Scientific Argument in Organizational Crisis Communication: The Case of Exxon

By Sellnow, Timothy L. | Argumentation and Advocacy, Summer 1993 | Go to article overview

Scientific Argument in Organizational Crisis Communication: The Case of Exxon


Sellnow, Timothy L., Argumentation and Advocacy


Scientific research and development is, for many organizations, the key to survival. Organizations depend upon science to help create products and services that successfully compete with similar organizations. Beyond the creation or refinement of products and services, however, is the role of science as a tool for maintaining the social legitimacy of organizations facing controversy. For example, the crisis at Three Mile Island resulted in a reexamination of the entire nuclear industry in the United States. In describing the ineptitude of the nuclear power industry's initial response to the crisis, Farrell and Goodnight (1981) identify a decline in "the practical art of rhetoric". Dionisopoulos and Crable (1988) contend that the future of nuclear energy in this country depended upon scientists both inside and outside the nuclear industry engaging in an extended public relations campaign to convince the public first, that the industry had identified and systematically resolved the causes of the Three Mile Island crisis, and second, that nuclear energy was vital to the country's future. Dependence upon science can be limited to the legitimacy of a single corporation or product. For instance, when the Food and Drug Administration reported that Rely tampons were linked to toxic shock syndrome, Proctor & Gamble hired a group of independent scientists, physicians, microbiologists, and epidemiologists to work with their own scientists in an effort to challenge the government's findings as inconclusive. When this group was "unable to give Procter & Gamble executives the information they so desperately needed," the company voluntarily pulled the Rely product from the market (Fink, 1986, p. 197). These examples suggest that a debate involving scientific evidence can and often does occur during and after an organizational crisis.

Inherent in the scientific method of research are a series of standard operational procedures endorsed by generations of scientists to enhance the likelihood that what is offered as scientific evidence is accurate. However, as Fisher (1978) explained, science must "remain consistent with the 'common-sense experience of social reality'". Hence, for science to be practical, as in the case of organizational crises, interpretation and application of findings to social exigences are essential. This interpretation and application, along with scrutiny of tangible research procedures, generate a discourse which Prelli (1989) suggests "is accepted or rejected on grounds of its reasonableness--given the issue at stake, the knowledge conditions of the scientific community, and the perceived expertise |ethos~ of the makers of the claims". Of particular interest to this study is the role of ethos in determining the reasonableness of scientific argument. Specifically, this study explores the question, to what extent can organizations adhere to the norms of scientific ethos when defending their products and procedures during times of crisis? To answer this question, I offer a case study in which a test of ethical norms for the scientific community is applied to a sample of scientific arguments offered by the Exxon Corporation in response to the Valdez oil spill. Accordingly, I first describe the context of the Valdez disaster in terms of an organizational crisis. Next, I describe the nature of scientific argument and the norms of scientific ethos. These norms are then applied to several speeches delivered by the CEO of Exxon. Finally, I offer an explanation of how and why a complimentary relationship between the norms and counter norms of scientific ethos is an appropriate and realistic standard for effectively measuring the ethics of profit seeking organizations engaged in scientific argument during times of crisis.

CONTEXT OF THE EXXON VALDEZ OIL SPILL

In order to establish the context for Exxon's scientific argumentation in the wake of the Valdez crisis, it is essential to offer some boundaries for what I label scientific argument. …

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Scientific Argument in Organizational Crisis Communication: The Case of Exxon
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