Crises and disasters are increasingly common in their occurrence and increasingly widespread in their impact. Events such as the Indian Ocean tsunami and Hurricane Katrina illustrate the potential devastation caused by natural disasters, particularly as they interact with human development. Technology-based disasters, sometimes called accidents, such as the Chernobyl nuclear plant explosion, the leak of toxic material over the sleeping community of Bhopal, India, or the Exxon Valdez oil spill, can also create widespread devastation. In addition, the outbreak of diseases such as acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), sudden acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), or H5N1, avian influenza, represent yet another kind of disaster. Finally, terrorism, as witnessed in the 9/11 attacks and the London transportation system bombings, has become an increasingly prominent and insidious form of disaster (O’Hair et al. 2005).
Crises and Disasters: Definitions and Typologies
In general, disasters are “nonroutine events in societies or their larger subsystem (e.g., regions or communities) that involve social disruption and physical harm” (Kreps 1989, 34). The United Nations Committee on Humanitarian Relief defines a disaster as “a sudden, calamitous event that seriously disrupts the functioning of a community or society and causes human, material, economic, or environmental losses that exceed the community’s or society’s ability to cope using its own resources” (2006).
Crises are usually conceptualized as more limited in scope involving “a specific, unexpected, and nonroutine organizationally-based event or series of events, which creates high levels of uncertainty and threat or perceived threat to an organization’s high priority goals” (Seeger et al. 1998, 233). Karl Weick argues that crises are “low probability/ high consequence events that threaten the most fundamental goals of the organization. Because of their low probability, these events defy interpretations and impose severe demands on sense-making” (1988, 305). During crisis and disasters, established routines, relationships, norms, belief systems, and sources of information and order break down or no longer function. Thus, these events are often characterized by confusion, disorder, misunderstanding, and uncertainty.
Disasters and crises include a wide variety of types such as intentional or unintentional, human-made or natural, and sudden in their onset or slow to evolve (Quarantelli 1988; Seeger et al. 2003). In general, disasters are seen as dramatically abnormal events that create widespread disruption and suspension of the status quo, and that require some organized, often governmentally based, response to contain and mitigate the harm. Disasters and crises are associated with three defining characteristics: high levels of uncertainty, surprising or unanticipated occurrences, and short response time (Seeger et al. 2003).
Disasters have different scopes. In general, those disasters labeled “natural” are the most devastating. In terms of modern disasters, the July 1976 Tangshan quake in China was estimated to have cost 250,000 lives. Floods also create widespread destruction. In 1939, floods ravaged northern China and may have claimed as many as 500,000 lives. Some estimates for the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 26, 2004 suggest 300,000 deaths. Disasters involving specific outbreaks of infectious disease account for untold numbers of deaths. The 1918 –1919 influenza pandemic, known as the Spanish flu, is estimated to have killed as many as 100 million people worldwide, including 500,000 in the US.
Communication Functions and Processes in Disasters
Communication scholars and practitioners have described a number of instrumental functions of communication during crises. In fact, communication is frequently described as a core function of crisis and disaster management and response. Functions include: (1) clarifying risk and encouraging preparedness; (2) issuing evacuations and warning; (3) enhancing coordination, cooperation, and logistics; (4) facilitating mitigation on the part of the public and affected communities; (5) helping make sense of the disaster; (6) reassuring, comforting, and consoling those affected; and (7) recreating order and meaning, facilitating renewal, and learning and disseminating lessons (Auf Der Heide 1989; Seeger et al. 2005).
In a number of cases, failure to communicate effectively was a significant factor in the onset of a disaster. In the case of the Red River flood of 1997 in Grand Fork, North Dakota, for example, failure to communicate correct information about the expected crest of the river meant that makeshift levees were too low (Sellnow et al. 2002). Scholars have suggested that the disaster of the space shuttle “Challenger” was a consequence of failed communication at NASA. In other cases, ineffective communication has significantly enhanced the level of harm. Following the World Trade Center attack, for example, fire fighters, police, and other emergency personnel were unable to communicate with one another due to incompatible equipment. Some emergency personnel did not receive the order to leave the collapsing World Trade Center. This event has led to a major push toward communication interoperability among emergency personnel.
During a disaster, established channels of communication are often disrupted or inaccessible. A significant proportion of the telecommunication capacity for Lower Manhattan, for example, was located on the World Trade Center. At the same time, the abnormal conditions of a crisis or disaster increase the importance of information. This accounts for the condition of high uncertainty or what has sometimes been described as an information vacuum; where there is an intense need for information at the very time when information is scarce.
Disaster communication is a diverse, interdisciplinary field that spans political science, anthropology, sociology, and public health, among others. In addition, disaster communication has roots in applied issues and practices. Recently, several useful theoretical frameworks have emerged that are helping to unify this body of diverse research.
Apologia or image restoration involves a comprehensive body of research detailing the post-crisis communication strategies available to organizations (see Benoit 1995; Coombs 1999). These image restoration strategies are most often associated with organizations perceived to have caused or contributed to a crisis or those organizations that have somehow failed to mount an effective response. These strategies are grounded in “the belief . . . that communication (words and actions) does affect how stakeholders perceive the organization in crisis” (Coombs 1999, 121). Benoit (1995) offers the most comprehensive and widely applied typology of image restoration strategies. His five image restoration strategies include: (1) denial, (2) evading responsibility, (3) reducing offensiveness of the event, (4) corrective action, and (5) mortification.
A concept known as the discourse of renewal has recently been offered as an alternative to image restoration. Grounded in larger notions of organizational responsibility and the opportunities inherent in any crisis, renewal is a more provisional response to many crises and disasters in that it is guided by values and a natural response to the crisis (Seeger & Ulmer 2001, 2002; Ulmer et al. 2006). The guiding impetus is to recover, rebuild, and learn. Image restoration, in contrast, is guided by a strategic position designed to minimize cost and harm, and repair image. Adaptations of chaos theory to crisis and crisis communication have resulted in powerful insights about the role of communication and about the behavior of complex, nonlinear systems (Sellnow et al. 2002). Chaos theory is also closely aligned with Perrow’s (1999) normal accident theory of systemic crisis. In both, the assumption is that systems reach a level of complexity where severe failure, or bifurcation, becomes programmed into system operations. Chaos theory, however, also suggests that underlying factors, called attractors, serve to reconstitute the organization following these bifurcations. Attractors may take many forms, including proximity variables, social values, shared goals, and communication processes. Some tenants of chaos theory also view crisis as a natural or evolutionary force, allowing for the emergence of new higher-order structures and processes. Some scholars have built upon this notion, emphasizing the opportunities inherent in a crisis or disaster. A forest fire may create widespread devastation, yet create room for new growth. In fact, some species of tree require fire for their seeds to become viable. In the same way, a crisis may call attention to longstanding social problems and create new opportunities for change.
Developmental approaches, or stages of disasters and crises, have been described by a number of scholars (Pauchant & Mitroff 1992; Coombs 1999). These approaches describe crisis and disaster events as series of interrelated phenomena occurring developmentally over time and moving through relatively discrete and predictable stages or phases.
Developmental models have been outlined by a number of researchers and represent one of the most common tools for crisis analysis. These models range from simple three stage models of pre-crisis, crisis, and post-crisis, to much more detailed stages. Turner (1976) identified six stages: (1) normal starting point, (2) incubation period, (3) precipitating event, (4) onset, (5) rescue and salvage – first stage adjustments, and (6) full cultural adjustment. Some of these approaches have linked communication activities directly to specific stages (Coombs 1999; Reynolds & Seeger 2005). The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has developed a crisis and emergency risk communication fivestage model (CERC) that matches specific health communication strategies to specific developmental stages (Reynolds & Seeger 2005). Developmental models also capture the time-sensitive nature of these events. Disasters compress the interval between decision, actions, and antecedent conditions on the one hand and outcomes, reactions, and consequences on the other. Time compression is associated with high levels of decision-maker stress and the need to move quickly to limit harm during a disaster.
An additional body of work has applied the organizational theory of enacted sense making to crises and disasters. This work focuses on how individuals and groups lose important social and behavior references during crisis and how communication may help reconstitute sense-making (Weick 1988, 1993; Seeger et al. 2003). This reconstituted ability to make sense may include a new fundamental understanding of what is customary or routine. Some scholars have used the term new normal to describe the ways in which crises and disasters may fundamentally alter a sense of normalcy (Sellnow et al. 2002).
Much of the research on disaster evacuations and warnings has adopted and expanded the risk communication literature and focuses on the effectiveness of warning messages. Mileti and his colleagues (Mileti & Sorenson 1990; Mileti & Fitzpatrick 1992; Mileti & Peek 2000) have suggested that warnings require six components: (1) hearing, (2) understanding, (3) believing, (4) personalizing, (5) decisions, and (6) actions. A variety of factors has been demonstrated to impact this warning process. Content of the warning message may include information about the nature of the hazard, what locations may be affected, guidance about what to do, timing of responses, and factors associated with the source (Mileti & Peek 2000). In addition, Mileti suggests that the style of the larger communication is also related to message effectiveness. This includes the relative specificity of the warning, consistency, certainty, clarity, perceived accuracy, sufficiency of the information, and the channel selected. Some research has suggested that these style variables may operate in more complex ways. Overly certain messages such as, “We have everything under control, we know exactly what is happening, and there is no risk,” for example, have been shown to reduce credibility and message effectiveness under conditions of very high uncertainty and may impact message accuracy (Sellnow et al. 2002).
Finally, receiver characteristics are very important determinates of warning message effectiveness. These include: environmental cues, such as rain as the condition of flood warnings; social settings and social structures, such as a family being physically unified at the time of the warning; social ties, such as family cohesion, social structure, including demographic variables; psychological factors, such as cognitive features; and finally, prewarning perceptions, including pre-existing attitudes toward hazards. Riad et al. (2001) have added gender differences, social influences and support, and prior evacuation experience to the list of receiver characteristics. Women have been consistently found to be more willing to evacuate. Social influence factors include observing others evacuating. In addition, prior evacuation is a strong predictor of future evacuation.
Recent episodes, including the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the devastation caused by the 2005 hurricane season, have generated additional investigations of disaster communication. Although very wide-ranging, many of these investigations have focused on diffusion of information, uses and gratifications of disaster information, and media use.
A series of studies has examined media usage and the diffusion of information during crises and disasters (see Greenberg 2002). Several studies concluded that television is the most widely used channel for disaster information, followed by radio. Both radio and television are very immediate forms of communication, and radio in particular is a very robust technology that can be easily adapted to crisis conditions (Sellnow et al. 2002). One study of media usage following 9/11 found that on average, individuals engaged in 8.4 hours of television viewing that day. Interpersonal channels of communication, however, are also important particularly as individuals seek out very specific kinds of information. In fact, word of mouth played a very important role in disseminating initial news about disasters even though subjects tended to disassociate their attribution of the initial source over time.
Work on diffusion of disaster information has generally supported the established S curve of information dissemination associated with the dissemination of more general news. In general, information disseminated through the media is diffused slowly at first, reaches a point where more rapid diffusion occurs, then reaches a plateau, at which stage a secondary surge occurs. One exception seems to be the speed of dissemination. Generally, news of disasters spreads very quickly and may flatten this S curve somewhat (Greenberg 2002).
The uses and gratifications model of mass media has formed the basis of a series of studies on 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. These studies have focused on the needs, preferences, and uses of information reported by individuals. In general, these studies have concluded that information needs and uses vary by gender and by the relationship individuals have to an event. The closer the psychological or physical proximity to the event, the greater the need for information. Women may prefer information about mitigation and management, while men appear more interested in information about consequence and response. Needs and uses may also vary by race, social-economic class, and by perceived vulnerability.
Disaster and crisis communication is a robust, interdisciplinary field that has received a great deal of attention in recent years. The field not only includes an important research tradition, but is also an important area of applied work. Research thus far has benefited from powerful theoretical frameworks and identified a number of fundamental concepts that impact the effectiveness of these messages. Much more work is needed, however, in part because disasters are such dynamic events and new threats and implications of threats are constantly emerging.
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