Silence in Turmoil

Silence in Turmoil

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Must address discussion questions at the end of the reading

be graded on content and how well you understand the course material, reasoning and how well you amalgamate the material.
Proper grammar and mechanics is crucial and will be a part of your grade.

i ‘ C A S E S T U D Y 1 9

Silence in the Turmoil of Crisis
Peanut Corporation of America’s Response to
Its Sweeping Salmonella Outbreak
Alyssa Grace Millner and Timothy L. Sellnow

i i
i This case explores how organizations should engage in crisis communication,
seeking to balance open communication with the public and self-interest. It
addresses the ethical dilemma between a desire for open disclosure and the
realistic threat of legal repercussions to such disclosure. Finally, it also considers
the degree to which different interest groups-the company, the industry,
consumer advocacy groups, and government regulators, among others-«are
responsible for identifying problems and alerting the public.
Organizational crisis communication literature consistently calls for prompt, open, and
honest responses by organizations facing crises (Seeger, 2006). In direct contrast, organiza-
tions’ legal counsels frequently recommend limited responses, fearing detailed communi-
cation will work against the organization in legal battles stemming from the crisis. Hearit
(1995) explained, “Corporate rhetors that admit responsibility virtually invite lawsuits”
(p. 13). Organizations connected with public crises struggle with the tension between open
communication and self-protection. Indeed, many debates arise inside corporate headquar-
ters as leaders prepare their crises responses (Coombs, 2007). Thus, the tension between a
desire for open disclosure and the realistic threat of legal repercussions to such disclosure
creates an ethical dilemma for organizations. Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) leaders
faced this communication dilemma when they found themselves at the heart of a salmo-
nella outbreak the US. Department of Agriculture (USDA) referred to as “one of the largest
food safety recalls ever in the United States” (Wittenberger & Dohlman, 2010, p. 1).
Salmonella is a common cause of food poisoning. In fact, salmonella is America’s lead-
ing source of food poisoning (Brumback & Alonso-Zaldivar, 2009). Salmonella is spread
when humans consume foods contaminated with animal feces (Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention [CDC] 2009). Frequently salmonella-contaminated foods are of
animal origin, but any food product can become tainted with salmonella, as was the case

Discussion Questions

1. To what extent did lapses in PCA’s manufacturing practices lead to a large scale,
organizational communication failure during the crisis?
2. When should large organizations such as PCA take the silent approach or a vocal
approach? Why would a organization want to stay silent or voice their side?
3. To what extent were the proxy communications justified in stepping forward to
communication during the crisis?
4. Were all of the organizations and agencies described in the case equally justified in
assuming the role of proxy communicator?
5. What are the potential complications for proxy communicators in crises?
6. If PCA had decided to communicate during the crisis, what messages of communication
would have been most important to stakeholders? What messages would have been most
helpful for consumers?
7. If you were the head of a major organization, how would you handle this situation from the
top to bottom of your given organization (I.E. employees, media, consumers, etc)?

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