Exploring the Boundaries of Crisis Communication: The Case of the 1997 Red River Valley Flood

By Sellnow, Timothy L.; Seeger, Matthew | Communication Studies, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

Exploring the Boundaries of Crisis Communication: The Case of the 1997 Red River Valley Flood


Sellnow, Timothy L., Seeger, Matthew, Communication Studies


Organizational crisis, natural disasters, community tragedies, and similar cataclysmic events are increasingly powerful social forces. The recall of Firestone Tires has significantly affected Bridgestone Firestone, the Ford Motor Company, the auto industry, and millions of consumers. The recent summer wild fires of Montana and Idaho displaced entire communities, devastated industries and destroyed the homes and property of thousands. The school shooting in Littleton, Colorado, took the lives of 13, forever changed the community, and fundamentally altered perceptions of school security. These and a wide variety of similar crisis events are increasing in magnitude, in frequency, and in scope of impact. In this essay, we examine the highly dynamic and increasingly important area of crisis communication, including the evolving understanding of the role of communication in crisis. We describe four major theoretical perspectives for the examination of crisis. Further, we report on an extensive research program detailing the devastating 1997 North Dakota floods from a variety of perspectives, including issues of risk communication, the role of communication in crisis renewal, and the role of information and the media in crisis.

Our examination and analysis of the 1997 flood is based on a wide array of information collected using a variety of methods. Approximately 50 residents whose homes and property were directly affected by the flood were interviewed. City, county, and state officials active in the flood resistance efforts were interviewed. In addition, Media accounts of the flood and a report generated by an interstate and international task force, as well as data from such agencies as the Federal Emergency Management Administration and the Army Corps of Engineers were examined. These approaches were consistent with our goal of constructing the most comprehensive understanding possible of this seminal event. We argue that this case analysis allows us to identify implications for understanding the communicative aspects of the 1997 flood and the study of crisis communication more generally.

CONCEPTS OF CRISIS AND COMMUNICATION

As a general principle, crisis-related risk is more pervasive in modern society than ever before. Charles Perrow (1984), for example, argues that crisis is associated with increased technology and modern society's drive to build more things "that can crash, burn and explode" (p. 9). Larger, more complex systems and greater dependence on these systems have contributed to greater crisis vulnerability. The ability of any single manager to see all aspects of a system and identify unanticipated interactions is reduced proportionate to system size and complexity. Moreover, organizational environments are increasingly dynamic, interrelated, complex, and hostile, enhancing the probabilities of crisis. Globalization and constant technological change are two immutable forces accelerating environmental complexity and creating unforeseen interactions.

Two trends are driving scholars and practitioners to increasingly recognize the need to develop a richer understanding of organizational crisis. First, practitioners need more information regarding how best to manage these events. Professional crisis managers, associated primarily with state and local governments, are increasingly called on to reduce the harm and disruptions associated with crises. These practitioners, in turn, are seeking a fuller understanding of the processes of crisis, including the ways in which communication can assist in planning, coordination, uncertainty reduction, forms of support, and crisis mitigation. Second, a small but important effort is underway to see crises from new perspectives. While crisis has almost universally been seen as negative and disruptive, crises are archetypal events fundamentally altering relationships, structures, and belief systems. Crisis removes the assumption of the status quo and creates the opportunity for radical change and readjustment. …

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