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Negotiating crisis in the social media environment: Evolution of crises online, gaining credibility offline

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Purpose – The aim of this paper is to examine how crises can be triggered online, how different social media tools escalate crises, and how issues gain credibility when they transit to mainstream media. Design/methodology/approach – This exploratory study uses the multiple case study method to analyze five crises, generated online, throughout their life-cycles, in order to build analytic generalizations (Yin). Findings – Crises are often triggered online when stakeholders are empowered by social media platforms to air their grievances. YouTube and Twitter have been used to raise issues through its large user base and the lack of gatekeeping. Facebook and blogs escalate crises beyond the immediate stakeholder groups. These crises are covered by mainstream media because of their newsworthiness. As a result, the crises gain credibility offline. Mainstream media coverage ceases when traditional news elements are no longer present. Research limitations/implications – If crises are increasingly generated online, this study aims to apply a framework to manage the impact on organizations. Practical implications – How practitioners can use different new media tools to counter crises online and manage the transition of crises to mainstream media. Originality/value – This is one of the first few studies that analyses how organizational crises originate online, gain traction and get escalated onto mainstream media. Understanding what causes crises to trigger online and gain legitimacy offline will enable practitioners to engage in effective crisis management strategies.
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Corporate Communications: An International Journal
Negotiating crisis in the social media environment: Evolution of crises online, gaining credibility offline
Augustine Pang Nasrath Begam Binte Abul Hassan Aaron Chee Yang Chong
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To cite this document:
Augustine Pang Nasrath Begam Binte Abul Hassan Aaron Chee Yang Chong , (2014),"Negotiating crisis in the social
media environment", Corporate Communications: An International Journal, Vol. 19 Iss 1 pp. 96 - 118
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Negotiating crisis in the social
media environment
Evolution of crises online, gaining credibility
offline
Augustine Pang, Nasrath Begam Binte Abul Hassan and
Aaron Chee Yang Chong
Nanyang Technological University, Wee Kim Wee School of
Communication and Information, Singapore, Singapore
Abstract
Purpose – The aim of this paper is to examine how crises can be triggered online, how different
social media tools escalate crises, and how issues gain credibility when they transit to mainstream
media.
Design/methodology/approach – This exploratory study uses the multiple case study method to
analyze five crises, generated online, throughout their life-cycles, in order to build analytic
generalizations (Yin).
Findings Crises are often triggered online when stakeholders are empowered by social media
platforms to air their grievances. YouTube and Twitter have been used to raise issues through its
large user base and the lack of gatekeeping. Facebook and blogs escalate crises beyond the immediate
stakeholder groups. These crises are covered by mainstream media because of their newsworthiness.
As a result, the crises gain credibility offline. Mainstream media coverage ceases when traditional
news elements are no longer present.
Research limitations/implications If crises are increasingly generated online, this study aims to
apply a framework to manage the impact on organizations.
Practical implications – How practitioners can use different new media tools to counter crises
online and manage the transition of crises to mainstream media.
Originality/value – This is one of the first few studies that analyses how organizational crises
originate online, gain traction and get escalated onto mainstream media. Understanding what causes
crises to trigger online and gain legitimacy offline will enable practitioners to engage in effective crisis
management strategies.
Keywords Case studies, Communication technologies, Crisis management,
Communication management, Media, Corporate communications
Paper type Research paper
Introduction
The advent of new media technology and prevalent usage of social media platforms
have transformed how organizations communicate with stakeholders (Christ, 2007).
The World Wide Web is arguably the first mass medium which allows uninterrupted
flow of information from source to receiver without any gatekeeping or filtering (White
and Raman, 1999). For crisis management, Siah et al. (2010, p. 143) noted the rise of
social media platforms as a “double-edged sword”. While it can be an effective crisis
management tool (DiNardo, 2002; Greer and Moreland, 2003; Hagar and
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at
www.emeraldinsight.com/1356-3289.htm
CCIJ
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96
Received 5 September 2012
Revised 6 May 2013
Accepted 16 May 2013
Corporate Communications: An
International Journal
Vol. 19 No. 1, 2014
pp. 96-118
qEmerald Group Publishing Limited
1356-3289
DOI 10.1108/CCIJ-09-2012-0064
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Haythornthwaite, 2005; Hughes et al., 2008; Palen et al., 2009), social media can also
serve as platforms where crises can be triggered.
Indeed, social media platforms are increasingly becoming breeding grounds for
organizational crises. In the last ten years, incidents of online crises reaching
mainstream media have seen a ten-fold increase (Owyang et al., 2011). McGrath (1997)
equates one year on the Internet to seven years in any other medium. The rapid
evolution of new media technology has seen crisis researchers calling for more research
into this burgeoning sphere (see Coombs, 2008).
The pervasiveness of social media has also changed the way mainstream media
operates and prioritizes news content. Increasingly, it is becoming more difficult for
mainstream media to ignore content originating from social media. The role the social
media played during the Boston bombings breaking news much of which
unsubstantiated had pressured the mainstream media in backpedal mode (Dowd,
2013; Eyal, 2013). Iran’s Twitter Revolution is another example where dissidents of the
government were able to communicate to the rest of the world through social media
even though the mainstream media were barred from reporting on the protests
(Valentini and Kruckerberg, 2011). The web-savvy population used Twitter, blogs,
mobile phones and other social network tools to spread news of the crisis.
Additionally, as stakeholders have the ability to petition organizations and share
their concerns publicly, social media tools have also generated another form of crisis
called the paracrisis (Coombs and Holladay, 2012). Paracrisis is defined as “a publicly
visible crisis threat that charges an organization with irresponsible or unethical
behavior” (p. 409). Coombs and Holladay (2012, p. 409) argued that the public nature of
using social media meant that “other stakeholders have the potential to observe the
petitioning” and “this petitioning of the organization is potentially public when it is
executed through social media”. This has enabled organizations and stakeholders to
communicate openly. This heightens the need for crisis managers to understand what
works across multiple media platforms. To effectively negotiate crises in social media
and respond with appropriate strategies, communication practitioners need to
understand, first, how crises are triggered online, how crises are escalated within the
social media environment and how crises gain credibility offline when reported in
mainstream media.
This paper examines five case studies of crises that originated online, gained
momentum on social media platforms before transiting onto mainstream media. It
analyses how crises are triggered and get aggravated online and how the crises gain
credibility when published in mainstream media. In so doing, it seeks to identify trends
and potentially mitigating measures to help practitioners negotiate crisis situations
better both online and offline. The significance of this paper is threefold. This is one of
the first few studies that analyses how organizational crises originate online, gain
traction and get escalated onto mainstream media. This study also identifies
compelling new media elements that gain the attention of mainstream media. Third, by
understanding what causes crises to trigger online and gain legitimacy offline, we aim
to propose a framework for practitioners to engage in effective crisis management
strategies.
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Literature review
Emergence of social media and crisis escalation in new media
New media technologies share at least three defining features: They are digital,
converging, and networked. Being digitalized means that multimedia information can
easily be shared, accessed, and interfaced with other “smart” devices and users, which
enables the public to interconnect regardless of geographical boundaries or time zones
(Goggin and Newell, 2003). User-generated content leads to increased consumer
participation and facilitates the free flow of opinions and the sharing of experiences
online (Wang and Owyang, 2010). This has leveled the playing field by shifting the
command controls of communication from organizations to consumers (Shapiro, 1999).
Information and conversations online are no longer controlled top-down by
governments, mainstream media, and organizations (George, 2012). Individuals
empowered by social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, and
blogs are able to take on giant corporations successfully (Bernoff and Li, 2008).
“Netizens”, “citizen journalists”, bloggers and social media influencers are emerging as
important stakeholders whom practitioners need to engage (Freberg et al., 2011).
Siah et al. (2010) argued that the rise of social media enabled crises to be escalated.
First, the Internet allows news to travel to a wider audience at an exponential rate. The
authors found that bad news could be spread rapidly, within minutes. Second, social
media have become diffused and people have adapted to it like fish to water. Content
could be downloaded and uploaded to other popular forums, spreading quickly
through blogs, e-mails and chat rooms by different people (Siah et al., 2010, p. 149).
Third, there are relatively low-entry barriers, and this has made it a very accessible to
all. Siah et al. (2010, p. 149) argued, “This explains why when the crises were reported
in online media, more people became aware of them and even helped perpetuate them
by circulating them further”. Thus, Siah et al. (2010, p. 143) found that the very
characteristics that make social media unique, such as user interactivity, multimedia
capability and lack of gatekeeping are “also its Achilles heel”. Social media offer
alternative sources of news and information. It could also lead to the spread of
inaccurate information, spoofs and “spin-offs” (Ho et al., 2011).
The types of crises that organizations face in this social media age can be any of
these posited by Hilse and Hoewner (1998):
.Reinforcing crisis: used as an additional channel to present stakeholder opinions.
.Absurd crisis: rumors or absurd theories and opinions about a topic or
organization.
.Affecting crisis: when organizations are critically scrutinized by stakeholders
and they become the subject of public discussion with negative impact.
.Competence crisis: this can be characterized by a difference in competences
between the stakeholder and the organization. This blows over online with online
experts joining in the discussion.
As the crises gain momentum online, it becomes hyped up (Pang, 2013). Arguably,
social media hype, defined as netizen-generated hype that causes a huge interest in the
social media spheres, triggered by a key event and sustained by the self-reinforcing
quality in its ability for users to engage in discussion, exists even before news evolves
into media hype (Pang, 2013). Media hype is defined as a “media-generated,
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wall-to-wall news wave, triggered by one specific event and enlarged by the
self-reinforcing processes within the news production of the media” (Vasterman, 2005,
p. 515). Thus, this study seeks to examine:
RQ1. How do organizational crises originate online and how do they get escalated
within social media?
Sourcing stories from social media by mainstream media
Given that social media can break news stories before traditional media, in many cases,
they provide the platform for mainstream media to follow suit.
Journalism in the social media age has been described as one that relies heavily on
information technology, interactive and adheres to an unforgiving 24/7 news cycle
(Beckett and Mansell, 2008; Boczkowski, 2004; Deuze, 2003). The news-gathering
process has also shifted from a linear to a networked process whereby there is constant
communication and interaction with sources and reactors. Jenkins (2006, p. 3) described
the emergence of a participatory culture in journalism where content producers and
media audiences have moved from occupying distinct separate roles to being
“participants who interact with each other according to a new set of rules that none of
us [yet] fully understand”. The internet has empowered audiences by providing them
with new and additional avenues of generating information (Kiesow, 2010; Skoler,
2009; Sonderman, 2012).
Skoler (2009, p. 39) argued that journalists now needed to use social media platforms
to “establish relationship[s] and listen to others”. Poindexter (2012, p. 27) listed the
dimensions where the new generation consumes news: accessibility, perpetual
updating, search-ability, share-ability, link ease and reliability, comment-ability,
contribute-ability, and coolness, amongst others. Mainstream media has also begun
emphasizing content that is sourced from social media platforms to show that it is
keeping up with the times. Kristensen and Mortensen (2013) found amateurs breaking
stories during war that were eventually used by the media. During the Iranian street
protests that followed elections there in 2009, Newman (2009) observed that
mainstream media emphasized information that emerged from social media and
monitored the flurry of activities on Twitter, Facebook, and the blogosphere. Even
though censorship was widespread during the protests, social media tools enabled
information to flow freely, changing the way news makers and news producers
communicate and interact (Valentini and Kruckerberg, 2011). Another study of the
2009 Iranian elections found that social media as a newsgathering tool was used either
as a source (21 percent), a topic (27 percent), a mention (44 percent), or topic and source
(8 percent) (Knight, 2012).
Jordaan’s (2013, p. 29) studies of two South African weeklies found that journalists
that actively used social media to “keep abreast of general trends in the news and in
society”, as well as the “realities created by their audiences” ( Jordaan, 2013, p. 30).
Broersma and Graham (2012) found that journalists used social media like Twitter to
obtain information about stories. “Social networks can be regarded as huge pools of
‘collective intelligence’... [J]ournalists can use this ‘wisdom of the crowd’ to gather
information quickly ...” (Broersma and Graham, 2012, p. 404). Some journalists,
Broersma and Graham (2012, p. 405) further argued, had turned covering the social
media as a “beat” where journalists become part of the network for the purposes of
sourcing stories. A Global Digital Journalism Study 2012 found increasing evidence
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that journalists are treating social media channels as sources of news. Globally, more
than half (54 percent) of journalists surveyed used microblogging updates, and
44 percent accessed blogs they already knew to sources for stories (Oriella PR Network,
2012). Lariscy et al. (2009) found that business journalists could use social media for
surveillance or investigate a rumor or negative news story.
Mainstream media’s coverage of stories from social media
However, mainstream media do not always follow the agenda that was discussed in the
social media. In a study conducted by Silver (2011) on the Occupy Wall Street protests,
it was found that while social media space had accorded consistent coverage
throughout the duration of the protests, most mainstream media outlets, in fact,
ignored the event. Coverage intensified after the protestors had clashed with the police.
A study conducted by Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism
found that only 2 percent of tweets from news consumers were used to attain
information regarding a story or gain feedback (Holcomb and Mitchell, 2011). Thus,
while mainstream media continue to monitor social media content, arguably, coverage
appeared to be largely dependent on the proscribed set of journalistic values and
newsworthiness. George (2012, p. 179) argued that professional journalists’ advantage
is their “discipline of verifying information with multiple sources, institutional memory
to sense when things are more complex that they seem, and higher order judgment
honed by experience and specialized beat knowledge”. US President Barack Obama,
when commenting on the proliferation of information online surrounding the Boston
bombing in 2013, reminded the mainstream media of its responsibilities. “In this age of
instant reporting and tweets and blogs, there’s a temptation to latch on to any bit of
information. But when a tragedy like this happens, with public safety at risk and
stakes so high, it’s important that we do this right. That’s why we have investigations.
That’s why we relentlessly gather the facts” (Brady, 2013).
The question, thus, for journalists is credibility of the news accessed through social
media, particularly from sources they are not familiar with. However, if they find
sufficient reason to report on stories first surfaced in social media, like in times of crises
where people engage in attributing responsibility and causes spontaneously and
intensively (Schwartz, 2012), the stories would gain traction as credible once they are
subjected to journalistic rigor and scrutiny. Lariscy et al. (2009, p. 316) found that even
though social media does not set the agenda for coverage in mainstream media,
journalists “do not appear opposed to it”. This study, thus, examines,
RQ2. How did the crises gain credibility when reported in mainstream media and
how did the mainstream media cover the issues differently?
How do organizations manage new media crises?
Several approaches have been offered at the contextual level. Jin and Liu (2010)
developed the blog-mediated crisis communication model to help communication
professionals monitor the blogosphere and respond to influential bloggers. Austin et al.
(2012) proposed the social-mediated crisis communication model to understand how
audiences use social media during crises, mainly to get insider information and
connecting with friends and relatives. There were also studies that examined the use of
different social media tools. For instance, Waters et al. (2009) examined how non-profit
organizations used Facebook to engage stakeholders. Briones et al. (2011) examined
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how the American Red Cross used different social media tools to build relationships.
Gonzalez-Herrero and Smith’s (2008) model provided a framework to combat online
threats. This model extrapolated potential online threats on a crisis life cycle from
issues management and strategic planning to crisis communication and post-crisis
management. Siah et al. (2010) extended Gonzalez-Herrero and Smith’s (2008) model by
integrating it with the contingency theory of strategic conflict management (Pang et al.,
2010) and Wilcox and Cameron’s (2009) conflict life cycle to develop the new media
crisis communication model. Consistently, scholars have argued that social media
needed to be incorporated into crisis planning and response (see Palenchar and Veil,
2011).
Beyond the contextual level, organizations can employ a variety of textual devices
to respond. The image repair theory is one. Described as the “dominant paradigm for
examining corporate communication in times of crises” (Dardis and Haigh, 2009,
p. 101), the theory has been applied to analyse how organizations repair its image
during a crisis. It is divided into five major typologies (Benoit and Pang, 2008).
(1) Denial has two variants: simple denial or shifting the blame to another party.
(2) Evasion of responsibility: The second major typology is evasion of
responsibility. The first variant is provocation, where one reacts by
responding it was egged on to do so. The second is defeasibility, when one
argues one does not have enough information and control. The third is accident,
where one argues that the crisis happened unintentionally. Last is good
intention, where one argues that the offensive act was done with good
intentions.
(3) Reducing offensiveness. The third major typology is reducing offensiveness.
One can do so by bolstering, which seeks to highlight one’s positive traits.
Minimization strategies can also be used to reduce the severity of the situation.
Differentiation strategies seek to reduce offensiveness by suggesting that the
act was less offensive than perceived. Transcendence strategies seek to place
the situation at a higher level, with more important concerns. Attacking the
accuser seeks to reduce the credibility of the accusations. Compensation
strategy is where those responsible decide to offer something of value to the
victims.
(4) Corrective action. The fourth typology aims to reassure stakeholders that such
crisis situations would not reoccur.
(5) Mortification. The final typology is when one admits its mistake and seeks
forgiveness.
Both the contextual and textual approaches, however, do not shed light on how crises
are transit from social media to mainstream media and back to social media and how
organizations can manage this. A veteran journalist commented, “The thing is, in the
digital age, nothing dies. The MSM (mainstream media) may decide to ‘end’ public
discussion but online, news will surface and old news rehashed and sometimes passed
off as new” (Henson, 2013). Thus, this study examines:
RQ3. How did organizations respond and what was the impact to the respective
organizations’ reputation?
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Method
The purpose of case studies is to empirically investigate a “contemporary phenomenon
within its real-life context” and address a “situation in which the boundaries between
phenomenon and context are not clearly evident” (Yin, 1993, p. 59). Wimmer and
Dominick (1997) asserted that case studies are time-tested means of evaluating
business practices. For this exploratory study, we employ the multiple case study
method as this approach allows detailed documentation of a relatively new
phenomenon. This method is most suitable for research questions that require
detailed understanding of social and organizational processes because of the rich data
collected in context (Hartley, 2004). Case studies generally include multiple methods
such as participant observation, focus groups and documentary analysis. For this
research, the cases are analyzed in detail through detailed documentary analysis.
Data collection: the cases
The five cases studied were the crises facing Dell (2005); Domino’s (NBC, 2009), United
(2009), Southwest Airlines, and Singapore politician Grace Fu (see the Appendix for
full description of each crisis).
Data analysis
Following the case study selection, we collected and analyzed four sets of data. The
first three sets of data were used to qualitatively track the life cycle of each crisis and
organizational response. The fourth set of data was used to examine the long term
impact of the crises on the respective organizations after they were blown over.
Data set 1: Internet documents such as blog postings, Facebook comments, Twitter
updates, and YouTube videos were searched online. Documentation by journalists,
commentators, and bloggers online with screen shots of the original Twitter and
Facebook posts were available for analysis. On average, there were between 10 and
15 original social media posts and between 15 and 20 news articles per case available
online. This set of data was used to track the life cycle of the crises, i.e. the trigger
event, public reaction, transition to mainstream media and back. The overall tone of
postings and updates on social media helped to gauge public sentiments.
Data set 2: News reports from major news publications and news agencies on the
crises were sourced from the Factiva database. News sources were limited to
English-language newspapers, and the duration limited to a period of six months after
the first news article was published. News coverage was generally localized in nature
as media operating closest to the incident area were the first to cover the news and they
covered it prominently compared to wire agencies. For instance, for the Singapore
politician case, the Singapore English daily and newspaper of record (Cheong, 2013),
The Straits Times, was accessed.
The objective was to track the follow-up coverage and other related news after the
crisis subsided. This data was used to analyze mainstream media coverage of
the crises. The data was categorized into prominent news elements, the portrayal of the
affected parties and how much information was taken off social media by
the mainstream media.
Data set 3: Online posts, press announcements and documents that originated from
the organization or individuals involved. Organizational response was used to analyze
the actions and stances taken by the organizations and individuals involved in the
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crises. Both online and offline documents, i.e. what was discussed on social media
platforms and the mainstream media, were reviewed to better understand the
organizational constraints and the effects of the crises communication strategies.
Data set 4: These were financial statements and annual reports on the respective
organizations to examine how the crises had impacted the organizations and what
lessons the organizations learnt from the crises. Analyses were done on the annual
revenue figures of the organizations in the year before, the year during the crisis and
the year(s) after, to evaluate if the social media crisis had a significant adverse financial
impact.
Data analysis
The data analysis for data sets 1 to 3 was conducted according to Lincoln and Guba’s
(1985) constant comparative method for inductive data analysis. According to Glazer
and Strauss (1967) the constant comparative method follows four distinct stages:
(1) comparing incidents in each category;
(2) integrating the categories;
(3) delimiting the theory and
(4) writing the theory.
This method combines the categorization of the themes with a “simultaneous
comparison of all social incidents observed,” (Goetz and LeCompte, 1981, p. 58). As the
data is recorded and classified into themes, they are also compared across all the
categories (Dye et al., 2000).
The data was analyzed according to the following steps, based on Dye et al’s (2000)
stages: First, a unitizing process was carried out by noting each statement,
counter-statements and organizational responses available in the documents collected;
second, statements and responses alluding to similar observations were noted and
grouped together; third, the data was constantly refined and integrated to identify
consistent observations pertaining to each research question and four, the process was
repeated until no new patterns or themes were identified. The findings were then
presented according to the observations that emerged. The data was constantly
compared against the already established generic observations. For instance, when the
Singapore politician posted her post on Facebook, it went viral with many netizens
commenting against her views and some in support. The comments across Facebook
Twitter and blogs were analyzed in batches to identify common themes. The
comments and posts were categorized as behavior of a politician, disconnect with
ground sentiments, portraying an elitist mentality and a relatively smaller number of
supportive comments. Likewise, the same process was applied when analyzing news
articles for inherent news values for coverage.
To analyze organizational response, textual analysis, which has been the prevalent
and primary method of analysis in image repair studies, was used (Benoit, 2000). Data
set 4 was accessed to understand the impact of the crises on each organization. From
the financial reports, there was no conclusive evidence over the financial impact that
the respective social media crises had on the various organizations. Organizations also
did not report the specifics of the crises in their annual reports. However, for Dell and
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Domino’s, there were evidences within the annual reports which suggested that the
crises may have some impact on their general management strategies.
Findings and discussion
The first research question examined how did organizational crises originate online
and how did they get escalated within social media.
Dissonance shared virally, resonance with negative experiences
The crises were triggered and escalated by new media’s power to reach a large
population within a short span of time (Siah et al., 2010). As with social media
platforms, sharing of user-generated content via YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and
blogs, enabled and empowered more people with the capacity to demonstrate their
unhappiness with the organization, and create organizational crises. Video content
tended to have a higher and faster reach compared to text-based postings and updates.
For instance, in the crisis facing Domino’s, the two rogue workers at a Domino’s Pizza
unit – Kristy Lynn Hammonds and Michael Anthony Setzer – in North Carolina
filmed themselves putting cheese in their nose and other stomach-turning acts with
food that were to be delivered to customers, and then posted it on YouTube in April
2009. In a single day after the video was uploaded, the video went viral and received
760,000 views (York, 2009). Even though the original video was removed, numerous
reproductions have been made and were still circulating years after the incident
happened (ebonygentleman79, 2009). Social networking platforms such as Twitter and
Facebook were instrumental in it going viral beyond the initial YouTube audience and
aggravating the crisis. Numerous reproductions of the same video made by both
individuals and news organizations were uploaded on YouTube, adding to the search
list under the term “Dirty Dominoes”. For example, someone used the original video
andeditedintoacliptitled“HowtogetfiredfromDominosPizza
(www.youtube.com/watch?v ¼1D9PikBzNNo). Similarly, in the crisis facing United,
Dave Carroll’s video for the song “United Breaks Guitars’” was posted on the popular
file-sharing site Monday night and had received more than 600,000 hits by Thursday
evening (“United Breaks Guitar Surpasses 3 Million views in 10 day”, Mashable, 2009).
He also received thousands of emails and a flood of friend requests on Facebook that
boosted his popularity online and offline. The spoof music video garnered more than
three million hits in ten days (Mashable, 2009). The song “United Breaks Guitars” went
on to be one of 2009’s YouTube hits and has garnered more than seven million hits
even after the crisis blew over (“United Loses Millions on Social Media”, Social Media
Risk, 2010).
By and large, the accusations against the organization/individual initially stemmed
from netizens’ subjective views. However, if the accusation that was circulated online
resonated with pre-existing negative experiences with the organization/individual
experienced by other stakeholders or if it reinforced a pre-existing negative view held
of the organization, it was more likely to be shared and escalated. Even if other
stakeholders do not believe in the accusations, the issues could get viral if there is a
significant novelty factor, such as in cases which involve celebrities, or if there are
human interest elements in the content of in the delivery of the message. For instance,
in the crisis facing Dell, the crisis was escalated through Jarvis’ blog,
Buzzmachine.com, which, at one point, received close to 10,000 visits a day
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(Leonard, 2006). Jarvis’ first post on 21 June 2005 received about 250 comments, all of
which were written by other consumers who had been on the receiving end of Dell’s
customer service. His third post started with: “Well my Dell hell continues ....” which
made the term “Dell Hell” synonymous with Jarvis’ encounter with Dell ( Jarvis, 2005b).
His subsequent posts about his exchanges with Dell received hundreds of responses,
and averaged between 200 and 400 comments per post. On 11 July 2005, Jarvis posted
his final Dell Hell rant ( Jarvis, 2005a). Discussion about Dell’s poor customer service
continued throughout the summer of 2005 when mainstream media published the
story.
Similarly, in the crisis facing Southwest Airlines, after Hollywood movie producer
Kevin Smith was sent off the flight as he did not fulfill the policy where passengers
who could not fit safely and comfortably in one seat with armrests down had to
purchase an additional seat (“Kevin Smith too fat to fly”, Economist, 2010), Smith went
on a rampage of tweets about his negative experience to his more than 1.6 million
followers on his twitter account (“Too fat to fly. The Kevin Smith situation”,
Economist, 2010). Facebook comments, postings and links to Smith’s tweets further
aggravated the crisis by spreading the word beyond his fan base instigated debate on
the blogosphere regarding the “customer of size” policy (McEwan, 2010). The crisis
involving the Singapore politician was triggered when Grace Fu’s Facebook posting
drew instant criticism online and went viral as netizens started sharing and
commenting on the posting on Facebook, blogs and microblog sites. Within a single
day, her posting drew more than a thousand comments on her facebook account
mainly criticisms (Hoe, 2012). A dedicated microblog site was created on Tumblr http://
whenimadethedecision.tumblr.com/ to post the best memes, where the term “Fu-isms”
was coined. Her status update was also reposted by several prominent bloggers. Table I
sums up how the crises were triggered and escalated online.
The second research question examined how did the crises gain credibility when
reported in mainstream media and how did the mainstream media cover the issues
differently?
Cases
Where crisis
originated? Where it escalated?
How fast did it
escalate?
Why did it
escalate?
Dell l Blogs Discussion forums Over a period of
20 days
Resonance with
negative experience
Domino’s Youtube Blogs, twitter,
Facebook
1 day Visual impact,
numerous
reproductions of
video
United Youtube Blogs, twitter,
Facebook
3 days Audio visual
Southwest
Airlines
Twitter Facebook, blogs 1 day Celebrity, visual
impact
Singapore
politician
Facebook Twitter, blogs 1 day Public figure,
dissonance with
views
Table I.
How crises originated
and escalated on social
media
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Mainstream media coverage restricted, based on newsworthiness criteria
Coverage on the mainstream media appeared generally more objective and balanced
and they were usually triggered by the inherent news elements rather than the issues
that were being raised on social media. These were dependent on news elements, such
as novelty (United), celebrity factor (Southwest Airlines), impact on society at large
(Singapore politician), human interest (Dell), relevance to public (Domino’s) and
regulations (Domino’s). The mainstream media, as an agenda setter, presented public
issues of concern for public debate food safety and employment guidelines
(Domino’s), ministerial salary review (Singapore politician), consumer protection
(United and Dell) and discrimination (Southwest Airlines). They did not report on
personal vendettas that social media can veer towards. They also appeared to monitor
developments online before plunging into the story.
For instance, in the crisis facing Dell, the mainstream media covered the crisis about
a month after Jarvis posted his first rant (“Dell in dust up over online support”, Dell,
2007). In the interim, there were some online media reports on smaller, online web news
portals that mainly linked bloggers ( Jarvis, 2005a). About three weeks after Jarvis’s
first Dell rant, Dell shut down its customer care board on its community forum.
Another incident that interested the mainstream media was Jarvis’s email to one of
Dell’s senior executives and his open letter dated 17 August to Michael Dell and Dell
CMO Michael George, in which he lamented their lack of response and offered
suggestions on how Dell could better interact with bloggers. The mainstream media,
including BusinessWeek, Fast Company, ZDNet, PC World, and the Houston
Chronicle, covered the story factually and focused on the conflict between Jarvis and
Dell as well as how this conflict resulted in a tangible drop in sales for Dell. For
example, Business Week described this saga as a sign of the company’s troubles and
attributed the disappointing revenue and falling stock prices to the declining levels of
customer satisfaction (Lee, 2005). Similarly, in the crisis facing Domino’s, the
mainstream media started reporting on the incident after the two employees were fired
and charges were officially filed (Crowe, 2009). The mainstream media’s coverage
focused on the charges that were filed against the two errant employees and their
respective backgrounds, not the discriminatory video. Coverage also focused on one of
the offenders being a former registered sex offender. NBC News’ coverage, for example,
was in favor of the Domino’s by focusing on the immediate response made by
Domino’s. At the same time, they also emphasized that none of the food depicted in the
video was actually delivered (“Dirty Domino’s workers charged for prank, NBC, 2009).
Subsequent follow-up news coverage focused more on issues such as the recruitment
policies of organizations and the general impact of social media.In the crisis facing
United, the first news report appeared on 9 July 2009, three days after the music video
was first uploaded on 6 July 2009. The coverage in the mainstream media focused
primarily on the unprecedented success of the video and exploited the human interest
element of using music to get messages across. For example, the Guardian newspaper
called it Carroll’s “biggest hit” ever (“Singer gets his revenge on United Airlines and
soars to fame”, Guardian, 2009). United was portrayed as an inefficient operator who
did not have the ability to ensure a safe passage for Carroll’s guitar. The Guardian
news article further highlighted that United “could have spared itself this public
relations humiliation if it had followed its own policy on customer service” (“Singer
gets his revenge on United Airlines and soars to fame”, Guardian, 2009).
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In the crisis facing Southwest Airline, even though the mainstream media covered
the story a day after Smith’s twitter updates (“Kevin Smith too fat to fly”,Economist,
2010), its initial focus was on the personality involved. Subsequently, it discussed the
validity of the existing flight policy. For example, ABC News discussed the issue of
discrimination against larger sized customers and quoted views from air travel experts
(“Kevin Smith too fat to fly”, Economist, 2010). The coverage tapered off after two
weeks, but references to the Kevin Smith case continued to be made in reports after
similar incidents on the same issue emerged later.
In turn, the organizations and the individuals involved were asked for their
response to counter what was said online and to state their positions clearly. Pang (in
press) argued that the information vacuum created allowed other stakeholders the
opportunity to frame the issues separately. Issues can gain traction in the mainstream
media if a suitable or prompt response was not taken to contest the accusation online or
if the response to the issue was not sufficient to reduce the dissonance or negative
experience experienced by stakeholders to the issue. For instance, in the crisis facing
the Singapore politician, Fu’s original Facebook post was posted at 9:41 pm on 4
January 2012. She clarified her comments about 20 hours later at 5.15 pm on 5 January
2012 (Wong, 2012). Following the online furore from her first post, the mainstream
media covered the event first as a side comment on 5 January 2012 with the ministerial
pay issue, and then covered the online comments that were made on 6 January 2012 as
an individual report. The Singapore national daily, The Straits Times, ran the headline
“Ministers salary review: Online sparks over Facebook postings” (http://sglinks.com/
pages/2387117-online-sparks-grace-fu-s-facebook-posting), while tabloid, The New
Paper used the headline “Grace Fu’s comments upset some netizens”
(www.asiaone.com/News/Latest%2BNews/Singapore/Story/A1Story20120106-320
317/4.html). While the mainstream media’s coverage of this crisis died down after first
two days, subsequent commentaries – online and offline – published regarding the
ministerial pay issues and never failed to mention the Grace Fu episode. By 15 January,
there were no new headlines on the criticism, but the criticism continued online, albeit
without the original gusto.
Once the newsworthiness of the crisis faded, the mainstream media lost interest and
coverage tapered off even as they transited back to cybersphere. However, the
mainstream media may make references to the same crises should a similar issue
resurface later. Reference to past crises when reporting current crisis is a form of
context setting (Fearn-Banks, 2011). Table II sums up the findings.
Figure 1 illustrates how crisis transits from social media to mainstream and back to
social media.
The third research question examined how did the organizations respond in each of
these crises and what was the impact to organizational reputation. To ensure easier
reading, the image repair strategies used are highlighted in italics. To answer this
question, we examine each case first and draw inferences from all the cases.
Reduce offensiveness with mitigating responses
Crisis facing Dell. Dell remained silent throughout Jarvis’ rants. Dell’s policy was to
observe what went on but took a hands-off approach with regards to engagement
online. Experts commented that Dell did not take blogging seriously then because it
considered the blogosphere to be a fairly new medium. This further outraged the
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bloggers because they claimed that Dell was not “listening” to the conversation online
or reacting to customers’ dissatisfaction. About two months after Jarvis’ first rant, a
Dell public relations representative called Jarvis to talk about his Dell experience and
company policies, but failed to engage unhappy customers online. As a result, Dell’s
reputation began to plummet.
In subsequent years, even though figures showed Dell’s revenue climbed in
subsequent years after the crisis, from US$49,205 million in 2005 to US$55,908 million
(þ14 percent) in 2006, US$57,420 million (þ3 percent) in 2007 and US$61,133 million
(þ6 percent) in 2008 (Dell fiscal in review, 2004-2008), the organization alluded to the
need to prevent crisis like the one it experienced from happening. In its annual report in
2006, it wrote, “We improved Dell’s overall customer experience considerably in fiscal
2006, including a decline in the rate of service contacts measured against systems
under warranty. We enhanced products and services, reduced organizational
complexity and made substantial investments in capacity, technology and people
from new customer contact centers and an innovative remote software tool called
TechConnect to 2,500 additional Dell on Call service professionals ...” (Dell, 2007, p. 3).
In 2007, it wrote, “We have re-examined our entire design process to improve our
speed-to-market so that we can get the products that customers want in their hands
Cases
Why was it an issue in
social media?
Why did mainstream media
cover it (newsworthiness)?
Estimated length of time
mainstream media covered it
Dell Resonance with negative
experience
Conflict, drop in sales,
emergence of social media
1 month
Domino’s Outrageous behaviour,
issue of food safety
Crime, conflict, food safety 1 week
United Customer dissatisfaction Novelty, success of viral
video
1 week
Southwest
Airlines
Unhappiness with seat;
discriminatory treatment
Human interest: Hollywood
director
1 week
Singapore
politician
Public figure, dissonance
with public sentiments
Currency, celebrity 2-3 days
Table II.
How crises gained
credibility through
mainstream media
Figure 1.
Crisis life cycle social
media and mainstream
media
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even more quickly than we do today... The most critical test with customers, however,
is finding better ways to respond to them when they need help. Customer service and
support teams are the key to resolving customer issues the first time. We have added
thousands of new support team members in all regions, trained them to fix a broader
range of complex issues ...” (Chairman and CEO Michael Dell’s annual letter to
customers, partners, shareholders and colleagues, Dell, 2007).
In 2012, seven years later, Dell has emerged as one of the pioneers of online
engagement, a classic case of how one can learn from crisis (Ulmer et al., 2007) where
processes are reviewed and new competitive procedures are introduced. This incident
has become a classic example to quote and take cues from when analyzing the impact
of new media on businesses.
Crisis facing Domino’s. Domino’s responded about 48 hours later. The videos were
posted on Monday night; a response didn’t come from the company until Wednesday.
While its internal team worked quickly to form a strategy on Tuesday, its initial
response was to try not to unnecessarily draw attention to the video because it didn’t
want to alert more people to the crisis. It did eventually open a Twitter account to deal
with consumer inquiries and then made an apology through YouTube. However, the
damage was already done. In a research conducted later found that 65 percent of
respondents who would previously visit or order Domino’s Pizza were less likely to do
so after viewing the offending video (Flandez, 2009).
In subsequent years, even though Domino’s earned revenue of US$87.9 million in
2010, a 10.3 percent increase over its 2009’s US$79.7 million, Domino’s appeared to
recognize its mistake and sought to make amends. The Chairman and CEO David
A. Brandon wrote, “...We were honest and transparent with our consumers. We
admitted that we had disappointed some consumers in the past with our pizza quality
and we took this issue seriously. Having been known for service and value for nearly
50 years, we are now going to be known for great pizza, too. This news not only pushed
our domestic sales solidly into positive territory, it starts a new chapter for our brand
as we begin 2010 ...” (“To our shareholders”, 2009, p. 7).
Crisis facing United. United initially chose to ignore Carroll’s claim to replace his
broken guitar, but just two days after the video was posted and went viral, they
engaged in the image repair strategy of reducing offensiveness offered to compensate
him for it. In terms of reputational impact, the video was viewed by more than 6 million
people by the end of 2009 and currently has more than 11 million views. This means
that the negative associations to United Airlines continue to grow on the social media
platforms.
However, the crisis did not seem to have much impact on United. In the subsequent
year, 2010, its revenue continue its climb, from US$651 million in 2009, an increase of
87.8 percent over 2008, to US$253 million (þ139 percent) in 2010 (Form 10-K, 2010).
Crisis facing Southwest Airlines. Southwest Airlines engaged the strategy of
mortification and issued an apology to Kevin Smith via Twitter and its website, which
was titled “Not So Silent Bob”, a jovial jab at the Silent Bob character that Smith played
in his films. The statement read: “We would like to echo our tweets and again offer our
heartfelt apologies to you... Our pilots... made the determination that Mr. Smith
needed more than one seat to complete the flight” (McNeill, 2010). The apology was
accompanied by the strategy of reducing offensiveness where the organization offered
the director a $100 voucher and that it would accommodate him on a later flight.
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Compared to the rest of the crises, the reputation damage was marginal as the crisis
evolved around an existing policy which Smith was very well aware and familiar with
as he had experience purchasing two seats to travel.
Even though Southwest suffered a 61 percent drop in revenue in 2011 (from
US$459 million to US$178 million), evidence was not conclusive that it was because of
this crisis.
Crisis facing Singapore politician. The online furore over the original post led Fu to
clarify her views. She employed the strategy of reducing offensiveness through
bolstering.
“Thank you all for your candid views. I respect all of them. I realize my last posting
could have been misunderstood. The committee has done a thorough job with a
substantial recommendation over a fairly emotive topic. I accept and respect the
recommendation” (Wong, 2012). Aside from the clarification made on Facebook, Fu did
not make any further responses. The crisis did not seem to impact Ms Fu. Months later,
she was promoted to full Minister, the second female to be made minister in
Singapore’s history (Lim, 2012).
What we can infer: Damage to reputation can be mitigated if a prompt response is
enacted on the same social media platforms that had escalated the issue, mainly
through reducing offensiveness. While a timely response strategy may not stop issues
from being escalated onto the mainstream media, it presents an opportunity for the
mainstream media to report this as objectively as it should, thus minimizing the impact
to reputation. Issues may continue to fester on the social media even after mainstream
media cease coverage if stakeholders are not satisfied with the position taken by the
organization. However, the issue may die a natural death if stakeholders are satisfied
with the organization’s response.
Given these findings, the critical question remains: What can practitioners do in
response to similar crisis situations? We integrate insights from recent research with
the New Media Crisis Communications Model posited by Siah et al. (2010) and indicate
the key ideas at each phase (see Figure 2).
Issues management phase
.Identify the stakeholders, opinion leaders, and relevant social media platforms.
.Identify key social media influencers (SMIs) who are independent third party
endorsements that can shape audience attitudes through new media (Freberg
et al., 2011).
.Integrate social media platforms into organizational stakeholders’ management
plans (Gonzalez-Herrero and Smith, 2008; Palenchar and Veil, 2011; Siah et al.,
2010).
.Understand how to effectively use the tools that are available to them (DiStaso
et al., 2011; Lovejoy et al., 2012).
.Engage in dialogic communication with stakeholders ( Jin and Liu, 2010; Waters
et al., 2009).
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Planning and prevention phase
.Develop a risk matrix to prioritize crisis threats. Coombs and Holladay (2012,
p. 408) argued that “crisis prevention is the ‘alpha’ or starting point of crisis
management and crisis communications”.
.Diagnose if crisis is paracrisis (Coombs and Holladay, 2012) or a real crisis. This
can be done by assessing a collage of factors: the likely magnitude, attribution of
responsibility, nature of the stakeholders, urgency of the threat, impact on
business, and opportunity to influence (Coombs, 2010; Pang et al., 2010; Wilcox
and Cameron, 2009).
.Understand the potential impact by asking these questions: News value – Are
there inherent news values in the crisis to trigger coverage in the mainstream
media? Resonance is this a longstanding issue with stakeholders? Are the
dominant group of stakeholders likely to agree with the issues that are surfaced?
Moral high ground Does the organization have an acceptable response to the
issue? Are the dominant stakeholders likely to support this?
Crisis phase
.Embark on media relations efforts online and offline (Pang, 2010).
Figure 2.
New media crisis
communication model
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.When the crisis develops online, Coombs and Holladay (2012) recommended the
following three guidelines: One, be where the action is; two, be there before the
paracrisis appears; three, be redundant and sprawl (cast a wide net).
Post crisis phase
Even after mainstream media has lost interest in a crisis, conversations do continue
online. To ensure offending materials on cyberspace become less easily available to
netizens, organizations can generate positive news and web links to counter the
once-discriminatory terms on search engine. They can do this by creatively manipulate
key search terms to generate positive news reports, blog postings or articles.
Conclusion
This study has examined how crises can be triggered online, how different social
media tools escalate crises, and how issues become legitimized when they transit to
mainstream media. From the five case studies, we observe that conventional news
values still continue to guide news coverage in the mainstream media, such as celebrity
factor (Southwest Airlines and Singapore politician), human interest and conflict
(Domino’s Pizza) policies (Domino’s Pizza, Southwest Airlines), novelty (United) and
massive customer dissatisfaction (Dell and United). While new media has empowered
stakeholders with new tools and platforms to air their grievances, these incidents will
transit onto mainstream media only if they are able to fulfill the inherent
newsworthiness criteria of the newsroom. If we use the United crisis as an
illustration, United would have saved itself much headache and heartache if it had been
responsive to Dave Carroll’s request in the first place.
The axiom, the best way to manage a crisis is to prevent one, rings ever so true in
this era where organizations can be so empowered when embracing technology to
reach out to stakeholders, yet can be rendered disempowered when it does not
sufficiently harness the very tools available to them.
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Appendix. The cases
Dell (2005). In June 2005, popular blogger Jeff Jarvis posted a series of rants on his weblog at
Buzzmachine.com where he complained about Dell’s poor customer service. His “Dell Hell”
postings sparked off similar rants and blog posts from similarly affected customers. At the
height of the crisis, searching “Dell hell” in Google returned more than 2.4 million results, and
“Dell sucks” returned almost 1.3 million results.
Domino’s (2009). Two Domino’s Pizza employees uploaded a video on YouTube showing
them assembling sandwiches in the most unhygienic manner before delivering them to
customers. The video went viral and was viewed more than a million times within a few days
and caused Domino’s massive reputation damage.
United (2009). United Airlines passenger Dave Carroll had his Taylor guitar destroyed by
the airline’s baggage handlers during a flight. After United Airlines repeatedly declined to
reimburse him for the damage, he wrote a now-famous song which he uploaded on YouTube
decrying their customer service which ultimately dented its sales figures.
Southwest Airlines (2010). Southwest Air’s “customer of size” policy received a high-profile
roasting when the airline targeted Hollywood director Kevin Smith. In response, he sent a series
of exasperated Tweets claiming that he was kicked off a flight for being “too fat”.
Singapore politician (2012). In response to an ongoing debate over high ministerial salary in
Singapore, Grace Fu, a former corporate chief turned politician, expressed her concerns over
salary reduction on her Facebook page and how that might deter talented corporate honchos who
would have to give up their huge pay packets to enter politics. Her post became viral and sparked
criticism among netizens. Thousands of people reposted the post, creating an Internet meme that
began with “When I made the decision to ...
Corresponding author
Augustine Pang can be contacted at: Augustine.Pang@ntu.edu.sg
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Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to examine the Telenor customer complaints crisis triggered on the company Facebook site in August 2012. More specifically, the paper focusses on how friends and enemies of a company interact, and how faith-holders serve as crisis communicators in a rhetorical sub-arena that opens up on Facebook. Design/methodology/approach – The study is based on a textual analysis of 4,368 posts from the Telenor Facebook site, and an interview with the senior digital manager of Telenor. Findings – Not only current and previous customers but also those from rival telephone companies were active in the Facebook sub-arena. The customers complaining about the company services were met not only with the response of Telenor, but also with counter-attacks from faith-holders acting in defense of Telenor. However, these faith-holders were using defensive response strategies, while Telenor used accommodative strategies. Research limitations/implications – Organizational crises need to be seen as a complex set of communication processes, including the many voices that start communicating from different positions, and taking into account not only the response strategies of the organization but also the response strategies applied by supportive emotional stakeholders. In practice, faith-holders need to be monitored, as they may prove useful as “crisis communicators.” Originality/value – The paper provides insights into an under-investigated area of crisis communication: the strategies of faith-holders acting as “crisis communicators” defending a company and themselves against attacks from negative voices on social media.
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Many businesses have commenced using social media for crisis communication with stakeholders. However there is little guidance in literature to assist organisational crisis managers with the selection of an appropriate crisis response strategy. Traditional theories on crisis communication may not adequately represent the social media context. This study took a qualitative approach and explored organisational use of social media for crisis communication at seventeen large Australian organisations. An analysis of 15,650 Facebook and Twitter messages was conducted, drawing on the lens of Situational Crisis Communication Theory (SCCT) (Coombs & Holladay, 2002). Findings suggested that when large Australian organisations responded to crises via social media, they lacked an awareness of the potential of social media for crisis communication. Organisations often did not respond to stakeholder messages or selected crisis response strategies that may increase reputational risk. The paper contributes important understandings of organisational social media use for crisis communication. It also assists crisis managers by providing six crisis response positions and a taxonomy of social media crisis messages that stakeholders may send to organisations. Key implications are discussed.