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BP Internal Communication After the Oil Spill, Research Proposal Example

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Research Proposal

Society’s collection of symbols and signs are, “part of a continuous temporal process of interpretation” (Rochberg-Halton, 1982, p. 458). It is important to the understanding of structural linguistics to acknowledge that signs and symbols owe their root context to shared intentionality and interpretation; thus, a community is a compulsory element, propagating itself as a cultural entity (which is what Bate discusses when he brings up ‘visual cultural practices’ (Wells, p. 439). According to social context and the changing forms of societal needs and language, internal communication in a network or business culture change intent, signs, and purpose. They are adaptive to their symbiotic relationship with a particular society, zeitgeist, or cultural appetite.News, that is, the construction of facts or truth presented to the public in mass media form, is a social construct. News, according to Molotch and Lester (as cited in Berkowitz, 1997, p. 195), is the invention of a social reality created by journalists. As Fishman states (as cited by Berkowitz, 1997, p. 212) the dramas of daily living are found in daily papers; news is not re-invented or produced but rather created through our use of language. The understanding of language as a social paradigm is formed by journalism incorporating structuralism in its creation of a social reality. This paper will focus on how the BP oil spill was handled and communicated internally in the company, and how the use of communication can be an interpretive device hence severe miscommunication as news travels up the corporate ladder. When “news” is referenced in the paper is refers to internal communication and letters, as well as public news.

Understanding the role of language as the comprehensive structure on which society is formulated can best be understood more fully with Mead’s theory on mind. Mead’s theory states that the human mind is culturally formed. The ideas of culture are biologically created insofar as the mind has control over definitions and signifiers that create society’s reality. Symbols are attributed to certain a priori interpretations (implied meaning).The act of communication is one in which a hearer and a speaker seek a level of cooperation in order to maintain cultural meaning in society as Searle states, “The communication intention is the intention to produce in the hearer the knowledge of my meaning by getting him to recognize my intention to produce in him that knowledge” (Searle, 1998, p.145). Applying linguistics and Structuralist theory with the ideas of Jung’s collective unconscious, communication becomes a shared experience through our cultural understanding of living and becomes an innate/ingrained image of a specific emotion/time/consequence/love/family etc. In fact, Ritzer’s idea of McDonaldization is that specific images evoke responses that are formed through cultural acceptance of these intrinsic rules (such as Campbell’s soup being associated with home cooking – “Mmmmm, it’s Campbell’s”). Media has become this edifice of society in which mass private exposure in a public arena dominates our imaginations to such a degree that any image that plays on repeat becomes the symbol of a culture’s collective visual history (i.e. the Twin Towers collapsing) and conversely becomes nearly impossible to replace with a more personal, less editorialized image (the same thinking as vacation photographs stealing away memories so that the photograph replaces any subjective interpretation of a vacation).

BP communication at once created press and was created by the press, as Molotch and Lester state, (as cited in Berkowitz, 1997),

First there are the news promoters…who identify…an occurrence as special…for some reason. Second there are the news assemblers…who, working from the materials provided by the promoters, transform a perceived finite set of promoted occurrences into public events through publication or broadcast. Finally there are the news consumers…who analogously attend to certain occurrences made available as resources by the media and thereby create in their own minds a sense of public time (Molotch and Lester, 1974, p. 197).

During the BP oil spill there was no sign of a developed crisis plan thus the internal communication within the company was chaotic (Villines, 2011, 1).

BP’s internal communication during the spill revealed their lack of a crisis plan. In fact, during interviews it was revealed that all other bureaus (e.g. Coast Guard, non profit organizations) were responding to the crises with more alacrity than BP showcasing their crisis plan at work. BP dropped the ball during this time period and so lost the lead in properly responding to the situation (Villines, 2011, 1). Sue Kerver, a Coast Guard worker, said that the last thing an organization should due during a crisis is to have a makeshift crisis plan. In the Coast Guard manual Incident Command Structure and The National Response Plan crises plans for all possible scenarios are referenced and workers are well informed as to their part during a crisis. This was not implemented within BP Oil disallowing for proper communication. In fact, the Coast Guard served as the main point of communication where BP lacked.

The business ritual of acting cohesivelywas absent for BP. As Christian stated, the ritual of the press was a performance based largely on covering threats, and as Cater states, “A denial never has the newsworthiness of an accusation” (Cater, 1999, para. 8).Social reality (especially during this time period of BP ruling the press headlines) is a, “…collective acceptance or recognition by the individuals acting collectively…” (Searle, 1998, p. 126). News assigns function and relates that function to an observer.BP lacked both of these devices. It failed to communicate the problem to its own employees and to the world (a function the Coast Guard overtook). A crisis plans calls for leading the way for phone calls, donations, aid, media interviews, informational website setups, press releases, etc. BP did not have a hand in any of this (Villines, 2011, 4).

Tuchman lists 3 elements that define a proper communiation: “form, content and interogranizational relationships” (Tuchman, 1972, p. 661). Tuchman’s definition of form is not found just in the grammatical instances of news but in how news is a procedure – such as the use of quotation marks. Content in news is social reality that is “taken for granted” (Tuchman, 1972, p. 661). Content and interorganizational relationships are a combined feature in defining doctrines of an organization (Tuchman, 1972, p.661). BP failed to recognize the breadth of the oil spill, as it shifted from being an organizational catastrophe to an environmental hazard. As such, tourism, and coastlines were affected. In order to properly handle different avenues of discourse to different companies, BP should have focused on targeting certain audiences such as sailors, people living on the shore, fish business, cruises, etc. In order to do that properly, they had to have an honest discourse about what the situation was and what they anticipated it to be over a certain timeline (Villines, 2011, 6).

This social reality is reinforced through people in positions of power, and use that power to access the public through media, “For the citizen to read the newspaper as a catalogue of the important happenings of the day, or for the social scientist to use the newspaper for uncritically selecting topics of study, is to accept as reality the political works by which events are constituted by those who happen to currently hold power” (Molotch and Lester, 1974, p. 207). Without a crisis plan to follow and lack of a target audience, BP dropped the ball in communicating with the right people. John Deveny of Deveny Public Relations in N.J. has experience with Katrina and the tourism market. When Katrina happened Deveny created an “experts list” to help with certain issues. Deveny said that BP should have been ready with such a list of their own that included “experts of seafood safety to pulmonary specialist” (Villines, 2011, 6). Deveny said that having a proactive communication strategy should be first and foremost in any company. Deveny created a 100 things list, “Top 100 Things You Love to Do in Louisiana” (Villines, 2011, 6) that was both proactive and reactive as a strategy in dealing with the spill. BP did not come up with such a list.

In accordance with the rituals of communication, it is important to keep in mind BP’s adherence to aforementioned rituals;

A system consists of two components, which we may call its elements and its rules. Now, if the set of elements together with the set of rules is to be truly a system, rather than a random collection, there is an important, if obvious, condition operating on the rules. This is that similar elements are subject to the same rules…Saussure’s theory is that every language is a system, whose elements are its signs, and whose rules are statements of the relations regularly found to hold between the signs (Bredin, 1984, p. 73). The news as a system of print media conditions these rituals in order to balance news coverage.

BP failed at certain points during the pre-crisis, during the crisis, and post crisis. BP’s crisis management strategies showed that they did use some effective communication tools and practices that were deemed ethical. BP tried to update the public on the situation and placed a spokesperson in charge of writing articles for such information management (Villines, 2011, 42).

Saussure understands a “general language system” (Rochberg-Halton, 1982, p. 459) as divided into two parts: langue and parole – wherein the first is accepted as language as a comprehensive system and the latter as the actual speech (Rochberg-Halton, 1982, p. 459). As Rochberg-Halton states, “…all meaning resides in the conceptual system of language and not at all in any given instance of speech or action” (Rochberg-Halton, 1982, p. 459). Since language is understood as being conceptual, then the conceptual in BP occurs with their presence in the news. BP was cited as being evasive from being held responsible for the crisis, including “the refusal of BP to comment on photos falsely doctored on Photoshop of their work station, as well as when former CEO Tony Hayward [taking] a vacation in the midst of the crisis” (Villines, 2011, p. 43). BP also denied these claims about their CEO and doctored Photoshop images. BP also denied that they could not stop the flow of oil from the tankard. BP further propelled their scheme of miscommunication by placing the blame of the oil spill on Deepwater Horizon. BP was reported to have acknowledged their role in the oil spill in a mere 3.7 percent of media coverage (Villines, 2011, p. 43). BP was also cited as only having apologized in two news articles.

Understanding the role of language as the comprehensive structure on which society is formulated can best be understood more fully with Mead’s theory on mind. Mead’s theory states that the human mind is culturally formed. The ideas of culture are biologically created insofar as the mind has control over definitions and signifiers that create society’s reality;

The human animal, however has worked out a mechanism of language communication by means of which it can get this control. Now, it is evident that much of that mechanism does not lie in the central nervous system, but in the relation of things to the organism. The ability to pick these meanings out and to indicate them to others and to the organism is an ability which gives peculiar power to the human individual. The control has been made possible by language. It is that mechanism of control over meaning in this sense which has, I say, constituted what we term ‘mind’ (Mead, 1934, p. 210).

It can then be inferred that “idea is the reality” (Rochberg-Halton, 1982, p. 464). Although society is a collection of individuals, in order for individuals to cooperate in social dialogue, communication must be a shared, process. If communication is a shared process in order to get at a truth then BP managed to create their own reality by switching back and forth between ethical and unethical responses throughout different times during the 5-monthcrisis:

articles including unethical crisis management responses employed by BP were found disproportionately in the New York Times (14 articles from this newspaper out of 29 articles containing unethical responses from all three newspapers—48.3 percent), as well as disproportionately within the Herald itself (7 articles included unethical responses out of a sample size of 23 articles for this newspaper—30.4 percent) (Villines, 2011, p. 45).

Communication is a pattern of cognition in relation to intentionality. Language as communication creates institutional facts (Searle, 1998, p. 133). In order to make society a comprehensive structure that’s easily understood, language must on its own become a building block in which individuals act as a whole in relation to meaning – in Mead’s generalized other the individual creates a dialogue of experience (or culturally speaking, shared frame of reference) wherein “…our experience is in the thing as much as it is in us for it is in the communicative act as a whole (including its consequences), and not solely in an individual or social subject, that meaning is located” (Rochberg-Halton, 1982, p. 466). Mind, as a social construct, is able to utter parole and be understood in the system of langue through a “generalized attitude he assumes, to make use of symbolic gestures, i.e., terms, which are significant to all including himself” (Rochberg-Halton, 1982, p. 466).

The act of communication is one in which a hearer and a speaker seek a level of cooperation in order to maintain cultural meaning in society as Searle states, “The communication intention is the intention to produce in the hearer the knowledge of my meaning by getting him to recognize my intention to produce in him that knowledge” (Searle, 1998, p.145). The common world becomes a series of expressions based on the need for a society to maintain its function, this is something that Molotch and Lester highlight through the definition of “public time”;

Public time is the term which we will take to stand for the dimension of collective life through which human communities come to have what is assumed to be a patterned and perceptually shared past, present, and future. Just as the rudiments of an individual lifetime consists of private events, so public time is analogously constituted through public events. Thus, the content of an individual’s conceptions of the history and the future of his or her collectivity comes to depend on the processes by which public events get constructed as resources for discourse in public matters. The work of historians, journalists, sociologists, and political scientists helps to accomplish this task for various publics by making available to citizens a range of occurrences from which to construct a sense of public time (Molotch and Lester, 1974, p. 195).

Cooperating on this level of public time, a speaker and a listener must also be cognizant of the fact of implied meaning – a priori – which can only be understood through cultural norms of common knowledge application; “1. I should be correctly uttering a sentence in German with its conventional meaning; 2. My utterance should have conditions of satisfaction, mainly, the truth condition that it is raining; and 3. The hearer should recognize intention 2, and he should recognize intention 2 by means of his recognition of intention 1 and his knowledge of the conventions of German” (Searle , 1998, p. 145). With this understanding of the cultural function of language in society, the application to the press becomes paramount. In the BP oil crisis the experts speaking for BP revolved around two of their top executives creating a falsehood in news that they were giving to the media about their clean up efforts (Villanes, 2011, p. 50).

The cooperation of the press, and its institutional rituals present society with “collective intentionality” (Searle, 1998, p. 120). The linguistic role of a newspaper is that of storyteller. In the form of narrative presentation of facts (not inference) journalists propel Structuralist theory as the basis for a working society. As such, journalists are the harbingers of symbol-meaning as Fisher states,

The idea of human beings as storytellers posits the generic form of all symbol composition. It holds that symbols are created and communicated ultimately as stories meant to give order to human experience and to induce others to dwell in them in order to establish ways of living in common, in intellectual and spiritual communities in which there is confirmation for the story that constitutes one’s life (Fisher, 1987, p. 63).

The intention of the news report however is understood through intentionality. Intentionality in news can best be expressed through word choice. Word choice in the news is a ritual in reporting but it also ultimately leads readers to infer their own reality on a subject. The construction of a social reality is based on the scheme of interpretation through word choice. The BP executives used media coverage as a soapbox for scapegoating and denial of their part in the oil spill (Villines, 2011, p. 51).

With structuralism, society is a system of signs understood through a priori language. Claude Lévi-Strauss developed this theory further by expounding upon the use of language in myth – assigning myth as sound image (signifier) and concept (signified). These were further explained by Saussure’s dynamic between langue (language system) and parole (individual speech). Jakobson, expounding on this, founded the “horizontal-vertical” (Kurzweil, 1980, p. 15) both of which are used (in the case of the former) to combine words (horizontal or diachronic) and to (in the case of the latter) select words from “the available language” (Kurzweil, 1980, p. 16) (vertical or synchronic). As such, the forming of social reality is reliant upon use and understanding of language. Certain societal functions are associated with certain a priori langue, word choice is fundamental in the internal communication of BP.

Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (as cited in Assiter, 1984, p. 279) points to four types of totality when speaking about structuralism: economic practice, political, ideological and theoretical practice, of which the third type – ideological practice – is best applied to the construction of social reality. In society, ideological practice “transforms its object – people’s consciousness” (Assiter, 1984, p. 279). As Spinoza explains structuralism, it is a system enforced through totality so that a system must be taken as a whole in order to understand the part. Journalism’s influence on social reality cannot be broken down but instead must be understood as a whole; “The nature of the part is determined by its role in the whole system” (Assiter, 1984, p. 280). Speech is understood under the larger system of ideological practice, in that people’s consciousness, review written material and their recognition of it as fact alters or informs their understanding of reality. The speech becomes part of the whole and the reader’s social practice becomes dependent on them understanding fear in relation to their immediate reality.

Reality is defined as a social agreement in which rules, routines and symbols are collectively accepted. We assign the use of these three items by reinforcing them through our cultural norms. Here, cultural and social become interchangeable. Humans function on the acceptance on a conscious level of these variables (rules, etc.). The news becomes consciously accepted and reinforced through printing the story and the community’s acknowledgment of the story through internal communication.

“…institutional reality can be explained using exactly these three notions, collective intentionality, the assignment of function, and constitutive rules” (Searle, 1998, p. 124). Collective intentionality deals with the acceptance of facts from a speaker (BP) to reporter (Human Resources): As a unit they created a reality that creates a basis of understanding that allows all members of that audience (BP organization) to participate in that reality –it is in this definition of variables that reality is understood to be socially functional (Molotch and Lester, 1974, p. 196-7).

Since reality is contingent upon shared understanding of an experience, one mind has influence over another mind through the principles of structuralism. Society is a symbol-based construction as Fisher states, “Not only do human beings successfully infer other beings’ states of mind from symbolic clues; we know that they characteristically, in all societies, build each other’s mind” (Fisher, 1987, p. 66).

George Herbert Mead said that reality is a social construct, in that social psychology determines individual psychology (as cited in Strauss, 1964, p. 115). Therefore social reality only exists insofar as the ‘audience’ allows it to exist through intention and acceptance – reality hinges on collective cooperation of knowledge; “…the mind is essentially a biological phenomenon and that therefore its two most important interrelated features, consciousness and intentionality, are also biological” (Searle, 1998, p. 112). Although the basis of reality is sociological, the beginning of its function rests on a biological level; “…mind…has its focus there, it is essentially a social phenomenon; even its biological functions are primarily social…we must regard mind, then, as arising and developing within the social process, within the empirical matrix of social interactions” (Mead, 1934, p. 210). As the structuralist Levi-Strauss has stated, man as a social being also has – on a biological level –“an understanding of the invariant laws of thought” (Rochberg- Halton, 1982, p. 456). Biology is influenced and regulated by culture in the understanding that culture is a controlling variable of human behavior, as Mead states, “For social psychology, the whole (society) is prior to the part (the individual), not the part to the whole…” (Strauss, 1964, p. 121). Thus, the “wholeness” of the mind is, simply put, humans agreeing on a particular understanding of reality and its structures/symbols/functions: “…all functions are observer-relative…They only exist relative to observers or agents who assign the function” (Searle, 1998, p. 121). Thus, BP executives were able to create a reality around the oil spill that they constructed (doctored Photoshop images) and to enforce this reality by miscommunicating to the media and having the media cover BP executive speeches instead of internal dialogue or BP experts during the oil spill.

References

Assiter, A. (June 1984). Althusser and Structuralism. The British Journal of Sociology. Vol. 35, No. 2, pp. 272-296.

Bredin, H. (January 1984). Sign and Value in Saussure. Philosophy. Vol. 59, No. 227. Pp. 67-77.

Christian, H. (1980). The Sociology of Journalism and the Press. University of Keele.

Fisher, W.R. (1987). Human Communication as Narration: Toward a Philosophy of Reason,Value and Action. University of South Carolina Press.

Fishman, M. (1982). News and Nonevents. Making the Visible Invisible. In Dan Berkowitz (Ed.), The Social Meanings of News (210-229). California: SAGE Publications.

Kurzweil, E. (1980). The Age of Structuralism. Columbia University Press. New York.

Mead, G.H. (1934). The Social Psychology of George Herbert Mead. A. Strauss (Ed).    University Of Chicago Press.

Molotch, H., Lester, M. (1974). News As Purposive Behaviour. On the Strategic Use of Routine Events, Accidents and Scandals. In Dan Berkowitz (Ed.), Social Meanings of News (193-209). California: SAGE Publications.

Rochberg-Halton, E. (Autumn 1982). Situation, Structure, and the Context of Meaning. The Sociological Quarterly. Vol. 23, No. 4. Pp. 455-476.

Searle, J. R. (1998). Mind, Language and Society: Philosophy in the Real World. Basic    Books. New York.

Strauss, A. (1964). George Herbert Mead On Social Psychology. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.

Tuchman, G. (January 1972). Objectivity as Strategic Ritual: An Examination of   Newsmen’s Notions of Objectivity. The American Journal of Sociology. Vol. 77, No. 4. pp 660-669.

Villines, A.N. (2011). Communicating During Crisis: A Study of the 2010 BP Gulf Oil Spill. Butler University Libraries. Retrieved from http://digitalcommons.butler.edu

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