A dialogic model for analyzing crisis communication: an alternative approach to understanding the roman catholic clergy sex abuse crisis



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In the winter of 2002, The Boston Globe published an expos? on clergy sexual abuse in the Boston Archdiocese which quickly sparked a global Church crisis. Following the expos?, there was a swell of media attention, a growing public outcry, increasing litigation over alleged abuse and cover-ups, and the emergence of issue-driven grassroots organizations. Despite the vocal involvement of numerous stakeholders in the crisis, the hierarchy?s communicative response to the situation followed relatively traditional crisis management strategies which sought to deny, minimize, remediate, and retain exclusive jurisdiction over the crisis. This strategy contrasts with other stakeholders? attempts to defer closure, draw out underlying issues, amplify nondominant voices, contest dominant interpretations, and collaborate on possible solutions. What has emerged is an on-going situation in which an organization?s attempts at strategic communicative crisis management are being contested publicly by key stakeholders. Arguing that existing models for understanding public relations discourse are insufficient for tracing the polyvocality of crisis communication, this study crafts an alternative (i.e., dialogic) model for analyzing crisis communication. This model decenters the source organization by tracing the contextual (macro) and interactive (micro) aspects of public relations texts created by three organizations central to the crisis (the United States Council of Catholic Bishops, Voice of the Faithful, and Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests). By viewing crisis communication through the lens of a particular notion of dialogue (i.e., a sustained, symbol-based, contextualized, collaborative-agonistic process of interactive social inquiry which creates meaning and a potential for change), this study traces how organizations use Public Relations (PR) to co-construct an organizational crisis. Discursive reconciliation, the central process of the proposed model, allows the researcher to sift the discourses of stakeholder organizations against one another, using each as a standard for evaluating the others. This allows for an evaluation of how stakeholder organizations manage the potential for communicative interactivity. The proposed model offers an expanded capacity to understand how crises are constructed discursively. It also illuminates the continuing clergy sex abuse crisis.