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Mudflow Crisis

Rachmat Kriyantono, Ph.D (School of Communication, UB Malang)

The mudflow disaster has resulted in an interconnection between the strategy of management to manage it, the public’s perceptions, and the power or control that the management or the public has. It can be said that an appropriate crisis management was needed because the mudflow crisis in Sidoarjo was changing from an issue to a crisis situation. The event has become part of the public’s awareness and knowledge. It is reasonable to accept that the hot mudflow is a type of crisis which has a wide impact on either the victims or the social life of Indonesian citizens in general. After four years, the mud is still flowing and the problem has not been solved completely. Hence, some negative and unexpected outcomes have taken place. Several issues have been emerging during the mudflow crisis such as environmental, human rights, unfairness laws and regulations, company responsibility, job losses, place displacement, social cultural losses, damage to social facilities, power-business relations, and unfair distribution of compensation. All these issues combined to worsen the crisis and have gradually stimulated public outrage which has resulted in the community demonstrating in the open. The situation can be categorized as an acute crisis because it has not been managed well.

Based on the respondents’ perceptions, the crisis management conducted by the company was not effective. The research revealed three factors that caused ineffective crisis management: Firstly, the victims perceived that the company did not take immediate appropriate action. During the fieldwork (four years of the crisis), compensation payments for losing the homes and land have not been conducted completely. Before receiving money for two years of rental from the company, the victims lived with an uncertain fate. In fact, the consequences of not responding to the crisis promptly, have the victims, as members of the external public, been living in hardship.

Many of the company’s actions were not as expected by the victims in spite of the fact that the company had provided aid and facilities for them in the temporary shelters. The company did all these things after there were reactive mass demands and pressures from the victims. The company seemed to be less responsive to the suffering experienced by the victims. Not only Lapindo but also the government was perceived as dealing with the crisis too slowly. The systematic response, for example, had been established three months after the first eruption by issuing the Presidential Declaration no 13/2006, when several villages were submerged. Both the company and the government seemed to dispose of responsibility: the company said that it was the government’s responsibility while the government said that it was the company’s responsibility.

Indeed, the government intervention as a mediator was very helpful. However, the government was very slow in the implementation of programs which should ideally be actualized promptly. Respondents argued that the government seemed to be ‘afraid of’ the company. The government should have been able to put pressure on the company to quickly overcome the crisis.

Secondly, the victims perceived that the crisis management failed to ensure reliable and regular information, causing uncertainty. The research revealed that the basic problem was closed communication. Neither the company nor the government gave clear explanations about what had happened. For example, warning of the impacts for the community, compensation, and what people should do was not relayed to the victims properly. The information was relayed after the victims conducted demonstrations and this information was only about the compensation.

Thirdly, the research found that the crisis management focused more on maintaining the company’s reputation than on the victims’ fate. Some evidence supported this statement, such as the victims living in the temporary shelters, waiting for months without clear information about compensation, and the company was busier trying to persuade the public that the mudflow was not caused by a drilling error. It can be argued that the aim of the communication strategy was to convince the public that the company was not guilty. Indeed, determining the source that triggers a crisis is important in crisis management. Information about the source will influence the public’s opinion of the company. It is natural that in every crisis situation, everyone tries to search for the cause of the crisis. Information about the source will be a basic argument to decide the main actor who must be held responsible to cope with the crisis situation. Furthermore, this can determine the quantity of the responsibility itself, whether it is full or not. However, both the company and the government should give priority to the public’s safety. Adopting the Situational Crisis Communication Theory, the company should have emphasized protecting the public from damage, rather than protecting the company’s reputation. This is the first priority to warrant safety and survival when facing a crisis situation.

It can be concluded that Public Relations officers were not proactive in providing information. By not giving compensation by the agreed time and not giving clear information quickly about what had happened, the company caused uncertainty. It should be noted that every crisis consists of a crisis of information and the failure to provide and control the flow of information accurately and efficiently made the crisis worse. As a result, the victims tended to show a negative attribution, particularly to the crisis responsibility and to the crisis history. Public Relations tended to focus on constructing the frame about the source of the eruption. This is reasonable when the communication strategy is aimed at convincing the public that the company was not guilty. However, Public Relations activity should be reliant on different realities rather than one dominant ideology as well as applying the function of boundary-spanning to facilitate and to monitor the environment. The research concludes that the company’s crisis management conducted only a one way flow of information, argument, and influence whereby the company only disseminated its views and dominated the victims. Crisis management was applied on behalf of the company’s interest and even sometimes applied to distortion and aversion to the truth.

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