Crisis Communication as Crisis Management
Crisis communication may be regarded as a field of inquiry that has benefited from numerous disciplines including international relations, diplomacy studies, psychology and communication studies. While each discipline focuses on a specific facet of crisis communication, all are in consensus that a crisis represents a major challenge to governments. This challenge stems from the fact that during a crisis, “the pillars of normal life come crashing down”. The meta-narratives and frames used by citizens and the media to make sense of the world no longer apply (Boin et al., 2013) . As people try to make sense of the new unfolding reality, they are bombarded by a myriad of different stakeholders each contradicting one another and each trying to frame the crisis to their own advantage.
It has therefore been argued by several scholars, and practitioners, that good crisis management rests on good crisis communication. During crises, be it an unexpected hurricane, a terror attack or an escalating military conflict, governments must quickly and efficiently disseminate a narrative that once again makes sense of the world. Boin et al., have argued that such narratives should include an explanation of what has happened, what consequences can be expected, how will the crisis be resolved, who can be depended upon and who should be blamed.
The terror attacks of recent months (Paris, Tel Aviv and Orlando) all demonstrate that Boin’s model must now also be extended the digital sphere. This is due to the fact that a) people use social media and social networks to gather information and make sense of events b) stakeholders and the media now use social networks to frame crises and c)social media soon becomes a breeding ground of rumors and half-truths alongside accurate information that has yet to be released by the government. Thus, if governments want to manage an unfolding crisis trough communication channels they must contend with online narratives, rumors and breaking news.
Boin’s model also seems to be lacking an important component of crisis communication- demonstrating that the government and its leaders are in control. Indeed after the Paris attacks one of the first images to be disseminated online by the French government was that of the French President in the “situation room”. Next, governments often release images of heads of government visiting the site of the crisis in order to demonstrate that they are in control of events and not controlled by them.
In this post I explore how the Israeli government reacted online to last week’s attacks in Tel Aviv. This included tweets published on numerous digital diplomacy accounts including the Prime Minister’s English twitter account, the Twitter account of the PM’s spokesperson, the Israeli MFA and the IDF’s English twitter channel. Digital diplomacy channels are now an integral part of crisis communication, even in times of domestic crisis, given that foreign populations, policy makers and global news outlets all follow these accounts. Thus, governments can impact the narratives o crisis through digital diplomacy channels.
The Israeli Government’s Online Narrative of the Tel Aviv Terror Attacks
Stage 1- The government is in control of events
One of the first tweets to be published following the Tel Aviv attacks was authored by the Prime Minister’s spokesman stating that the PM was back in Israel after a visit to Russia and was about to convene his cabinet. A similar tweet was the published on the PM’s own Twitter account.
Next, the Prime Minister’s office published a tweet according to which the government had received updates from security forces on the events and was crafting a response to the attacks. These tweets were meant to illustrate that government agencies and security forces were mounting a coordinated response to the attacks.
Later during the night, the Israeli Prime Minister’s office published a video of the PM visiting the site of the attacks. This video may have been published in an attempt to demonstrate that the government was in control of events rather than the opposite.
Stage 2- What happened?
Next, the government began publishing tweets detailing what had transpired in Tel Aviv. Although much of these details were already reported on by both the national and international media, there was still much speculation as to the amount of people injured, the amount of attacks carried out and the possibility that some terrorists were still roaming the streets of Tel Aviv.
Interestingly, the IDF published accounts of what had occurred long before the Israeli MFA or the PM’s office. One has to wonder to what extent was the IDF coordinating its information dissemination and messages with other ministries and agencies.
Later in the night the Israeli MFA published the twee below that offered the government’s full narrative of what happened. The image published with the tweet showed the PM, the Defense Minister and Internal Security Minister at the scene demonstrating yet again that the government was in control of the situation.
Stage 3 and 4- How will the crisis be resolved and what consequences will it have?
Here the message of the Israeli government was very similar to that of the French government following the attacks in Paris or President’s Obama’s address following the shooting in Orlando. The crisis will not be resolved simply by force, but by coming together as a nation, reaffirming the nation’s commitments to it values and staying true to those values as a way of preventing the terrorists from achieving their goal. The tweet below, published by the Tel Aviv municipality, best captures this message as it includes the image of the municipality building lit up with the flag of Israel.
Part of the “resolve in the face of terror” was also manifest through messages of condemnation and support from other governments and government officials. Below are some examples of such tweets that were immediately re-tweeted on Israeli government channels. These tweets may also serve to position Israel alongside other Western democracies thus impacting its image abroad.
Stage 5- Who is to blame?
Here,the Israeli government not only pointed to the culprits but also created a clear dichotomy of “us versus them”. This dichotomy was a normative one stressing that while Israeli doctors were busy saving the life of one of the Palestinian terrorists, Palestinians were celebrating the attacks throughout the West Bank and Gaza. It is this dichotomy that demonstrates the important role values and norms play in diplomacy and crisis communication. Through the depiction of Palestinian joy in the wake of the attacks, the Israeli government was aligning itself with Western governments which have suffered terrorist attacks (e.g., Paris, Brussels) while aligning the Palestinians with the likes of ISIS.
Part of this stage also included a criticism of the Palestinian government that does not take measures to end incitement against Israelis. Notably, the tweet below offers such criticism but uses the term Jews instead of Israelis perhaps as part of an attempt to rally support and a sense of togetherness with the Jewish global diaspora. If this interpretation is correct, it suggests that crisis communication now also includes a sub set of diaspora communication.
From a psychological perspective, such tweets may also be viewed as an attempt to increase the cohesiveness of Israelis and bolster support for the government given the narrative of us versus them and our values versus their values (see example below).
Stage 6- Monitoring news channels
An interesting stage that occurred following the Tel Aviv attacks was a spontaneous review of the news stories published around the world. Israeli citizens, NGOs, officials and diplomats all tweeted or Facebooked at news channels demanding they change their use of language with regard to the attacks. While this is not part of a coordinated government effort, it suggests that in the digital age crisis communication models need to take into account the acts of online publics as these can influence the narratives spread by global news outlets.
Markedly, much anger was directed at the CNN news network for using quotes when referring to the terrorists who committed attacks (“terrorists”). Indeed, in the wake of criticism from Israeli citizens CNN published the tweet below apologizing for its coverage of events.
This post attempted to analyze how the Israeli government used digital diplomacy channels as part of its crisis communication response to last week’s terror attacks in Tel Aviv. The post suggests that such channels are an integral part of crisis management even when the crisis is a domestic one. However, the post also suggests that crisis communication models need to be updated so that they include digital channels, whether those are used by governments, officials or individuals who help disseminate the government’s narrative.
Moreover, a powerful public sphere now shapes coverage of crises through online criticism and monitoring of global news outlets. Moreover, the use of digital channels for crisis communication enables nations to demonstrate their values and norms and how they are aligned with the values of other countries thus impacting the national image.
Finally, by using digital diplomacy channels nations may also attempt to gain support and solidarity from diasporas thus maintaining close bonds with them. The question that remains unanswered is to what extent what the Israeli government’s online narrative part of a coordinated communication strategy bringing together various agencies and ministries.
The two images below illustrate Boin et al.’s model of crisis communication as opposed to a new model that takes into account some of this post’s findings.