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PUBLIC RELATIONS & MUDFLOW CRISIS 2

Public Relations & Mudflow Crisis 2

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

 

It seems that the company viewed the victims based on the strategic approach when defining its public. In this approach, the victims are assumed to be passive when receiving organizational messages rather than being active and equal participants. The victims were directed only to understand the company’s view about the crisis, such as: the company was a victim too, the company was a hero, the company was generous by giving social aid, and the construction of the crisis that it was a natural disaster. Many demonstrations indicated that the victims did not have a chance to express and to argue their feelings. Conversely, it would have been better that the company performs as a servant of the people.

            On the contrary, based on the Situational Theory of the Public, the observation of the victims’ behavior found that the victims were not passive. They actively sought explanation by frequently questioning to the opinion leaders and demonstrating against the company and the government to gain information. They demanded information about social warnings, compensation, and what they should do. They felt that these were not relayed to the public. As a result of this information seeking process, this research revealed a model of communication flow among the victims. This model enhances the knowledge that the victims obtained the information particularly from personal communication among them and local opinion leaders to explore the information that they had already obtained from the mass media. The victims also admitted that there was a problematic situation (problem recognition); however, they did not obtain clear information and could not express their feelings because of the communication barriers (constraint recognition), such as closed communication channels.

It is no wonder that all respondents and the participants attributed the mudflow crisis to the intentional cluster: the company was the actor that should take responsibility to solve any problems, including giving complete compensation. In terms of the crisis history, the respondents also construed that the agreement and regulations were not obeyed many times. The payment of compensation became circuitous. Instead of giving fresh money, the company offered a new residence in the relocation scheme. The company stimulated public outrage when a thousand victims, who chose the relocation offer, signed an agreement to gain a new house earlier than those who demanded fresh money. The issues of relocation and cash money evolved into a critical stage because this situation led to disagreement among a group of the victims. As a result, there was a lack of confidence in the company and in the government. Even though some respondents admitted that they have a reasonably comfortable life after receiving compensation, they felt that the company did not take care of them well. The reasons were: they felt that they lived in hardship and waited for months uncertain about their fate; the compensation was an inherent responsibility of the company as the source the crisis; they still lost social-cultural aspects which cannot be replaced by money.

Moreover, it is a duty of management and public relations officers to ensure that the public will be served well by the company by assisting to devise communication strategies that will allow the company to adapt their environment. Public relations officers, for example, must be responsible for helping management to deal with the crisis. The research has given evidence that the public relations officers have the main obligation to create messages and communicate these openly in order to obtain a mutual understanding with the public. Furthermore, these strategies will help to manage issues which emerge during the crisis. However, as a part of a broader social system, implementing this duty cannot be separated from other social political systems. The research found that crisis management was highly influenced by the political economy contexts: this event involves the power relations of all social aspects in the society. These relations, then, determine how regulations, channel of communication, and compensation will be formed and disseminated during the crisis, and how the truth was constructed. 

The three factors of ineffective crisis management above led to rumours emerging among the victims about close relationship between the company and the government in a high political context. They tried to understand why this event happened. As a result, there was a lack of confidence in the company and in the government. It appeared to be a conflict of interest, because Aburizal Bakrie was the minister and also the owner of the company. Indeed, it was difficult to know when he acted as the minister and when he acted as Bakrie’s owner. This made the situation worse because how the company manages a crisis will determine the quality of their reputation after the crisis. In this case, public trust and the good reputation have gone.

It should be noted that people’s construction can be defined in the way that people have their own standard of truth when they perceive the reality and is dependent on their political economy background.The company created its construction through a crisis management strategy which included its communication strategies; the government’s regulations, the news from mass media, and the victims’ demands were also a product of the   construction. However, the different constructions can create conflicts and become a serious problem. The construction of a reality is a subjective matter and depends on the individual’s interest, any efforts to compel the construction on others can trigger controversy. Finally, whoever has the power, ability, and a channel of communication (media) will likely be able to persuade others in order to adopt its construction of reality.

The mudflow crisis itself is the objective reality. However, the individuals have their own frame in regard to the mudflow crisis that is constructed subjectively from their experiences and information about it. It can be stated that the plurality of attribution of the mudflow event is shaped and constructed socially. Individuals have their own educational backgrounds, experiences, family norms, preferences, particular social environment, interests, and interaction patterns so that they interpret the mudflow event as their own construction. Through the externalization process, individuals absorb particular information about the mudflow that has been constructed by the government, the company, mass media, academics or their relatives. In this point, the mudflow event becomes a new objective reality.

Which construction will be an objective reality depends on how the construction is shaped and the power to communicate that construction itself is about something that people believe is a social reality. By taking over several media and spending a large sum of money for an advertising strategy on local and national media, the company had the power to communicate the construction of “Sidoarjo Mud”. Mass media is a tool to disseminate the company’s points of views more subtly. News is the result of a media construction about reality that sometimes differs from reality. News is commonly thought of as a second hand reality. A Critical approach views that power and knowledge cannot be divided to create truth. Therefore, it can be concluded that power is an inherent part of the company’s message. The advertisements, newsletters, regulations, as expressed in language, transferred power. As a result, power persuaded public perception about the reality. It created particular knowledge, such as the company was a hero and generous and the victims were troublemakers. Furthermore power is a creative force that pervades all human activity which includes crisis management.

This power was also strong because of the political position of Bakrie as the minister, the chairman of one of the biggest parties, and the chief of the coalition parties. Similarly, in a highly political context, the construction of “Sidoarjo Mud” became the objective reality. The construction appeared not only in the company’s messages but also in any formal regulations from the government at the beginning of the crisis. It can be seen that this construction represents the power and interests of the political and economic elites. It is interesting that the government officers, when speaking to the public, tended to demand the company pay compensation, but they constructed “Sidoarjo Mud” in formal regulations. It can be said that the process of construction walked softly and seemed normal. However, the company failed to shape the victims’ construction of reality. The victims constructed “Lapindo Mud” and they claimed that this crisis happened because of the company’s mistake. Although they obtained compensation from the company, this perception was not change.

In addition, during the four years of the crisis, there were conflicts of interest between the company, the government and the victims. This situation can be explained by a critical approach that suggests that conflicts and disagreements always happen in the social process. To deal with any conflicts, the state should give an opportunity for all voices to be heard. As a result, the domination of ideology from the group which has the power can be avoided. However, from field observations, the ideal condition has not been reached. The victims have been oppressed by more powerful groups therefore the victims must struggle against both the government and the company to gain their right. The situation happened, adopting Marxism, because economical-profit orientation directed any efforts to manage the crisis. Moreover, the victims did not have a great chance to access any means of production, such as a channel of communication.

Finally, it should be emphasized that the company should deal more properly with the impact of the crisis on the victims. The company should be sure that no one outside the company will suffer physically (such as losing the property, the jobs, and environmental damage) and psychologically (such as fear, worry, and anxiety). The company should quickly relay information about what people should do and give compensation rather than spend time to prove that the company is not guilty. Even though the cause of the eruption had not been determined, the public perceived and attributed it to a drilling mistake. In fact, perception influences a fact and perception is a fact. The crisis can be constructed as bad or good, as it depends on how people perceive it because perception is intangible in the minds of people involved in the crisis. At present, what the company should do is complete the compensation properly in an agreed time as a form of the social responsibility program because the court stated it was a natural disaster.

The limitation of this research is that it did not aim to generalize the data, but it investigated the victims’ construction of the crisis in-depth in a natural setting that was limited by their particular contexts. Therefore the results cannot be extrapolated to other context and it depends, for instance, on the political and social context within the case. The aim of the paper is not to judge Lapindo’s responsibility but to show how the different actors interact and the consequences of those interactions for real people. For future research, quantitative methods, such as an experimental and a survey research, can be conducted to investigate the correlation between public relations programs and the public perception about the initial crisis responsibility, crisis history, and prior reputational relations.