Blog Archives

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.

The Circle of Trust

This week’s readings deal with privacy, trust, and ethics in the digital world. The Schofield and Joinson piece, “Privacy, Trust, and Disclosure Online,” and the Katz and Rhodes piece in Rachel Spilka’s Digital Literacy for Technical Communication, “Beyond Ethical Frames of Technical Relations,” really approach the same question from different directions. What does it take to gain user trust and maintain integrity in an increasingly digital world?

Schofield and Joinson (2008) argue that privacy and trust “interact in determining online behavior” (p. 24). They discuss multiple dimensions of both privacy and trust, and they suggest that users often rely on some combination of these components of privacy and trust to guide their purchasing decisions and online behavior.

As digital communities grow, members look for ways to verify that other members are who they say they are. Schofield and Joinson (2008) point out that there are many ways to build trust online such as use of profiles, photographs, media switching, and linguistic cues (p. 21). Individuals use these tactics to build trust among other individuals, but how do companies gain the trust of their customers?   The below comic strip is a good example of how companies do not gain customer trust:

Schofield and Joinson suggest that assuring customers that the information they disclose and the transactions they conduct will be dealt with appropriately and competently is an important building block for user trust. Also important is the company’s reputation; if people believe that they can trust a name, this belief can be more influential on purchasing behavior than trust building techniques such as privacy seals and statements.

While conducting business online might require disclosure of more personal information than it does in person, it also offers benefits such as “personalized service, convenience, improved efficiency” (p. 17). As online business continues to grow, this is evidently an acceptable tradeoff to many users. I know that when I am faced with the choice of going on a retail hunt for vacuum cleaner bags in the rain or giving Amazon my address and credit card number and having the vacuum cleaner bags delivered to my door, I almost always choose the latter.

Similarly, many users appreciate the personalized aspects and conveniences of online shopping, which are enabled by user tracking. Schofield and Joinson (2008) assert that users who maintain the same pseudonym in multiple online arenas can be tracked more effectively than users who switch pseudonyms from site to site (p. 26). As pseudonyms protect a person’s identity, I’m not sure why it’s beneficial for a person to have multiple pseudonyms. I tend to think consumers benefit more from enabling companies to track their usage in order to provide them with better products, recommendations, and customer service than from maintaining multiple pseudonyms in order to inhibit user tracking and preserve the notion of privacy.

Katz and Rhodes (2010) argue that “to stay competitive, as well as avoid potential crises, organizations and the professionals within them must both acknowledge and actively engage in multiple ethical frames of technical relations” (p. 230). Essentially, this is also an argument about establishing and maintaining trust and identity through a digital medium.

The 6 ethical frames Katz and Rhodes present explain how we use technical relations to achieve certain goals. Rhodes’ study, in which she examines Email as A Tool and an End, Email as Values and Thought, and Email as a Way of Being, demonstrates that depending on how we use it, email technology can be: both a means and an end, a value system, a method of rational calculation, and an extension of individual consciousness- or some combination of these. Even in the lowest common denominator of these ethical frames, where email is considered a tool, email is the mechanism that facilitates achieving a common goal through a digital medium, which requires at least some notion of trust and integrity.

Katz and Rhodes (2010) offer, “In delineating the ethical frames of technical relations that define human-machine interactions, we therefore recognize the socially dynamic and constructed nature of ethics; indeed because we do, we hold that technology both instantiates and helps construct social and moral values” (p. 231). This statement illustrates the bidirectional relationship between technology and social and moral values; ethics is a fluid concept that changes as social norms change. Social norms are changing as a result of technology, and thus the ethical frames of technical relations offer us a way to correlate the changing use of technology with corresponding ethical implications.

Achieving digital utopia in the workplace

“Ideally, with improved staff spirits and strengthened commitment to the company, in the sanctity frame, employees who are treated as whole human beings will in turn consider the organization’s best interest along with their own, resulting in actions like taking better care of equipment, being frugal with company materials, and treating coworkers with respect” (Katz and Rhodes, 2010, p. 253).

What a utopic vision of the workplace! Truthfully, I think my company has nearly achieved this level of ethical standards with regards to digital technologies, but, for a long time, this was not the case. For several years, we employed outside sales reps who were from the age of old school sales where most client communications were done in-person and notes about the account were kept filed away somewhere in the rep’s home office filing cabinet. The problem with this is that the information is not easily accessible by other members of the sales staff who need it. To counteract this, my company integrated an online customer relationship management (CRM) software that could be accessed anywhere, as long as you had Internet access (and, more recently, available as a mobile phone app).  This CRM program is the one I’ve mentioned in an earlier blog – Salesforce.

Like I was saying, these reps were old school and they fought using Salesforce tooth and nail. Information was rarely entered, phone calls were not logged and there was no accountability. Bringing this back into an ethical framework, was it unethical of these employees to not record their sales activities via the company’s required digital system, or was it unethical of the company to expect these employees, with fewer technological skills, to conform?

At one point in our reading, Katz and Rhodes (2010) said, almost in a disbelieving, joking way, “Imagine hiring an employee who did not know how—or refused—to use email as part of the job!” (p. 245). Yep, that was our company up until a few years ago. All of these old school sales reps are gone now.  The staff we have now is very adept with technology and uses the CRM fully. For a long time, our sales process was very painful, but now it feels like a well-oiled machine.

I think these former employees had a fear of technology. It was something they didn’t understand, and they definitely were not digital natives. Even less so than many of us in this class! Could part of their fear have anything to do with privacy and trust? With Salesforce, whatever information you enter is visible to everyone else who uses the program. With written notes and files, you can pick and choose what you share with the rest of the team (which they did during our weekly sales department calls).

The topic of privacy is an interesting one, not only with regards to something like a CRM program, but also with email and Internet use in the workplace. Most companies have IT departments that closely monitor the email and Internet usage of its employees, which I think is fair. They want to ensure that these tools are used

1) as means to help the company, whether it’s for increasing sales, improving workflows, communicating with vendors and clients, crunching numbers, etc., and

2) in a way that appropriately (ethically) represents the company and preserves its reputation.

So, how much control should a company have over its employees’ technology use? At our company, we have quite a bit of free rein. It makes sense, though, as the majority of our employees work in sales and marketing and we need access to the Internet (including social media sites) to research and learn about clients and competitors. We use email just as much as we use the phone for reaching out to clients and prospects. Our CRM program is online. For the most part, I think the trust that our company places in us makes us want to be more responsible and we rarely have any issues with people abusing this right. According to Schofield and Joinson (2008), this trust comes from the company’s belief in our abilities, integrity and benevolence (p. 19). The company believes that we not only know how to use technology, but that we know how to use it appropriately.

“With great power comes great responsibility.” 
-Uncle Ben, Spiderman

I am grateful for this freedom and trust, especially when I hear about other companies. A coworker of mine was just telling me yesterday that a friend of hers works for a cabinet-making company where there is absolutely no allowance for using email or cell phones for personal reasons at work. In fact, copies of employee email transactions are printed into hard copy each day for review. And, if anyone is caught using their cell phones, it can be grounds for immediate dismissal. Yikes! Is this within the rights of the employer to monitor technology usage in the workplace, or does it transcend those rights and become an invasion of privacy? If someone needs to make a personal call because of a sick child, does the company have any right to interfere? This brings up another interesting question – if the technological device being used belongs to the company vs. the individual, who decides how it can be used?

I don’t necessarily have all the answers to these questions, but I think there might be a final project idea in there somewhere, so ask me again in a few weeks and I might have a few answers! Overall, though, the discussion of ethics is interesting and a rather nice way to put a bow on everything we’ve learned this semester. Now that we have a better understanding of how digital technologies have come about and changed the field of technical communications, how do we use these technologies in a way that is right and good and furthers our field for the better?

With that, I wish everyone the best of luck in pursuing these ideals. It has been a real pleasure getting to know all of you this semester, and, hopefully, our paths will cross again soon!