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Crisis communication during the red sludge spill disaster in Hungary—a media content analysis-based investigation



The article analyses the media coverage of red sludge spill, one of Hungary's largest crises. The study focuses on the analysis of stakeholder communication through their media representation, including the patterns, frames and messaging of the key stakeholder groups. It is found that stakeholder groups create their own framing and messaging and therefore give impetus to the creation of parallel realities. The scope of the analysis has allowed for the analysis of longitudinal changes and identification of trends in the behaviour of the media. Copyright © 2014 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
Academic Paper
Crisis communication during the red
sludge spill disaster in Hungarya media
content analysis-based investigation
Gabor Sarlos
and Gyorgy Szondi
ELTE University, Budapest, Hungary
School of Media, Bournemouth University, Poole, UK
The article analyses the media coverage of red sludge spill, one of Hungarys largest crises. The study focuses on the anal-
ysis of stakeholder communication through their media representation, including the patterns, frames and messaging of
the key stakeholder groups. It is found that stakeholder groups create their own framing and messaging and therefore
give impetus to the creation of parallel realities. The scope of the analysis has allowed for the analysis of longitudinal
changes and identication of trends in the behaviour of the media. Copyright © 2014 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
4 October 2010 saw one of the largest industrial
accidents in the history of Hungary. The break of a
waste depot dam storing millions of tons of red sludge
resulted in the deaths of 10 people and wounded more
than 120 people. Several villages (including Devecser
and Kolontar) were devastated, and over 1000 ha of
arable land was affected. The original ood of
700 000 m
of sludge (waste from the process that
converts bauxite to aluminium) turned into a 2-m high
torrent and covered a vast area with an 8 to 10 cm high
toxic red sludge surface. The disaster not only has left
its mark on the natural settings and the entire areas
livelihood but has had serious economic, political
and social consequences as well.
The catastrophe and its aftermath was covered
extensively by both the national and international
media, making it a truly high-prole crisis. The
torrent of red sludge, local citizens, animals, houses
and streets covered in red mud and the clean-up
operations created very strong and dramatic visual
images for the media. In the Hungarian media alone,
several thousands articles and reports were pub-
lished and aired about the disaster and its aftermath.
The crisis communication literature focuses on plan-
ning and effectively managing communication during
and after a crisis from an organizations perspective
and how the crisis can affect the organizationsreputa-
tion or performance (e.g. Coombs, 2012; Ulmer,
Sellnow, & Seeger, 2007). The emphasis is on the orga-
nization and its reputation as several crisis communi-
cation strategies and tactics are outlined about how
to turn the crisis into an opportunity sometimes even
at the expenses of certain stakeholder groups. Several
books provide guidelines about the necessary skills
and know-howof dealing with the media during
the crisis (e.g. Haddow & Haddow, 2009). Less atten-
tion has been devoted to the stakeholdersperspec-
tives and how they use a particular crisis as an
opportunity to communicate their own views in rela-
tion to the actual crisis or in a broader perspective,
which may be politically or economically motivated.
Single-case studies dominate crisis communica-
tion research, whereas systematic analysis of media
coverage has been utilized less frequently. Media
content analysis is often used to determine whether
the organizations messages have got across or how
the storyline evolved. The aims of the article are to
analyse how the red sludge disaster was covered
Correspondence to: Gyorgy Szondi, School of Media, Bourne-
mouth University, Fern Barrow, Poole, Dorset, BH12 5BB, UK.
Journal of Public Affairs (2014)
Published online in Wiley Online Library
( DOI: 10.1002/pa.1526
Copyright © 2014 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
by the Hungarian media and to answer the follow-
ing research questions:
What prominence did the media attribute to the
crisis and what stages of crisis emerge from the
Which key issues dominated the media coverage
in the different stages of the crisis?
Who were the dominant stakeholder groups in
the media coverage and which crisis communica-
tion strategies are manifested by these stake-
holder groups?
Acrisisisusuallydened from an organizational
perspective and in terms of (negative) outcomes, as
the following widely cited denition demonstrates:
the perception of an unpredictable event that threa-
tens important expectations of stakeholders and can
seriously impact an organizations performance and
generate negative outcomes(Coombs, 2012, p. 2.).
Other denitions of crises are broader and go beyond
those prevalent in the communication and public
relations literature. Rosenthal, t Hart, and Charles
(1989), for example, dened crisis as serious threat
to the basic structures of the fundamental values
and norms of a social system, whichunder time
pressure and highly uncertain circumstances
necessitates making critical decisions(p. 10).
There exist several typologies of crises based on
technological, organizational, economic, human,
external or internal dimensions (e.g. Shrivastava &
Mitroff, 1987; Lerbinger, 1997). In the public relations
literature, industrial accidents are often classied as
technological crises (Ulmer et al., 2007; Lerbinger,
1997; Zaremba, 2010), and the implicit assumption is
that organizational crisis communication and man-
agement principles apply to these type of complex
crises as well. As Shrivastava et al. (1988) argue,
industrial crises cannot be dealt with at the level of
single organizations, as they tend to be both organiza-
tional and inter-organizational phenomena. The same
can be argued from a crisis communication perspec-
tive as well. In other scholarship, however, industrial
crises are also typied as environmental crises,
characterized as a threat to biological values or to
the human habitat including essential resources
that support life in human ecosystems, such as air,
water supply and food production (Stern, 2003).
Shrivastava et al. (1988) identied a number of den-
ing characteristics of industrial crises, including a
sudden destructive triggering event, which has a
low probability and therefore warnings are not taken
seriously; large-scale damage to human life and
environment, and large social and economic costs;
multiple stakeholder involvement with numerous
conicts over responsibility, liability and recovery
costs. The authors also note that the media coverage
of industrial accidents can be fragmented, lack objec-
tive data and can be equivocal partly because of
stakeholderstendency to control information.
Several crisis life cycle models have been developed
as a framework for crisis management. Finks (1986)
four-stage model (prodromal or signal detection,
acute, chronic and resolution period) was later
extended with a stage before the acute stage of the
crisis, identied as the preparation phase (Barton,
1993; Mitroff, 1996). The ve-stage model shows a
sharp increase in the rst two stages: signal detection
and preparation phase, culminating in the actual
explosion of the crisis and then gradually declining
throughout the acute, chronic and resolution phases.
Coombs(2012) three-stage model (pre-crisis, crisis
and post-crisis) is commonly used in the public
relations literature as a comprehensive framework
for crisis management analysis.
The general pattern of media coverage of natural
and industrial accidents reects an exploding
media coverage right after the outbreak of the crisis,
followed by a slow but steady decline in media
interest. Ullberg (2001) noted that in the case of
environmental crises, it can be difcult to establish
when they are considered to be over. This factor
can have some implications for the models of the
crisis life cycle, as there may be crises that do not
necessarily follow a cyclical pattern.
In order to analyse stakeholder responses to the
crisis, the Situational Crisis Communication Theory
(SCCT) may serve as a framework (Coombs &
Holladay, 2002). SCCT identied three crisis patterns
regarding their attributions of crisis responsibility.
The victim cluster introduces the given organization
as a passive and non-responsible player with weak
attributions of crisis responsibility. In these cases, the
organization is presented as a victim of the event.
The accidental cluster has some but limited attribu-
tions of responsibility in the crisis, as the occurrence
of the event is considered beyond the intentions or
control of the organization. The intentional cluster
has very strong attributions of responsibility in the
crisis and the event may even be considered purpose-
ful. In terms of framing, there are differences between
the stakeholder groups. The way one shapes their
message shapes how others identify problems and
the causes of the problems and attribute responsibility
as well as the solution to the problems (Cooper, 2002).
Framing therefore allows the communicators to
choose given factors to emphasis and others to neglect.
G. Sarlos and G. Szondi
Copyright © 2014 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. J. Public Affairs (2014)
DOI: 10.1002/pa
Media and the construction of reality
According to the mediasagenda-settingfunction
(McCombs & Shaw, 1995: 153), the media extends
its activities beyond the mere representation of
events, and through the selection and formulation of
content, it takes part in the construction of realities.
It can reach the extent where elements thought of
key importance by the media are in fact those that be-
come key in the mindset of the audience (McCombs,
Lopez-Escobar, & Llamas, 2000, McCombs, 2004).
Individual construction of reality depends on a num-
ber of factors. Physical distance, availability of rst-
hand experience and complexity of the issue are all
factors that inuence the level of independent
construction of reality. The majority of the public con-
structs reality based upon media and cannot match
this reality against their own direct experience. In
the case of coverage of such a ow of events, media
becomes selective; it creates its own representation
and therefore actively takes part in the social con-
struction of reality (Berger & Luckmann, 1966).
In order to answer the research questions, media
content analysis was conducted. During content anal-
ysis, it was intended to interpret texts from a quali-
tative approach as well as rely on the proportions
and emphases of the texts through a quantitative
analysis. Quantitative approach allows for handling
of the material as a mass collection of data (Baker
et al., 2008). A wide range of online, print and
electronic media were selected over a period of
21months. The analysis was based on the content
analysis of 2152 pieces of coverage (online and print
articles and radio and TV reports) about the catastro-
phe in the Hungarian media between 5 October 2010
and 30 June 2012. Selection of the media aimed to
accommodate a range of local, regional and national
type of media, including online, print, radio and TV.
Bearing in mind that coverage of rescue and espe-
cially reconstruction operations may have political
inclination, a wide spectrum of media has been in-
cluded in terms of political orientation as well. The
21-month-long period of analysis enabled to assess
not only the short-term but also the long-term conse-
quences of the disaster and its media representation.
Following the selection of the media, a coding
system was set up. The basic unit of coding was an
article. Each article was coded according to a set of
criteria: focus, general frame, tone, source of informa-
tion, media and stakeholder involvement. Analysis
was carried out by two well-trained coders, with their
coding being controlled on a randomly selected basis.
The coded data were then used to identify the com-
munication strategies and patterns of the different
stakeholder groups.
A total of 2152 pieces of media coverage that were
published or aired between October 2010 and June
2012 were analysed. On a quarterly basis (October
December 2010, JanuaryMarch, AprilJune, July
September and OctoberDecember 2011, as well as
JanuaryMarch and AprilJune 2012), media coverage
of the disaster uctuated, as Chart 1 demonstrates.
The graph of the media coverage shows two
periods of outstanding intensity: OctoberDecember
2010 with 484 articles (5.5 articles/day) and
OctoberDecember 2011 with 443 articles (4.81
articles/day). A period of low intensity characterized
the period of JanuaryMarch 2011, with 64 articles
(0.7 articles/day). Media coverage of the red sludge
disaster shows two peaks.
The intensity of coverage implies two deviations
from the crisis cycle model. First, in this case, there
was no signicant build-up phase in the media. In
the signal detection period, World Wide Fund
(WWF) Hungary had called for the closure of the de-
pot, together with two other bauxite sludge storages
in western Hungary. Greenpeace and Levegő
Munkacsoport (Clean Air Action Group) raised the
alarm too about the potential dangers of the site, but
these concerns received limited attention both in the
media and among policy makers prior to the break
of the dam. Regular controls had been exercised by
the relevant environmental authorities; however, no
special actions were requested. The starting point of
Chart 1 Changes in media coverage intensity
Crisis communication
Copyright © 2014 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. J. Public Affairs (2014)
DOI: 10.1002/pa
the analysis of the media coverage is the actual break
of the dam, as no specic signal detection period
could be identied.
Second, the graph indicates two peak periods and
a low period in between. The coverage did not show
a steady decline in the number of articles or the
intensity of coverage, but after a decline, it rose
again. Intensity of media coverage did not follow
the standard pattern of crises, and fading-out stage
followed much later.
Focus issues
Focus categories reect the selection mechanism
and the agenda-setting mechanism of the media
(McCombs & Shaw, 1972). The ability of the media
to inuence focus of attentionof the public is present;
therefore, it becomes part of the social construction of
the representation related to the red sludge catastro-
phe. The coding of the articles resulted in 21 different
focus categories. For ease of handling the data, certain
aggregation was carried out according to the fol-
lowing. The quarterly split was changed to incorpo-
rate longer periods, resulting in a timescale of four
periods of OctoberDecember 2010 (3 months),
followed by 6 months periods of JanuaryJune
2011, JulyDecember 2011 and JanuaryJune 2012.
The content analysis of articles was conducted to
identify the key focus of articles for each of the four
periods (Table 1).
Over the full period, among the 21 focus categories,
the overall most frequently covered issues are investi-
gation, followed by environmental issues, compen-
sation for damages, other community initiatives,
reconstruction work and remediation of damages.
The massive presence of the issue investigation im-
plies on the one hand a thorough attempt of the gov-
ernment to shed light on all aspects of the disaster
and draw the relevant conclusions as well as keep
the issue on the agenda and use this point of reference
as frequently as possible on the other hand.
In the rst period (acute phase, OctoberDecember
2010), the focus is on rescue, remediation of environ-
mental damages and the actual physicaland chemical
content of the red sludge. The 4 October break in the
dam caught the company, the authorities and the
local population by total surprise. The general
manager of the alumina production company, MAL,
tried to reassure everyone by claiming it is enough
to wash yourselves with a garden hose.
It quickly
turned out that the danger and devastation is much
bigger thananyone would have thought. The disaster
management authorities and the government repre-
sentatives quickly took action. On 7 October, Prime
Minister Orbán reassured everyone that we will
solve the situation.
The same day, in relation to
any assistance from the European Union, he pointed
out that it is not foreign nancial support that we will
need but sharing of experience from similar such
Besides the Minister of Home Affairs
and the Director General of the Disaster Management
Authority, the Prime Minister became one of the three
top spokespersons on this issue. He continued to use
the occasion to give insight to more general views by
saying this case will be handled differently than how
these have ever been handled
(11 October), and
someone has to be responsible for all what has
happened. Responsibility and punishment has to be
proportionate to the damage caused and the values
(11 October). Swift actions in rescue as
well as communication reect a clear drive for cen-
tralization. Initial and sporadic MAL representative
interviews disappeared; the company did not com-
municate. Then, under a law passed with emergence,
within 1 week, the company was put under the
management of a government commissioner. In
terms of representation of the company in the media,
this meant the company was forced to give up inde-
pendent communication.
In period 2 (chronic phase, JanuaryJune 2011),
no focal issue can be identied, except for a slight
shift to general plans and tasks for the future.
Winter conditions made actual rescue and recons-
truction operations difcult, and the media were
dominated by general plans of compensation and
reconstruction. The search for the responsible parties
continued with the government emphasizing the sole
responsibility of the company. However, in this
period, it became evident that the issue of responsibil-
ity is highly complex and may involve negligence in
planning of the depot and the insufcient control
mechanisms of the environmental authorities. Locals
gave voice that in spite of the emergency compensa-
tion they had received, their village will remain in
Egy slagos lemosás segít (A good wash with a garden hose
helps), Index, 5 October 2010, quoting MAL General Manager
Zoltán Bakonyi.
Száz halott is lehetett volna Kolontáron (There could have a hun-
dred deaths in Kolontár), ATV, 7 October 2010, quoting Prime
Minister Viktor Orbán.
Amerikában is téma a magyar iszapkatasztrófa (Hungarian
sludge catastrophe is an issue in the USA, too),, 7
October 2010, quoting Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
Sarkosan fogalmazva (Just to make it clear), Magyar Hírlap, 11
October 2010, quoting Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
Kármentőalapot hoz létre a kormány (Government sets up
damage fund), Népszabadság, 11 October 2010, quoting Prime
Minister Viktor Orbán.
G. Sarlos and G. Szondi
Copyright © 2014 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. J. Public Affairs (2014)
DOI: 10.1002/pa
our minds as Chernobyl.
Signs of discontentment
also appear by locals claiming that even if we did
receive emergency relief, everything is decided by
the biggies.
Opposition members of the parliament
claimed that reconstruction deals all end up with
companies close to the current government parties
and say that responsibility of the catastrophe is with
everyone and cannot be put only on one company.
In period 3 (resolution phase, JulyDecember
2011), the intensity of communication increases con-
siderably. Communication has a clear focus and is
dominated by the issues related to investigation,
followed by compensation, reconstruction and other
community initiatives. Most articles about abuse of
resources and tasks for the future appear in this
period. Government communication focused on the
issues of investigation, legal aspects, court trial and
compensation issues. A government party represen-
tative expressed that nowhere in the world has any
government made such actions in case of an indus-
trial accident.
A government commissioner of the
company claimed that putting the company under
government control had been a total innovation in
the world, and a successful one.
On the rst anni-
versary of the disaster, numerous remembrance
events were organized, and the rst newly built
houses were handed over. However, in spite of the
government-led swift efforts in recultivation and re-
construction, locals feel disillusioned: This was red
sludge only for a few hundred, for all others this
was gold sludge.
Greenpeace reminded everyone
that the overwhelming majority of toxic waste is still
stored in similar depots, putting a constant danger
on the country.
According to the crisis life cycle models, the reso-
lution phase is the last stage of crisis. However, in
this case, the crisis does not follow this model and
shows signs of an extended further phase. In period
4 (JanuaryJune 2012), there is a continued focus on
investigation, followed by a rapidly growing
number of articles on environmental effects, health
and agriculture-related issues. A new set of issues
appear that represent the long-term consequences
of the disaster and relate to the signicant changes
in the environment, living conditions and social
A nap idézete (Quote of the day), Napi Gazdaság, 11 February
2011, quoting a local citizen.
Ki kapja az iszapmilliárdokat? (Who will get the sludge bil-
lions?), Index, 11 February 2011, quoting a local citizen.
Becsődöltek a hatóságok (The authorities failed), Népszabadság,
7 April 2011, quoting opposition MP Benedek Jávor.
Élet a vörösiszap után (Life after the red sludge),, 19
August 2011, quoting government MP József Ékes.
Jöhet a kötelezőbiztosítás a cégeknek (Liability insurance for
companies is on the way),, 22 September 2011,
government commissioner György Bakondi.
Aranyiszap (Gold sludge),, 26 September 2011, claim of
local citizens.
Table 1 Distribution of articles according to their focus
Focus OctDec 2010 JanJune 2011 JulyDec 2011 JanJune 2012 TOTAL
Local initiatives 2 2 37
Impact on tourism 2 68
Transport, trafc5—— 712
Others 1 23 1 25
Chemical composition of sludge 28 44137
MAL company communication 10 21 15 46
Abuse of resources 1 4 40 247
Tasks for the future 4 9 31 953
Agricultural issues 4 3 22 34 63
Personal stories, testimonies 26 11 19 9 65
General plans for the future 3 25 19 22 69
Health aspects 20 4 12 40 76
Experience and conclusions 16 19 37 4 76
Rescue operations 72 47487
Remediation of damages 62 536 7110
Reconstruction work 3 11 76 29 119
Other community initiative 45 23 68 3139
Compensation for damages 33 32 83 22 170
Environmental issues 31 9 55 90 185
Investigation 21 22 156 134 333
Complex, multifocus article 95 62 120 148 425
Total 484 251 835 584 2152
Outstanding activity in italics.
Crisis communication
Copyright © 2014 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. J. Public Affairs (2014)
DOI: 10.1002/pa
structures. As reected in the media, the public
seemed to realize eventually that effects of the red
sludge spill will remain for a long time. Social, eco-
nomic and health consequences as well as human
psychological dramas will stay for decades. Eigh-
teen months after the disaster, a non-governmental
organization (NGO) warned that dry weather and
wind still created unbearable dust and highly
poisonous air: First I thought our device went
wrong indicating 2000 mikrogram/m3 dust instead
of the normal 10 mikrogram/m3.
A trade union
representative of the workers of the alumina plant
claimed that closing of the alumina plant will
clearly lead to a human catastrophe as most of the
families living in the area make their living through
the production.
The lawyer representing claim-
ants concluded by expressing: The handling of the
catastrophe is even more serious than the cata-
strophe itself.
Clearly, certain implications of the
disaster prevail; therefore, this period should be
called the enduring phase.
Stakeholders in the media coverage
In the media analysis, special attention was devoted
to interviews with and references to stakeholder
groups and their representatives. These media op-
portunities provided stakeholder representatives
the chance to provide clear framing to their mes-
sages. The aggregated number of the appearance
of the individuals of the same stakeholder group
gives an indication about the weight of the given
stakeholder group. During the analysis, those inter-
views were considered that presented the views of
one individual only, and the article did not cover
any other aspect, individual or entity. In total, 45
interviews appeared in the given period
(Table 2).
The interview chart shows an uneven representa-
tion of stakeholder groups. Government representa-
tives took almost 50% of the interviews, with the
Prime Minister being the most frequently inter-
viewed person. Besides the government representa-
tives, only locals have a notable representation
through their mayors. Other stakeholders appear
only sporadically, whereas no representative of
MAL has been interviewed at all.
References and quotes
The circle of interviews can be extended to include
those articles that include a quote by or reference
to a statement given by a representative of the
particular stakeholder group. In these cases, those
articles are considered that include a direct quote
of a stakeholder group representative or give a clear
reference to the words that the given person has
said. In case of an article where more than one
person has been quoted or referred to, the three
most important representations were considered,
on the basis of the length of the quote and the focus
of the article.
A total of 672 references are included and
analysed (Chart 2).
The chart covering the number of references and
quotes gives a more balanced composition on
whose opinion had been represented in the media.
Government representative quotes appear most
frequently, with over one-third of all quotes, fol-
lowed by references to representatives of local com-
munities, disaster management people and MAL.
Through their quotes, all the important stakeholder
groups are represented in the media, even if notable
differences exist in their relative weight.
Stakeholder strategies and messaging
The analysis shows that government messages
(from the Minister of State for Environmental
the Minister of Home Affairs and the Prime
Minister) were most reected in the media. Their
deconstruction of the case implies a serious accident
that had occurred because of the negligent attitude
and irresponsible actions of a private company. The
government, as representative of the countrys
interest, had to act promptly, and this is what they
did. With the governmentsstrongdetermination
and focused actions, the immediate danger was elim-
inated, recultivation of the land and construction of
new houses and communal buildings have been done
and compensation for the lost assets has been paid. In
their narrative, the government is positioned in the
centre of rescue and recovery operations. Neverthe-
less, the price all has to be borne by the company,
and this will be forced through by all possible legal
Fuldoklanak Kolontáron a vörös portól (People suffocate of red
dust in Kolontar),, 18 May 2012, Gergely Simon,
Greenpeace expert.
Családok tízezreinek megélhetése került veszélybe (The living
of ten thousands of families is in danger),, 25 May 2012.
Titkolóznak a vörösiszap ügyében (Being secretive in the red
sludge affair), Népszava, 31 May 2012, György Magyar, lawyer
representing claimants.
Further 37 interviews were made with local citizens, but these
were not considered for further analysis.
In Hungary, on a government level, the environmental issues
are represented by the Minister of State for Environmental Af-
fairs, within the Ministry of Rural Development.
G. Sarlos and G. Szondi
Copyright © 2014 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. J. Public Affairs (2014)
DOI: 10.1002/pa
means and economic pressures. In overall terms, the
communication of the government underlined com-
petence and responsibility and often served as an
illustration to political messages. As to the SCCT,
the case matches the intentional cluster where the sole
responsibility is with the company.
The second most often quoted sources are the
representatives of the local governments, generally
the mayors, and authorities of the affected villages.
Their interpretation reects a delicate position:
representation of the interest of and contact with
the villagers on the one hand and liaison with the
national authorities, government and the disaster
management directorate on the other hand. Usually,
in their reections, they express their concerns
freely, share cases of local successes and failures
and praise various forms of assistance their villages
had received. Their communication reected a care-
ful balancing among the various stakeholder groups
and a strong sensitivity to the needs of the local
people. In their framing, it is not the reason of the
accident that is important but much more to nd
proper solutions in terms of compensation and recon-
struction and to do everything possible to reestablish
reasonable living conditions. Their approach to the
issue of responsibility is that they have a dual-sided
view towards MAL. They tend to agree that the
accident is the consequence of negligence on the
companys side; however, they do not seen confronta-
tion, as the company is the most signicant employer
in the region. They prefer to focus on themselves: in
SCCT terms, they follow a victim cluster typology
Chart 2 Distribution of references
Table 2 Distribution of interviews
Stakeholder group Number of
interviews Individual
interviewee Function Number of
Government 20 Viktor Orbán Prime Minister 9
Zoltán Illés Minister of State for Environment 8
Sándor Pintér Minister of Home Affairs 3
Disaster management 2 György Bakondi Government Commissioner 2
(Other) politicians 4 Benedek Jávor Opposition MP 2
Lajos Kepli Opposition MP 2
Local communities 11 Tamás Toldi Mayor of Devecser 5
Károly Tili Mayor of Kolontár 4
Loránd Kerezsi Deputy mayor of Gulács 2
organizations 4 Zsolt Szegfalvi Director of Greenpeace 2
Gergely Simon Expert of Greenpeace 2
Experts 4 Béla Farkas Director of Tatai Környezeti ZRt. 2
Attila Turi Architect 2
Total 45 45
Crisis communication
Copyright © 2014 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. J. Public Affairs (2014)
DOI: 10.1002/pa
where they seek sympathy and support from the
other stakeholder groups.
A further important actor is the Disaster Mana-
gement Authority, headed by its Director General.
The representation value of this person is further
underlined by him being the government com-
missioner for the company as well. Starting from a
low-prole government authority, along with the
development of the crisis, the Disaster Management
Authority becomes a signicant stakeholder in itself.
It becomes also clear that the roles of representing a
national authority as well as a private company that
has been put under government control are clearly
contradicting both the principles and the practice
of clear communication. In the rst two periods,
the narrative of the Disaster Management Authority
focused on the technicalities of the operations,
whereas later, it enters more into the evaluation of
the handling of the whole process. As the ofcial
centre of source of information, the Authority puts
focus on the strong technicality of their messages.
As a newly created function, it also focused on
underlining its own role and competence. However,
this was later weakened by the confusing double
function of its Director General.
The views of the company itself are underrepre-
sented in the media and, if at all, are expressed
through their lawyers. As members of the manage-
ment as well as the company are facing trials,
lawyers seem to offer the only possible channels
to express company views. Their construction of
the reality is that a natural disaster happened. The
company had acted all times at its best, followed
the rules of corporate governance and was regularly
checked by the relevant authorities. It is ready to
take their part in sharing the costs of the recon-
struction and of the compensation of the people.
Following the initial shock and clear proof of unpre-
paredness, the key message from the company was
to show cooperation and sympathy even if repeat-
edly they related the disaster to a natural cause. In
its actions, the company was playing for time and
survival. From the SCCT perspective, the company
represented the accidental cluster where the com-
pany could not have done anything more or better
in face of the natural disaster.
Non-governmental organization representatives
and independent experts are the last notable group
of public actors in the media. Clearly, Greenpeace
and, to a lesser extent, Clean Air Action Group domi-
nate this relatively tiny segment, the rst one primar-
ily through its action, the second through its expert
opinion. Of all stakeholders, they had been warning
about the issue long before the actual spill took place.
They started in the build-upphase and are looking at
the long-term effects and consequences. NGOs
proved they had an important role in being watch-
dogs of industrial activities. Independent experts
give their views about specic aspects of the acci-
dent, the emergency operations, the handling of the
case and the emerging consequences. It also became
clear that with barely sufcient resources, the contin-
uous media presence of NGOs and experts cannot be
The weight of each stakeholder group is reected
by the presence of their framing in the media.
Clearly, the dominance of the issue of investigation
prevails; it is by far the most frequently covered
topic. It is in the focus of government communi-
cation; consequently, this proves that the framing
of the government was successful with the indus-
trial accident interpretation. In this narrative, the in-
tentional cluster is valid, and the company is the
sole responsible actor for the catastrophe.
The performance of media
Analysis of the media coverage shows that upon the
outbreak of the disaster, all media outlets shared a
similar vision of reality. Articles similarly depicted
the breakout of the accident, the rst reactions,
rescue operations and the nature and size of the
disaster. In a later stage, however, parallel to how
the government centralized disaster operations as
well as communication output, the media added
different perspectives to the interpretation of the
issue. Division of the media can be clearly noted
from the coverage of a number of issues: legal pro-
cess against the company, the exact use of the indi-
vidual donations, the utilization of government
funds, the chances of local companies and national
companies taking part in the work of reconstruction,
the centralized and standardized construction of new
living houses and the nish of the continuation of the
reconstruction process. Furthermore, notable differ-
ences appear according to the representation of the
governments long-term recovery actions and in the
distinction between softand hardreconstruction.
Further analysis of these issues may indicate that
political afliation of media may inuence their
attitude towards the coverage of these issues. How-
ever, a detailed analysis of whether the choice of
focus areas of articles has a direct relation with the
political orientation of the given medium extends
beyond the frames of the current paper. It may be
presumed that the media close to the government
clearly focused on the hardaspects of recovery
work: physical reconstruction, renovation of old
and building of new houses and creation of a
G. Sarlos and G. Szondi
Copyright © 2014 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. J. Public Affairs (2014)
DOI: 10.1002/pa
memorial park and a church. With these being in
place, media interpretation reects satisfaction and
even pride about the government actions. Similarly,
it can be presumed that the media that is more
critical towards the government rather underlined
the lack of focus on softreconstruction and drew
attention to the various long-term hazards, including
human, psychological, environmental and health
consequences of the disaster. Their narrative is that
without human and social revitalization, no real re-
build can be done. In their interpretation, the affected
area is similar to a living organism where all aspects
of functioning of life need to be taken care of.
As the time passed and media intensity level
started to drop, media turned more in the direction
of creating their own narratives. In this function,
they are able to construct reality and inuence
how people see the present and future situations
of the area hit by the red sludge disaster.
Stakeholder framing and message formulation fo-
cused around the SCCT. The government narrative
with the intentional cluster successfully channelled
media focus on the responsibility of the company
and to the issue of investigation. The MAL narrative
of accidental cluster and presenting the case as a
natural disaster could not counterbalance the gov-
ernment narrative. The victim cluster typology of
the local representatives can also be considered suc-
cessful as to its representation in the media. Local
and international NGOs presented a further typol-
ogy, where a sharing of responsibility is urged.
However, their views have not gained much atten-
tion of the media and therefore could not inuence
the competition between narratives. It can be noted
that when various narratives live aside each other, it
is the media, through its agenda-setting ability, that
decides which of the narratives will become domi-
nant. Depending on the media power of the actors,
one of the clusters may become dominant.
Moreover, important observations can be noted
regarding the crisis life cycle theory. In the red
sludge case, the application of crisis life cycle is
limited. There was no prodromal or signal detection
period noted in the media coverage. Furthermore,
the crisis did not end with a resolution phase but
continued with the enduring phase. The emergence
of this phase is due to two factors: the governments
drive to keep the issue of investigation on the
agenda and the emergence of a growing number
of various long-term consequences of the accident.
The existence of the chronic and resolution stages
is given only if no new impetus arrives. In the
case of an ongoing crisis or a crisis that changes its
form, the fading-out period is difcult to note,
and, instead, an enduring phase appears. In terms
of the categorization of the red sludge catastrophe,
these consequences mean a conceptual shift from
being an industrialnatural accident to a complex
crisis with environmental, economic, health, psy-
chological and social components.
Finally, the agenda-setting ability of the media
can be clearly conrmed. This can be especially
noted as, advancing in time, the media coverage
of the catastrophe became diversied. Because of
differences in attitudes, expertise, dedication and
possible political motivations, various media out-
lets constructed differing narratives and parallel
realities of the reconstruction needs, plans and
activities. These parallel realities continue to prevail
and inuence the personal representation of the red
sludge catastrophe.
Gabor Sarlos is a PhD student at the School of Sociol-
ogy of ELTE University in Budapest, researching
social discourse on nuclear energy. He is the founder
and managing partner of PeppeR Communications, a
Hungarian PR consultancy. He is a regular trainer in
media relations, personal communication skills, per-
sonal branding, crisis, and change management. He
is also a part-time lecturer in Public Relations at the
International Business School in Budapest. He is a
graduate of the Corvinus University of Economics
and holds a Graduate Certicate of Business Studies
from Swinburne University, Melbourne, Australia.
Dr. Gyorgy Szondi is a lecturer in Corporate Com-
munication at Bournemouth University, UK. He has
been a lecturer at several universities across Europe,
including the UK, Austria, Hungary, Poland, and
Estonia. He holds a PhD from the University of
Salzburg, Austria and an MS in Public Relations
from the University of Stirling, UK. His interest
and publications include international public rela-
tions, public diplomacy, nation branding, and risk
and crises communication. He has designed and
led communication training courses for the School
of Government in the UK; the Government of
Estonia, the Estonian Ministry of Social Affairs, and
public diplomacy workshops for the Polish Ministry
of Foreign Affairs and the European Unions
European External Action Service in Brussels. Prior
to academia, he worked for Hill and Knowlton, the
international PR consultancy in Budapest, Hungary,
and in its international headquarters in London.
Crisis communication
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DOI: 10.1002/pa
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... The original flood of 700,000 m 3 of sludge turned into a two-meter high torrent and covered a vast area with an 8-10 cm high toxic surface of red sludge. Sarlós and Szondi (2014) analyzed the media coverage of the red sludge spill, focusing on the analysis of stakeholder communication through their media representation, including the patterns, frames, and messaging of the key stakeholder groups. ...
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This chapter explores the existing body of research on crisis communication in Poland and Hungary. It maps out key avenues in and approaches to the development of scholarship of the field in the contexts of both countries. Our overview reveals that the key research themes demonstrate strong influences of political and economic changes in the contextualization of crisis communication research. It also demonstrates diversity of contexts in which crisis communication is practiced and researched in Poland and Hungary, such as public administration, political communication, public relations, or organizational communication. Crisis communication researchers in both countries rely on Western frameworks but there is a growing set of data that help understand crisis communication in local contexts ? as a growing specialism within communication studies.
... Se molta della letteratura esistente sul tema sembra concentrarsi sull'analisi teorica o storica dei gruppi di interesse e del loro ruolo nella democrazia moderna (Bentley 1908; Truman 1951; Benn 1959-1960; Meynaud 1965; Olson 1965; Pasquino 1988; Morlino 1991; Graziano 1995; Fisichella 1997; Rozell, Wilcox e Madland 2006; Andres 2009; Mattina 2010), sull'analisi idiografica di singoli casi (da ultimo i report di Transparency International sull'industria del lobbying in diversi paesi europei) o di particolari campagne di lobbying (per es. Sarlos e Szondi 2015 o Taghizade 2015), un crescente numero di ricerche si sta muovendo verso un ulteriore orizzonte nello studio dei gruppi di interesse, iniziando ad usare l'approccio comparativo anche in questo campo. Come sottolineato da Kanol (2015), al fine di contribuire proficuamente al nascente campo della politica comparata del lobbying, non è sufficiente prendere in considerazione più di un paese o più regioni dello stesso paese 1 , ma è importante mettere in relazione informazioni e dati con un impianto teorico fatto di variabili e di interpretazioni complesse. ...
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Unfortunately, I do not have an electronic file for Setting the Agenda. Best wishes for your research, Max McCombs
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