, Glen T. Cameronb
aSchool of Journalism & Mass Communications, University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC 29208, USA
bSchool of Journalism, University of Missouri – Columbia, Columbia, MO 65211, USA Received 15 September 2005; received in revised form 16 February 2006; accepted 22 February 2006
Analyzing news coverage to recount a fast-moving, dramatic marketing PR incident that occurred in South Korea, the contingency theory of conflict management and crisis management strategies are integrated to examine how crisis is communicated and managed in a very short period of time. Several types of strategies were utilized by contending parties through the various stages of the crisis life cycle. We found evidence for a new contingent variable that should be added in the matrix of contingent factors–the importance of Internet community and Netizens as organized and influential public. Netizens played an important role throughout the crisis period in changing the organization’s stance from advocacy to accommodation.
© 2006 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Keywords: Crisis management; Contingency theory; Public relations; Conflict
Netian Entertainment released a series of nude photos as screen savers on Korean cell phones. The photos depicted a Korean actress Lee as Korean comfort women who were abducted, raped, and ruthlessly used by the Japanese army as sex slaves during World War II. Comfort women are a living symbol of sorrow and tragedy in Korea’s history. Many human rights groups and angry citizens immediately expressed abhorrence against the photos through protests and Internet discussion, insisting the project be stopped.
Based on Cameron’s contingency theory of conflict management in public relations and Coomb’s crisis management typology, we analyzed 98 news stories over the course of 8 days to document how parties involved in this episode engaged in strategic conflict management, enacting many features of Cameron and Coombs’ typologies. We identified a unique but generalizable new contingent factor, Netizen pressure (online grassroots uproar) that previous quantitative studies of contingency theory have not identified.
During the launching conference, Netian Entertainment claimed that they planned the nude project based on the comfort women theme “to express the sacrifices, revenge, and overcoming of anger that comfort women must have
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Despite intense criticism from civic groups and the immediate groundswell of angry Netizens, however, the company insisted that they had no intention to exploit comfort women for commercial purpose. Although faced with acute criticism from the start, the company very strongly advocated its stance and did not budge in the first several days from its original plan, striving to justify its position.
Netian immediately faced financial damages when wireless carriers refused to service the photos. Despite the critical public mood due to the sensitive issue (issue under question) and threats such as litigation and economic loss, the company still advocated its initial position. Meanwhile, it tried to seek a conversation with comfort women and civic groups to obviate pending litigation, employing strategies like excuses and corrective action.
On Day 3, the company still argued that they “were not trying to make money out of the pictures, rather, we were trying to raise the social consciousness and to protest against Japan which would not make an apology after committing a historical crime.” After releasing the publicity, however, company’s spokesperson and CEO disappeared, so news organizations could not contact them. The Korean Council (for the Korean Women Drafted for Military sexual slavery by Japan) announced that if the company would not officially cancel the project in 2 days, they would lead a huge protest with other women’s organizations as well as sue the company for defamation of character. As with the off-line movement to stop the project, countless messages opposing the project filled cyberspace in the third day of the incident.
Netian seemed startled by the negative public mood from the Netizens, extensive media criticism, and legal actions (Threats). However, the company did not change its initial stance, instead attempted to justify their intention through publicity.
On Day 4, more than 40,000 people participated in an Internet chat room to express their opposition against the project and some participants then met in person to discuss the next step they would take against Netian. News media closely reported Netizen’s criticism against the company.
On Day 5, Netian Entertainment held a news conference and announced that the company would suspend any further production of the nude project and pleaded for forgiveness: “We never intended to upset the comfort women who are still tormented by their past memories. But if the photos will insult them, then we will stop all photographing from now on.” However, a Netian director still argued that, “The project had no commercial purpose but was designed to distribute to Japan and United States to get international attention for comfort women.” Despite the company’s apology, comfort women and The Korean Council organized a demonstration. Stock value of companies related to the project plummeted, leading to these companies apologizing with promises that all future production would be suspended.
After 2 days of disappearance, Netian Entertainment suddenly changed its stance from advocacy to accommodation of the public’s demands, actively took a course of action to manage the crisis by holding press conference, and showed a gesture of apology (Ingratiation) while offering an excuse to justify its position by saying that their intention was a good one (Justification). Nonetheless, the public refused to accept the apology and took a stronger advocating stance, demanding the promise of not circulating all existing photos.
On Day 6, in addition to the apology given by the company, actress Lee visited a shelter for comfort women to seek their forgiveness. Yet, comfort women did not accept Lee’s apology saying, “Unless you get rid of them [existing photos], your apology is just a sham.” They also demanded the President of Netian Entertainment should make an apology. Again, more than 45,000 citizens participated in the Daum Internet chat room (www.caf´e.daum.net/antilee) to criticize the company and actress.
Although the actress made her public apology without mentioning any excuse (Full Apology), the comfort women and civic groups had not changed their stances, refusing the apology and demanded burning up the pictures.
On Day 7, Netian Entertainment proposed a press screening of all the photographs they took and asked for an unbiased judgment from the media, civic groups, and citizens, asserting: “If our original intention won’t be understood after the open press screening, we will surely get rid of all of the original images. On the contrary, if attendees understand our purpose after the screening, we will donate all the profits out of the photos to help the comfort women.” Public anger mounted once again. Civic groups argued that the apologies the company and actress made were phony, calling them “liars.” All news media and Netizens also harshly criticized the company’s recalcitrant proposal.
change of stance is somewhat puzzling. Perhaps Netian felt they needed to take some action in order to restore their image by holding firm while giving up immediate economic profits. Internal threat (longer term economic loss, marring of stockholders’ perception of the company’s resolution) may have been the important contingent factor changing its stance.
On Day 8, the controversy began to die down as the company totally changed its stance from the previous day:
“Yielding to the simmering public outcry, Park, director of Netian Entertainment, burned all photographs and images of Lee before reporters.”
At last, the company totally surrendered to the publics and fully accommodated their demands by incinerating the photos (Full Apology).
Internet becomes an important public opinion forum, especially when controversial issues break out. In this light, Netizens are no longer invisible entities but become a very important public of whom crisis management experts must carefully deal with. Discovering the importance of Internet and Netizens in current crisis management is one of the significant findings in this study.
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