Communicating throughout Katrina: Competing and Complementary Conceptual Lenses on Crisis Communication

Authors


James L. Garnett is a professor of public policy and administration at Rutgers University–Camden. He is the author of Communicating for Results in Government, coeditor of the Handbook of Administrative Communication, and co-author of recent PAR articles on communication. His other research interests include administrative reform and reorganization and crisis management.
E-mail: garnett@camden.rutgers.edu

Alexander Kouzmin is an adjunct professor in management at the University of South Australia and Southern Cross University–Tweed Gold Coast Campus. He is also a visiting professor at the University of Plymouth. He is the author, coauthor, or editor of many books on administrative and organizational issues and the author or coauthor of more than 150 peer-reviewed articles. He is the founding coeditor of the Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management.
E-mail: akouzmin@scu.edu.au

Abstract

Hurricane Katrina was as much a communication disaster as it was a natural and bureaucratic disaster. Communication gaps, missed signals, information technology failures, administrative buffering, turf battles, and deliberate and unintentional misinterpretations delayed and handicapped both the recognition of the crisis that Katrina posed and the response to its devastation. This essay views crisis communication through four conceptual lenses: (1) crisis communication as interpersonal influence, (2) crisis communication as media relations, (3) crisis communication as technology showcase, and (4) crisis communication as interorganizational networking. A conceptual framework is presented that compares these lenses with regard to agency, transparency, technology, and chronology. The planning, response, and recovery stages of the Hurricane Katrina disaster are viewed through these communication conceptual lenses, illustrating key facets of each perspective and adding to our deepening understanding of the events.

Many of the problems we have identified can be categorized as “information gaps”—or at least problems with information-related implications, or failures to act decisively because information was sketchy at best. Better information would have been an optimal weapon against Katrina. Information sent to the right people at the right place at the right time. Information moved within agencies, across departments, and between jurisdictions of government as well. Seamlessly. Securely. Efficiently … One would think we could share information by now. But Katrina again proved we cannot.

—U.S. House Select Bipartisan Committee

With the floodwalls gashed and hemorrhaging billions of gallons of water into the city, it was only a matter of a few hours on Monday before the communications citywide began to fail … Communication was about to become the biggest problem of the catastrophe.

—Christopher Cooper and Robert Block, Disaster: Hurricane Katrina and the Failure of Homeland Security

Truth became a casualty, news organizations that were patting their own backs in early September were publishing protracted mea culpas by the end of the month.

—Matt Welch, “They Shoot Helicopters, Don’t They?”

Ancillary