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Avow or Avoid?: The Public Communication Strategies of Enron and WorldCom
Unformatted Document Text:  Avow or Avoid? 2 Introduction The public messages of organizations are always important and worthy of careful construction and analysis, but that importance is ratcheted up during times of organizational crisis. Typically, when an organization is in crisis the dominant coalition of the organization, that is the members of the executive team, take a more active role in message development and public presentation. Scholars have noted a variety of crisis communication styles. This research sets out to explore the communication style of organizations in the midst of what has become the crisis du jour – financial scandals. In particular, we are interested in determining whether messages were primarily open or diversionary in the initial days of intense public scrutiny of Enron and WorldCom. Fitzpatrick and Rubin (1995) identified typical public relations and legal communication strategies for organizations in crisis. The differences in these two communication styles take on increased importance because of the presence of both legal and public relations counsel in the dominant coalition and because of the legendary disagreements between these professions. Public relations practitioners have admitted a sometimes-weak grasp of some legal issues (Fitzpatrick, 1996). Lawyers have a distinct, identifiable psychographic make-up (Daicoff, 1997). This documented division between the professions has been reinforced anecdotally (e.g., Cameron, Cropp & Reber, 2001; Reber, Cropp and Cameron, 2001). The primary goal of this research is to identify communication styles of two organizations that find themselves in a burgeoning crisis and to determine whether the response and its attendant media coverage represents primarily stereotypical legal or public relations response. Based on previous research and findings, this study attempts to determine whether the dominant public communication tactic of these companies was to avow or promote frankness, a traditional public relations stance, or to avoid or be evasive, a traditional legal stance.

Authors: Reber, Bryan. and Gower, Karla.
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Avow or Avoid?
2
Introduction
The public messages of organizations are always important and worthy of careful
construction and analysis, but that importance is ratcheted up during times of organizational
crisis. Typically, when an organization is in crisis the dominant coalition of the organization,
that is the members of the executive team, take a more active role in message development and
public presentation. Scholars have noted a variety of crisis communication styles. This research
sets out to explore the communication style of organizations in the midst of what has become the
crisis du jour – financial scandals. In particular, we are interested in determining whether
messages were primarily open or diversionary in the initial days of intense public scrutiny of
Enron and WorldCom.
Fitzpatrick and Rubin (1995) identified typical public relations and legal communication
strategies for organizations in crisis. The differences in these two communication styles take on
increased importance because of the presence of both legal and public relations counsel in the
dominant coalition and because of the legendary disagreements between these professions.
Public relations practitioners have admitted a sometimes-weak grasp of some legal issues
(Fitzpatrick, 1996). Lawyers have a distinct, identifiable psychographic make-up (Daicoff,
1997). This documented division between the professions has been reinforced anecdotally (e.g.,
Cameron, Cropp & Reber, 2001; Reber, Cropp and Cameron, 2001).
The primary goal of this research is to identify communication styles of two
organizations that find themselves in a burgeoning crisis and to determine whether the response
and its attendant media coverage represents primarily stereotypical legal or public relations
response. Based on previous research and findings, this study attempts to determine whether the
dominant public communication tactic of these companies was to avow or promote frankness, a
traditional public relations stance, or to avoid or be evasive, a traditional legal stance.


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