Communication Currents

Communicating to Restore Hope

October 1, 2010
Crisis Communication

On Monday morning, August 29th, at 6 a.m., the worst natural disaster in U.S. history struck the Gulf Coast of Mississippi.  Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and surrounding cities with winds of 145 mph.  That was only the beginning of the region’s social and public relations nightmare. The real threat came when a levee along the Industrial Canal was breached and rising waters flooded into New Orleans Parish, forcing people onto rooftops and bridges, and wading their way through the destruction. At least 25,000 residents packed into the New Orleans Superdome, where they waited for days without even the most basic of supplies before the federal government enacted an evacuation plan. 

It became clear almost from the beginning that this was a unique type of crisis event with its own set of communication challenges. Almost as quickly as the floodwaters rose in the city, the death toll began to rise. Tensions and suspicions about blame also rose. The Federal Emergency Agency (FEMA) and Homeland Security were blamed for the failed response. Over the next few days, residents trapped in the Superdome – and those in flooded houses, on area bridges and rooftops, in college dorms, and on the streets – felt the brunt of the lack of preparation and coordination of resources at every level of government.

This crisis demanded a new type of communication response that went beyond saving face or protecting a damaged image. This crisis prompted a response that combined corporate communication that helps to alleviate risk and restore public safety with a deeper, more humanistic communication based on restoration, not defense.

In this way, restorative rhetoric--centered on helping those affected by crises cope with loss--plays a significant role in describing unique kinds of crises like natural disasters and acts of terrorism, where issues of blame and responsibility do not function in the same way as crises involving organizational misconduct. These kinds of crises hinge on the ability of crises leaders to help the public make sense of the crisis event and to redefine it in a way that transitions from the physical destruction cased by the crisis to the pursuit of collective action that brings healing and recovery. This is an important role, particularly since these kinds of crises are marked by two audiences – one who witnesses first-hand Instances of natural disaster and terrorism are much different than traditional forms of crisis, not just because they almost always come with little or no warning, but also because the level of damage incurred is often quite extreme.

Communication scholars have extensively examined organizational crises and the lack of apologies that follow them. From Texaco’s defense of its discrimination suit to the collapse of energy giant Enron to NASA’s defense of the Challenger explosion, there are numerous examples of non-apologies. Little attention has been paid to the new demands that social crises place on institutional and government leaders. While these frameworks have helped us to understand which crisis response strategies are most effective, they have not gone far enough toward helping us understand unique crises situations that cause both social and physical harm.

While strategic functions like initiating a crisis response, managing the flow of information, coordinating actions among first responders, and remaining accessible to the media are important to any crisis response, rhetorical functions such as expressing sympathy to victims, framing the meaning of the event, and facilitating renewal are equally important. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, local communities affected by the destruction and those of us who witnessed in despair, needed to hear leaders make sense of what happened.

Initially, Louisiana governor, Kathleen Blanco, seemed to be the obvious spokesperson.She appeared on television with FEMA director, Mike Brown, and she was the first state official to speak with then President Bush. But in the days that followed, it was former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin who proved to be the leader on the ground -- managing the response, recovery, and rebuilding efforts. In his often-emotional responses immediately following the disaster, Nagin employed a communication style that connected him with those he represented and their pleas for assistance.

An analysis of Nagin’s response reveals two layers of communication -- one which spoke directly to his assessment of the crisis, and another layer which reflected his critical commentary on the government’s failed efforts. Even after FEMA representatives arrived, it took additional time for resources to be dispensed. During an explosive interview, Mayor Nagin compared response efforts in New Orleans to the tsunami earthquake off the coast of Thailand in 2004, noting the U.S. government’s attempt to send massive amounts of aid to tsunami victims, while failing to bail out New Orleans.

While Mayor Nagin clearly was not the designated leader to respond to the Katrina crisis, he emerged as leader – primarily because of his ability to connect with his constituency and garner media attention, as well as his physical presence in the midst of the destruction.  Following the crisis, he held town hall meetings in various states to rally New Orleanians around his message of recovery. While some questioned his motives and labeled his efforts “politically motivated”, news reports described Mayor Nagin as working hard – driving around the city, talking to victims, separated from his family – yet, without significant power himself. 

Nagin’s ability to describe a vision for the future of New Orleans seemed to speak to the resilience of the city and its rich history. His leadership can be documented in three ways: 1) his consistent rhetoric of concern for New Orleans residents; 2) his ability to be transparent with (or we could say to be open with) the public and the media; and 3) the actions he took to bring resources into his city, including basic necessities, and evacuation of hurricane victims to safer ground.

What is interesting about this case is that before Katrina, Mayor Nagin faced his own share of controversy. Nevertheless, his emergence as a leader signified the need for someone to frame the experiences in a way that provided a platform for action and a vision for the future. While Nagin’s leadership was initially hampered by an inability to assess the danger of the approaching hurricane, he emerged as a leader on the ground and the spokesperson who drew media attention to the disaster.  

Importantly, a significant feature of Nagin’s crisis-management style was his visibility.  He maintained his presence through constant interviews on television and local radio, communicating up-to-the-hour reports on the state of the city and surrounding areas. The mayor not only used media to help him frame the crisis situation, but also to critique the slow rate of federal response and the lack of resources provided. His critique not only helped to frame Katrina as a failed response effort by the federal government, but it also created outrage among the public and in the media – prompting then President George W. Bush to issue an apology.

Although it has been five years since Hurricane Katrina and Ray Nagin is no longer mayor of New Orleans, his efforts to bring meaningful dialogue about the failed response helped to restore confidence the city would eventually rise again.