhances the probability of consistent messages and may reduce the confusion the public might experience. The consistency of message is one important benchmark of effective crisis communication. Also, coordination and communication with other agencies are usually necessary to mount an effective crisis response.
Intentionally heightening the level of ambiguity in a crisis is unethical and irresponsible. In a crisis, events may easily have a traumatizing effect and cause panic. People may have a harder time listening and processing information. It may take repeated exposure to the same message before people understand and act on the information. Organizations should constantly update their stakeholders if new information becomes available.
Acknowledge Uncertainty and Ambiguity
Crisis spokespersons often feel an urge to be overly certain and overly reassuring. This may be a result of a belief that the public cannot accept uncertain situations and needs certainty in the face of a crisis, even when information is not available yet. However, in an inherently uncertain and equivocal situation, overly reassuring statements may reduce a spokesperson’s credibility.
In addition, over-reassuring statements that lack credibility may even create higher levels of alarm among the public, particularly when there is not a high level of trust between the organization and the victims affected. In the long run, admitting to the ambiguity of a situation does less damage to an organization’s credibility than pretending all is in hand.
For example, in a study of media portrayal of leadership during the Hurricane Katrina crisis in 2005, Littlefield and Quenette examined the news images of the military, the Department of Homeland Security, President Bush, the federal government, and the local government. The authors concluded, “It would be wise for authorities to acknowledge deficiencies in their crisis responses to avoid conflicting perspectives (mortification) that will emerge later."
A best practice of crisis communication is to acknowledge the uncertainty inherent in the situation with statements acknowledging that not all the facts are available, or the situation is still evolving. This form of strategic ambiguity allows the communicator to refine the message as more information becomes available and avoids statements that are likely to be shown as inaccurate as the situation becomes clearer.
Acknowledging uncertainty should not be used as a strategy, however, to avoid disclosing uncomfortable information or closing off further communication. Through the use of strategic ambiguity, organizations sometimes emphasize an interpretation where the organization is viewed favorably.
For example, Ulmer and Sellnow used the ethic of significant choice to evaluate the ethical implications of strategic ambiguity used by the tobacco industry. The industry leaders attempted to place responsibility on consumers, claiming that they simply manufacture the product and consumers make the choice to purchase.
Ulmer and Sellnow explained the argument’s flaws: “From a significant choice perspective, this claim is valid only when consumers have a complete and unbiased explanation of the potential risks and benefits associated with a product.” The researchers concluded that because the ambiguity it produced was based on incomplete and biased information, the tobacco companies were not acting ethically.
Ethics Of Withholding Information
In general, an organization that withholds pertinent crisis-related information by stonewalling, offering only selected disclosures, creating ambiguity, etc., is considered unethical.
However, there may be legitimate reasons to withhold information temporarily. For example, it’s ethical to withhold the names of dead victims until the families are notified. Sometimes it is necessary to withhold strategic information because of concerns of national security, for instance, a case involving ongoing investigation of a terrorist plot. Or sometimes it is a good choice to temporarily withhold information that might unnecessarily panic the public.
According to O'Malley, the following types of information might justifiably affect how information about risk is communicated:
- information that jeopardizes national security or an ongoing police investigation
- information that unnecessarily violates the privacy and confidentiality rights of individuals
- information that might lead to undue stigmatization of individuals or groups within society, and
- information that, if released, might lead to behaviors that would result in increased spread of disease.
Eventually, the reasons for knowingly withholding information should be fully defensible and based on ethical considerations.
A Dialogic Approach In Addressing The Public’s Concerns
The public has the right to know what risks it faces, and ongoing efforts should be made to inform and educate the public using science-based risk assessments. At the same time, public concerns about risk should be accepted as legitimate. To achieve a standpoint of dialogue, an organization managing risks or experiencing a crisis needs to listen to the concerns of the public, take these concerns into account, and respond accordingly.
During a crisis, the public should be informed about what is happening, and organizations managing crises have a responsibility to share this information. This has specific implications for the timely and accurate communication of information to the public, and for the solicitation of concerns and questions from the public. Ideally, the public can serve as a resource, rather than a burden, in risk and crisis management. Thus, crisis communication best practices would emphasize a dialogic approach.
During times of crisis, handling media inquiries and taking proactive approaches to communicate with the public are crucial for effective and ethical crisis communication. For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the leading national public health institute of the United States, develops and delivers health messages for a variety of audiences, including the public, health care professionals, public health researchers and practitioners, and policy makers. News media outlets have been the major channels for disseminating messages to these audiences. Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the anthrax incidents that followed, CDC transformed its media monitoring system into a broader communication monitoring system, with both listening and telling functions, to support CDC's public health emergency response. As public health agencies become more aware of the threat of chemical and biological weapons, and the risk posed to human populations, they have begun to assess and elevate their level of communication preparedness for all risk and crisis scenarios.
According to WHO experts, most measures for managing public health emergencies rely on public compliance for effectiveness. “Measures ranging from hand washing to quarantine require public acceptance of their efficacy, as well as acceptance of the ethical rational for cooperating with instructions that may limit individual liberty so as to protect the broader public from harm.” This requires that the public trust not only the information they receive, but also the authorities who serve as the source of this information, and their decision-making processes. Maintaining information transparency is not only highly important for public trust during an emergency, but also in building risk communication capacity to support all phases of emergency management.
According to Covello, public health risk and crisis communication plans need to have a checklist that involves listening to people and accept and involve stakeholders as legitimate partners:
Considerations of Public Disaster Literacy
Recently, scholars have suggested that clear and open communication cannot be considered only from the perspective of the party sending the message. Rather, careful consideration of the audience's ability to comprehend and act on the information is equally important.
Disaster literacy is defined here as an individual's ability to read, understand, and use information to make informed decisions and follow instructions in the context of mitigating, preparing, responding, and recovering from a disaster.
Although many government, nonprofit, and relief organizations have endeavored to educate and prepare the American public for disasters, it is found that adults with physical, mental, and educational disabilities remain among the most vulnerable and least prepared subgroups of the population. If there is a gap between the literacy demands of existing disaster preparedness and recovery materials and the literacy skills of many vulnerable subgroups, their ability to understand and effectively use potentially life-saving information would be hampered. There is a need for organizations to examine existing disaster preparedness or recovery materials based on the following criteria:
- readability levels
- understandability of content
- acceptability of format
- the ability of community-dwelling, vulnerable adults to act on the information presented
Case Study: US Airways Flight 1549
On January 15, 2009, US Airways Flight 1549, an Airbus A320, took off from LaGuardia Airport with 150 passengers and 5 crew members, bound for Charlotte, NC. Three minutes into the flight, it struck a flock of Canada geese and lost power in both engines. Air controllers tried to divert the US Airways plane back to LaGuardia or a nearby airport in New Jersey. Captain Chesley "Sully'' Sullenberger decided he could not safely land the plane in either of the airports, instructed passengers to “brace for impact,” and glided the plane into the Hudson River.
As water got in the drifting plane, the passengers walked out of the doors to stand on the wings or the partially submerged slides. A few swam away from the plane fearing an explosion. The temperature was 21 degrees Fahrenheit. Soon New York Waterway commuter ferries, police boats, fireboats, tugboats and Coast Guard craft converged on the scene to join the rescue effort.
All passengers and crew members were picked up and sent for treatment in hospitals in Manhattan and New Jersey for exposure to the brutal cold. A few people suffered serious injuries.
As the dramatic event unfolded in the media hub of New York City, with many eyewitnesses, it instantly became the headline story of the day internationally. The media and officials used the phrase “miracle on the Hudson” to describe the water landing and quick rescue. Gov. David Paterson said at a news conference in Manhattan: “This is a potential tragedy that may have become one of the most magnificent days in the history of New York City agencies.”
US Airways faced an immense amount of questions from the reporters and family members. Some of the passengers felt horrified by the shocking experience. Their family members, stunned by the news coverage, were worried about their well-being and eager to get in touch with them or reunite with them. Some passengers wanted to get to their planned destinations but worried about flight safety and preferred to travel by land. The passengers’ belongings, such as wallets, cell phones, computers, and luggage, were still in the partly submerged plane. Later a few passengers contacted law firms to consult about suing for emotional distress and other losses.
From the moment after the landing, survivors have been interviewed by the media, some immediately after being pulled from the wings of the floating plane. There was also an instant social media frenzy about the event. Meanwhile, National Transportation Safety Board started to conduct an investigation into the incident. Under these circumstances, any response action by the airline would be under close public scrutiny.
Course of PR Actions
US Airways immediately activated an emergency response plan and the staff was mobilized for on-site support in New York and Charlotte. The company kept providing the newest information through press releases and news interviews. It also stated that the company’s primary concern was those on board the airplane and their families. The communication team headed by James Olson learned from a call from the pilot that he walked up and down the aisle twice to make sure everyone was off the plane. But they still needed to have every person accounted for and confirmed to have survived, a process that took 24 hours. Company CEO Doug Parker made a statement before flying to New York from the company headquarter in Arizona, and appear in a joint news conference on January 16th with city officials to honor the crew and first responders.
US Airways activated a special 800 number for families to call and dispatched more than 100 employees as the Care Team on a Boeing 757 from headquarters. Scott Stewart, managing director for corporate finance, managed emergency funding for passengers and credit cards for employees to buy any medicines, toiletries, or personal items that passengers needed.
Passengers were provided dry clothes, warm meals, and prepaid cell phones, as well as flights for family members and daily calls from counselors. Staffers escorted each passenger to a new flight or a local New York hotel. They also arranged train tickets and rental cars for those who didn't want to fly. As some people lost their driver's licenses, US Airways reached out to high-level executives at Hertz and Amtrak to make sure they had no trouble getting a rental or a train ticket. The airline also retained locksmiths to help passengers who had lost their keys get back into their cars and homes.
US Airways sent $5,000 checks over the weekend to each of the 150 passengers to help compensate for items left behind, with a letter explaining that their luggage and other belongings might have to stay with investigators for months. The airline also reimbursed passengers for their ticket costs. Although some passengers and the National Air Disaster Alliance & Foundation considered the amount not high enough, US Airways indicated it employed claims adjusters to compensate passengers whose losses were higher than $5,000. The company didn't require passengers receiving the compensation to waive their legal rights, which was seen as an exception to the industry norm. The company also sent follow-up letters offering the service of the Customer Care Team and information on retrieval of their belongings.
The publicity events around Fight 1549 continued as time goes on. In the following months the entire crew made media appearances in programs such as 60 Minutes, CNN, and the David Letterman Show. Sullenberger’s return to work later that year and his retirement in March 2010 made headlines again. The passengers and crew still hold reunions at the anniversaries of the landing. In 2016 the film Sully, starring Tom Hanks and directed by Clint Eastwood, was produced based on Sullenberger’s autobiography. Meanwhile James Olson was appointed by United Airlines as senior vice president of Corporate Communications.
Moral of the story
A Bloomberg Businessweek article praised the airline's care of Flight 1549's passengers as a model for crisis management. Public relations practitioners should learn that in an emergency situation, even when the news media was friendly, being in the spotlight makes it all the more important to follow ethical guidelines of public relations and address various aspects of the public’s concerns dutifully and conscientiously.
Fearn-Banks, K. (2016). “Transportation Crises.” In Crisis communications: A casebook approach. Routledge. 281-302.
Foust, D. (2009, Feb 19) “US Airways: After the ‘Miracle on the Hudson.’” Bloomberg Businessweek. Retrieved from https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2009-02-18/us-airways-after-the-miracle-on-the-hudson
McFadden, R. (2009, Jan 15) “Pilot Is Hailed After Jetliner’s Icy Plunge.” New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/16/nyregion/16crash.html