On January 13, 1993, the Washington State Health Department was alerted that doctors at Children's Hospital in Seattle were treating an unusually high number of children with E. coli infections - a form of food poisoning that is life-threatening to children. Robert Nugent, president of Jack in the Box, the fifth largest fast-food chain in the United States, was alerted two days later by the Washington State Health Department that the E. coli outbreak was at least partly attributed to hamburgers purchased at Jack in the Box restaurants. Upon receiving this alert, Jack in the Box executives dispatched a research team to Seattle. Within a month, three children in the Seattle area, all under three years of age, died of E. Coli 0157:H7 poisoning - the strain linked to Jack in the Box. One child had eaten at Jack in the Box, another was thought to have been infected by a child who had become ill after eating at Jack in the Box, and the source of the third child's infection was uncertain. In all, 400 people were infected with the bacteria in Washington State, Idaho and Nevada (Adelson, 1993). By February 6, 1993, the New York Times labeled the E. coli crisis Jack in the Box's "worst nightmare," reporting that shares of Foodmaker Incorporated, parent company of the Jack in the Boxchain, had "plunged, and the Securities Exchange Commission suspended trading in the stock, reopening it the following week" ("Jack in the Box's worst," 1993, p. 35).
As a result of this crisis, the Jack in the Box fast-food chain was not only in danger of losing sales, the company's very existence was threatened by the crisis as well. Sellnow (1993) describes the difficult situation surrounding organizational crises, "Not only must an organization respond quickly to an event that it could not or did not foresee, it must do so while under the pressure of an imposing loss of profit, legitimacy, or both" (p. 30). The sudden and severe nature of the E. coli crisis thrust Jack in the Box into a quagmire of uncertainty. Adding to this uncertainty was the diverse audience the company faced. Schuetz (1990) indicates that organizations facing crisis situations must address several audiences simultaneously. Jack in the Box officials faced a combined audience composed of consumers, regulatory agencies, stock holders, and doctors demanding explanations for the cause of a crisis about which the company knew little. For example, many, but not all, of the cases of E. coli poisoning were related to Jack in the Box. Moreover, some, but not all, Jack in the Box restaurants had spread the illness. Finally, if the company moved too quickly in accepting total responsibility for the poisonings, they were certain to face both consumer aversion and legal consequences. Weick (1988) offers a succinct summary of the situation facing organizations at the onset of a crisis by posing the following dilemma: "There is a delicate tradeoff between dangerous action which produces understanding and safe inaction which produces confusion" (p. 305). This study explores the public arguments Jack in the Box developed to both reduce and maintain elements of uncertainty in the E. coli crisis. Specifically, the study seeks to determine the extent to which ambiguity contributes to or detracts from an organization's ability to communicate with its diverse audiences during a crisis situation. For purposes of this study, we consider ambiguity in its broadest sense, including arguments that appear contradictory, vague, equivocal or indecisive. We contend that the form of ambiguity shared by the organization is, at least in part, dictated by the situation surrounding the crisis. Accordingly, a review of pertinent literature is provided along with an analysis of press releases issued by Jack in the Box during the months surrounding the crisis. The study concludes with a discussion of implications regarding organizational argument.
Studies of organizational crisis communication are frequently based upon Ware and Linkugel's (1973) work that established apologetic discourse as a genre (Benoit & Lindsey, 1987; Hoover, 1989; Ice, 1991; Schultz & Seeger, 1991). …