Organizational Ethos in Crises Management

Crises Management in the Shadows of Self-Promotion

Melody Bowden’s Tweeting an Ethos:  Emergency Messaging, Social Media, and Teaching Technical Communication focused on the ethos that organizations encourage through their social media posting.  Her viewpoint that such groups have a duty to put their audience’s needs first was eye opening.  Meeting the reader’s expectations contributes to the organizational ethos, but Bowden also suggested that organizations have some responsibility in facilitating an informed community.

I think that most of us anticipate that an organization or corporation, when communicating via non-cyber media, will put their own agenda first.  Oh, sure… We expect them to spin their message so there is the appearance of truly caring about the audience; but, we still notice the shameless plugs, the product placement, or the solicitation for a donation.  We get glimpses of what the organization is really after and usually it isn’t just to be helpful, devoid of an ulterior motive.

Bowden’s study revealed that in a time of crises the Twitter posts by both CNN and the American Red Cross had the highest concentration of tweets fall into the category of “self-referential posts designed to promote the organizations’ programming and accomplishments” (P. 46).  I am not surprised.   But reading about Bowden and her student’s surprise, made me reexamine how I think technical communicators and the groups they represent should present themselves in social media and why social media is different.

Questioning How Social Media is Different 

She suggests that, for the sake of ethos, organizations should not focus so heavily on self-promotion.  She explains, “Technical communication scholars need to continue to study…how these forums can be used to promote a safe and informed citizenry as well as the objectives of corporations, nonprofit organizations, and government agencies” (P. 50).  I find it interesting that she mentions “a safe and informed citizenry.”  This statement seems to be referencing the internet as a community.   This “community” concept has been a subject of controversy in many of our readings.  So, if we accept the internet as a type of “community” does this really make these groups responsible for fostering it?  Or, is she only referring to the specific real world citizens of the community where the crises is occurring?

Additionally, if she is saying that organizations should abandon self-promotion to focus on the needs of an actual non-digital community in crises, then why don’t we have those expectations of the communication that occurs in those communities offline?  Why is this study about the organizational ethos as it applies to social media and not championing organizational ethos as it pertain to all media?  For instance, I lived in Florida for the last 28 years.  I am no stranger to hurricane season.  The television stations, newspapers, radio stations, local organizations and even home improvement stores, grocery stores and convenience stores would get involved in storm preparedness outreaches.  And when disaster struck, they had a plan for reaching out to the community, but you could always see the company promoting itself alongside those efforts.  It was expected.

I am also wondering how an organization can afford to not take advantage of these situations. Perhaps they should not be so overt in their self-promotion, but they may not have this exact audience in front of them except in times of crises.  If they don’t get their message to them now, when will they?  The audience is using the organization for something they need.  Why can’t the organization saturate it in their own message?  Annoying?  Yes.  A bit uncouth?  Probably.  But expected?  Understandable? Kind of.

An Inspiring Future

Before anyone misunderstands my Devil’s advocate type thought process, I am not disparaging or arguing her ideas.  Bowden opened my eyes to a whole set of possibilities.  I actually like the idea of a technical communicator as a facilitator of community who provides a service-oriented message to the reader.  The questions about how to go about it and how to preserve ethos are fascinating.  I think serving the community while somehow satisfying the objectives of an organization sounds both challenging and inspiring.  The questions that I have shared are ones that I continue to play around with in my head.  I rather like this new vision of where technical writing can go and I look forward to seeing how these concepts evolve.

Posted on November 8, 2015, in Digital, Social Media, Society, Trust and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Hi,

    When I first started reading your post, I was taken aback by your “devils-advocate” stance. Then I realized we were conceptualizing different types of industries, corporations, and ethical responsibilities. I absolutely agree that its impossible to view corporate marketing materials or gestures of goodwill without seeing self-serving promotion. But I don’t see it at my college beyond whats expected. On Twitter and Facebook we’ll congratulate our athletes for wins or students on achievements without mentioning how students should enroll now. In addition, while communication could be better within the college, when the Board or Administration presents information it’s not slanted.

    Like you I’ve spent the majority of my life in Florida and have lived through some scary hurricanes. And like you, I abhor the new journalism of of disaster news reporting. What once was quickly reported due to the emergency and impact is now drawn out through a series of program break-ins to tease viewers into watching later. That’s self-serving and wrong. Don’t cut into my show to say something like “Hurricane upgraded to historical disaster kills 100 and headed for Tampa – tune in tonight at 11 for more.” Worse, they’ll have a reported in the eye of the hurricane and it becomes about the reporters safety and bravery for being there.
    Here’s a good article on ethics in disaster reporting making the point that journalists must focus on the event and lives affected, and not make it about themselves:

    I agree with Bowden’s assertion that organizations should put audience needs first, and that they have a responsibility in facilitating an informed community. Don’t we, as technical communicators share the same responsibilities? Isn’t ‘meet your audience’s needs’ a mantra in our profession? Journalism and writing are intrinsically tied and corporations who report news should be held to a standard of high ethics. As such, her stance for a model to help students collaborative tweets, assess their rhetorical effects and improve their awareness, may make the next generation of news and corporate leaders more ethically responsible.

    Good post.

  2. Hi Rebecca,

    Good post! I agree that organizations, if they must self-promote, should at least do more to balance it with news and announcements that are helpful. As a matter of fact, I would argue that organizations that provide information of real value are already promoting themselves without being overt (and seemingly self-serving), thus increasing their status as a trusted source. I really believe readers are smart enough to see through the self-promotion and be turned off by it. We shouldn’t waste the viewer’s/reader’s valuable time as they prepare for an impending, and possibly life-threatening, disaster. Organizations can become the information source of choice by actually providing what they claim to.


  3. I agree with your peers: great post that reads with and against the article. I can’t remember if Bowden points this out or not, but during Hurricane Katrina [and pre-Twitter] a personal website was changed forever thanks to people Googling the name:

    I just so happened to be named “Katrina” and this was my personal site … little did I know that over 15 billion hits within one day of Hurricane Katrina hitting the coast would come here … to learn … to read … to find help … to offer help … and that this website would be used as such to be a blessing to thousands of people all over the globe.

    And in Liza Potts’ book about social media and disaster response, she notes a similar effect on the Craig’s List page where people were posting in efforts to find missing people.

  4. natashajmceachin

    Hi Rebecca,

    This may be naive of me, but at times I’m still slightly offended when businesses exploit a sensitive/tragic topic or event for personal gain. It’s almost as if they’re exploiting misfortune, or piggybacking off issues that anyone with decent morals would think is far more important than money.

    These strategies make consumers distrust businesses, and I’ve personally been turned off by these practices. I agree that businesses have the social responsibility to facilitate an informed community, and if more businesses simply provided information they’d gain much more trust an possibly more revenue.

    • I agree with you completely! While I accept the practice, I don’t necessarily like it. It reminds me of when I used to watch live television and they would run “teasers” for the news: “Join as at 10:00 PM to find out why your children may be in mortal danger at school.” No!!! I want to know now. So, in a perfect world, I do think that organizations and media would put the consumer first.

  5. Hi Rebecca!
    Your post was really interesting for me to ponder this week. Two years ago we lost two-thirds of our company’s headquarters to a fire. So when it comes to crisis communication and outreach, this is not new for us. What was interesting in our situation though was the amount of in-reach from the community we received. As a company, our goal was to ensure the Co-op did not have any downtime. The month of our fire was one of our best. And the kicker was – we didn’t use it as an opportunity to sell a brand.

    But what was amazing to me was the amount of communication we did to the community was overwhelming and heartfelt. But the communication to our employees was dithering. We relied on phone trees (which were probably not up to date). I pushed to try and get communications on local television and radio (especially for our staff) but many of our marketing and PR staff really pushed for online/Web and social media out reach. But in our rural area, when disaster strikes, people turn to local radio stations (especially when we have limited options for reaching out to our employees).

    I feel it is very important that companies are able to connect with their audience based on their needs. But when the channels cannot reach the audience based on those needs – that’s when I think we have big problems.


    • When I see companies who do chose to take the “high road,” I take notice. Maybe that is the hidden reward for those companies. The audience will remember how an organization stepped up to help and not just “sell a brand.” I think an audience can feel authenticity too.

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