Academic journal article The Journal of Business Communication

Metanarration's Role in Restructuring Perceptions of Crisis: NHTSA's Failure in the Ford-Firestone Crisis

Academic journal article The Journal of Business Communication

Metanarration's Role in Restructuring Perceptions of Crisis: NHTSA's Failure in the Ford-Firestone Crisis

Article excerpt

This study explores tire process by which organizations involved in crisis seek to manage and influence the public narratives surrounding. the event Specifically, organizational messages are divided into the stages of primary narrative and secondary narrative as the organization, seek to reconstruct the crisis event for their stakeholders. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's (NHTSA) multiple responses to accusations that it failed to properly respond to the Ford/Firestone case are analyzed as an illustration of the metanarration model. We demonstrate the function of metanarration by showing that NHTSA effectively reconstructed the narrative associated with its failure by creating an exigency for enhancing, rather than punishing, the organization.


The threat, short response time, and surprise that are typical in the Early stages of organizational crises make clear and accurate communication about such an event difficult, if not impossible (Seeger, Sellnow, & Ulmer, 1998). Organizations typically attempt to present a favorable case in defense of their actions, while the media and stakeholders seek to place blame for the crisis (Coombs, 1999), Thus, communication surrounding crises often fosters competing versions of organizational failures and causes. Hay (1995) describes these contrasting stories as narratives. Possible communication strategies within an organization's narrative response can range from complete denial to the public display of corrective actions (Benoit, 1995a; Coombs, 1999; Hearit, 1995b; Seeger et al., 1998). This study explores the process by which organizations seek to manage and influence the public narrative surrounding crises. Expanding on Hay's (1995, 1996) concept of metanarration, we characterize this form of secondary narration as crisis communication.

As the prefix meta suggests, metanarration can be understood as narration that arises after or extends the understanding of the initial primary narrative. The primary narrative refers to the original crisis story as portrayed in the media. An organization uses metanarration as a response strategy when it reconstructs the initial story of What took place prier to and during a crisis. We argue that, in an effort to protect their image or reputation, organizations often attempt to change the primary narrative, net by negative the original story, but rather by retelling the story in a more favorable way. The reconstructed narrative, or secondary narrative, allows the organization to retell the crisis story from its perspective and to respond accordingly.

Viewing image restoration efforts from the perspective of metanarration provides a deeper understanding of how narrative functions in organizational practice and how stories are reconstructed to fit organizational plans and purposes. Exploring metanarratives may also reveal response strategies that have net been previously identified. In the present article we propose a crisis communication model of metanarration and illustrate the approach by examining the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's (NHTSA) role in the Ford/Firestone tire failure crisis.

NHTSA serves as the agency responsible for recognizing and preventing crises in highway travel. The agency faced serious accusations in 2000 that it was sluggish in detecting and resolving the Ford/Firestone tire failures. As of Match 29, 2002, there were 271 deaths and 800 injuries due to Firestone tires failing on Ford Explorers (NHTSA wrapping up tire investigation, 2001). These deaths and injuries spurred over 200 lawsuits filed against Ford and Firestone (Tire-related costs mount for Ford, 2001). Explorer rollover claims have reached $590 million, and other safety law. suits total $4.7 billion (Late news, 2002). Ford's cost resulting from the crisis is estimated at $3,5 billion (Tire-related costs mount for Ford, 2001), and the combined cost to both companies is predicted at $10 billion (Ford tire recall ending, 2001). …

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