Crisis Communication

Archive for April 2009

Mexico warns no kissing as 81 dead in swine flu outbreak

To date, there have been about 81 deaths linked to the swine flu. It has made its way into the US, infecting several people including students in New York. Schools and universities in Mexico City have been closed and airlines are asking people to not travel to Mexico.

The World Health Organization needs to handle communication about this outbreak, but there also are many other smaller organizations that will need to be quick to communicate.

For example, hospitals need to communicate with people in the communities about what the symptoms are, but also not scare them into thinking they have the swine flu if it is something else.

Schools and universities also will need to have communication in place. What will they do if a student contracts the swine flu? What if a student dies? How will they let parents and the community know that they are handling the problem appropriately.

Doctor’s offices also need to have a plan in place. What if a person comes in feeling sick and they are diagnosed with the swine flu? How will they inform their other patients that they may have been infected?

I recall coming across a flu epidemic plan for CMU during an internet search for an interview I was doing for a class. Although it seemed a little morbid to have a plan on what they would do if many students died, I think their plan was well thought out. I imagine that CMU and other schools are probably reviewing these crisis plans in case there is a large-scale epidemic.

There was a swine flu scare in 1976 as well.


Even though a lot of crises are unexpected, it is important to be proactive. Read They Missed the Whole Story for an interesting take of a spider situation in Texas.

After Dominos employees made a video of them tampering with food, it was posted on YouTube. Before the video was removed, it had received almost one million views.

Although the employees claim none of the food they tampered with was served, the video and media coverage caused damage to the company. The president of the company posted a YouTube response:

In the video, he reassures customers and tells people exactly what is being done to make things better. There also is a very active Twitter account, linked to the YouTube page of the video, which was used to respond to customer’s concerns.

Due to social media, corporate responses need to be immediate. According to AdAge, it took the company about 48 hours to be fully responsive. The company’s first strategy seemed to be “wait and see,” with hopes it would blow over.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the president of Levick Strategic Communications, Richard Levick, “gives an F to Domino‚Äôs response for the first 24 hours, but an A for everything after.”

In AdAge, Levick suggested companies do several things to prepare for a crisis; (1) Identify who you need during a crisis, from PR to HR, (2) Be prepated for worst-case scenarios, (3) Own SEO keywords you may need in a crisis, (4) Be connected online, (5) Respond as soon as possible.

I’m not sure if it was a strategic move or not, but I’ve realized a lot of the negative coverage has been replaced with news releases and stories about Domino’s new pasta bowls. But, Time suggested they take a “commercial break” to let things cool down.

What I think

The biggest mistake Domino’s made was that they waited to respond. I also wonder if they had a crisis plan in place for a situation such as this. Food tampering is a common enough occurence, but it seems that many companies still have not grasped how much social media can affect a crisis situation.

I think the YouTube video response was a good idea. Many people still searched for the video and this was at the top of the results. Having the president of the company respond and tell exactly what the company was doing also was effective.

I agree with Todd Defren that having a social media presence before the crisis would have bought the company more credibility and time. Domino’s started a Twitter account after the video had been aired. Had a Twitter account already been set up, they probably would have been alerted to the video much more quickly and already had followers to respond to.

Domino’s has probably realized that they need to monitor the Web much more closely. It’s actually very simple. I have a Google Alert for my name that is delivered to my Reader daily.


According to Seeger, Sellnow, & Ulmer, organizations and companies “must be open to new insights, understanding, and skills while maintaining the knowledge, skill, and wisdom that have proved successful,” (p. 36).

Organizations that evolve with their changing environment will thrive. The organization will do something to try to fix a problem. If it works, then the organization learns. If it does not work, the organization alters its approach and then learns what does not work in addition to what does work.


Seeger, M. W. , Sellnow, T.L., & Ulmer, R. R. (2003). Communication and Organizational Crisis.

Communication and Organizational Crisis by Seeger, Sellnow, & Ulmer describes Chaos Theory as “loosely related principles regarding the behavior of complex and dynamic systems,” (p. 28).

According to CT, an organizations have a predictability with general trends and patterns. They also have sensitive dependence on initial conditions, meaning something very minor can impact an organization in a major way. The changes are described as bifurcation, “the flashpoint of disruption and change at which a system’s direction, character, and/or structure is fundamentally altered,” (p. 30). Any organization can have bifurcation occur at any time.

Following bifurcation is self-organization. Basically, order is attempted to be brought back to the organzation.


Seeger, M. W. , Sellnow, T.L., & Ulmer, R. R. (2003). Communication and Organizational Crisis.

When handling a crisis, it is important to classify what kind of crisis it is. This can help you determine your course of action and manage the crisis.

Here are several different systems of classification from p. 47 of Communication and Organizational Crisis by Seeger, Sellnow, & Ulmer :

Meyers & Holusha, 1986

  • Public perception
  • Sudden market shift
  • Product failure
  • Top management succession
  • Cash crises
  • Industrial relations
  • Hostile takeover
  • Adverse international events
  • Regulation/deregulation

Coombs, 1999

  • Natural disasters
  • Malevolence
  • Technical breakdowns
  • Human breakdowns
  • Challenges
  • Megadamage
  • Organizational misdeeds
  • Workplace violence
  • Rumors

Miroff & Anagnos, 2001

  • Economic
  • Informational
  • Physical – Loss of key plants and facilities
  • Human resource
  • Reputation
  • Psychopathic acts
  • Natural disasters


Seeger, M. W. , Sellnow, T.L., & Ulmer, R. R. (2003). Communication and Organizational Crisis.

The first theory I read about in Communication and Organizational Crisis by Seeger, Sellnow, & Ulmer was about sensemaking. According to the book, “This process is inherently retrospective as members look back on events and construct their meanings,” (p. 22). Essentially, people involved in organizations will try to reduce uncertainty through sharing their interpretations and ideas of what happened, why it happened and what they can do to solve the problem.

The book says, “Weick (1979) identified specific phases or stages to organizing, including enactment, selection, and retention.”

This is the first action taken. For example, Facebook listened to the complaints of the users. The company had to at least recognize and respond to the complaints.

An organization goes to the next step, selection, in an effort to solve the problem. In crisis situations, “organizations are usually forced to offer explanations of cause, blame, and responsibility…that will cause the least legal and economical liability,” (p. 23).


Previously used methods that prove successful become part of the organization and are reused when another incident occurs.

Sensemaking can help organizations “see the cause of crisis, to avoid them, and to reduce their intensity,” (p. 28).


Seeger, M. W. , Sellnow, T.L., & Ulmer, R. R. (2003). Communication and Organizational Crisis.