Crisis Communication in Canada

To mark the publication this fall of Crisis Communication in Canada, author Duncan Koerber reflects on how crisis management and communication have changed in the digital age. He also comments on the importance for Canadian students of having Canadian content that they can relate to when studying crises in the media. In the midst of the #MeToo movement, his commentary on the Jian Ghomeshi case is especially relevant.

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When I was in the middle of writing my new book, Crisis Communication in Canada, a major public crisis hit a famous radio host. Being one of the first major social media crises in Canadian history, it was the perfect case study for the book. The person in crisis was CBC radio host, author, and celebrity Jian Ghomeshi.

I followed the case from the first news to Ghomeshi’s infamous Facebook post to the post-mortem accounts of Ghomeshi’s trial, in which he was found not guilty of sexual assault. Ghomeshi’s case was interesting because while he was eventually acquitted, it represented the downfall of a favourite son who failed in his crisis communication—an excellent lesson for students.

When I started teaching crisis communication in 2011, I could find only a handful of scholarly cases with a Canadian angle. What issues were uniquely Canadian in this field? I wasn’t sure. This meant my students were reading about Tiger Woods’ domestic assault, the Chicago Tylenol case, and the faux pas of southern US politician Strom Thurmond. But in every class, students brought in uniquely Canadian cases for discussion and debate. Crisis Communication in Canada brings together and emphasizes the study of these Canadian cases to help students work through what went right and wrong, with an eye on our own Canadian issues.

The Ghomeshi case also speaks to an important thread in my book about social media, which is a growing topic of analysis in the field. After years of studying crisis communication, I argue in the book that the social media crisis could be the defining type of our time. I show how these crises develop and how to use social media in prevention and response.

That’s why the early chapters focus first on just what a crisis is—if a student doesn’t know what a crisis is, he or she can’t prevent or respond to it, after all. In the past, crises tended to be defined as large events that disrupted corporations (product failures, oil spills, employee violence) or damaged cities (hurricanes, earthquakes, emergencies). Now, in addition to these crises, we seem to have an abundance of new crises rooted in words posted online. That is, many people, famous or not, write the wrong things on Twitter, and they lose their livelihoods or even face violent retribution. But who decides what is wrong? Mediated communities with certain values. Crisis Communication in Canada provides students with the theoretical background to think more broadly about crises occurring in our Digital Age.

The book also critiques common crisis communication tactics. Jian Ghomeshi tried to use digital communication—a Facebook post right at the start of his crisis—to explain his side of the story. He said the anonymous woman who charged him with sexual assault was a jilted ex-lover. But his public post, shared by thousands, opened up the possibility of counter-narratives through Facebook and Twitter and blogs.

People immediately countered Ghomeshi’s story, and this made the crisis far worse for him. Getting ahead of the narrative, as the Ghomeshi case showed, doesn’t always work in this hyper-mediated world where other voices can provide a strong counterpoint. This kind of analysis in Crisis Communication in Canada helps students question common wisdom—such as “one should always get ahead of the narrative”—and build new crisis communication theory in the process.

Duncan Koerber has taught media studies, communication theory, and writing at a number of universities in the Toronto area. His articles on media and journalism history, writing studies, and crisis communication have appeared in a number of journals including the Canadian Journal of Communication, Public Relations Review, the Journal of Canadian Studies, Journalism History, and the Canadian Journal of Media Studies.