The Business Controversy Exercise
Muir, Clive, Business Communication Quarterly
BUSINESS CRISES APPEAR frequently in the media. In fact, crisis management has become such a staple of American corporate life that companies spend over $300 billion annually on litigation and other costs related to their predicaments (Kitto, 1998). The smallest incident may invite intense media scrutiny and escalate into a public relations nightmare for a company. However, ignoring the public or making "no comment" statements does not suffice, so an organization must be prepared to respond quickly and strategically (Peck, 2000). The exercise described in this article helps students prepare to face the communications implications of workplace controversies and crises.
Rationale for the Controversy Exercise
Business communication courses provide an opportunity for students to learn about the range of issues and crises they may face on the job and about how to incorporate standard business communication formats (memos, letters, reports, oral presentations) into their oral and written response strategies. In using controversy and issues, we motivate students to read business news more judiciously (Roever, 1998), gather information about particular industries and companies, and analyze public opinion on particular public issues (Miller, 1999). The exercise uses controversial business news to provoke discussion and build critical thinking as well as help students to develop writing and speaking skills.
Introducing the Controversy Exercise
I begin the controversy exercise with a variety of short news items from the business media. Typically, students will be familiar with the issues that have already garnered national and international attention and participate vigorously in expressing their views on the matter. (Issues such as the Firestone tire recall and the Microsoft antitrust case were discussed recently.) I have also used more obscure and regional news items to allow for a more careful study of issues that might not attract national interest but could still be critical to a company's image and survival. For the next two or three classes, depending on the schedule, I ask students to scan business publications for other controversial business news, photocopy the articles, and bring them to class for analysis and critique. In some cases, I ask them to write a one-page memo summarizing the issue described in the article and discussing the implications for the company involved.
Whenever possible, I invite guest speakers from local companies to discuss their involvement in controversy on the job. If I have a particular guest in mind, I ask the class to search electronic databases for news related to the incident (ABI/Inform and Academic Universe databases have been very helpful) in order to become familiar with the issue. The research helps broaden the students' perspectives on the company's involvement and generates questions to pose to the speaker. For example, when I invited the manager of the controversial restaurant chain Hooters to speak, I asked students to not only consider their personal views on the company's practices but also how they might respond as managers and stockholders in the company. Thus, when the Hooters manager spoke, he was impressed with the amount of preparation that was apparent in the types of questions the students asked.
To demonstrate how mundane office procedures can result in litigation and controversy, I invited a human resources director to discuss the importance of clear communication when evaluating an employee's performance. The guest described how he worked with a manager to document the habits of an employee who was to be terminated. The process had been complicated by the involvement of the employee's union. The guest speaker showed the class a thick file containing the memos and letters sent to various supervisors, the employee, and the union's representative over a two-year span. When the employee was eventually terminated, it caused some commotion among the employees and union members, but the process had been so carefully documented and communicated that a potential crisis had been averted. …