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Assignment for Business Writing, Technical Communication, or New Media Course

In Apologetic rhetoric, New media, Technical communication on August 12, 2009 at 8:51 am

BACKGROUND:

Whether it’s a product recall or malicious behavior by employees, companies are launching multi-prong responses that make use of the skills and training that business and technical communicators exemplify.

Take a look at just about any case in the news today in which a company is accused of some form of wrongdoing, and then check the company’s website as well as their social networking pages. Chance are, you’ll see skills such as technical writing, information architecture, html design, Flash and JavaScript coding, video production, and so on. Additionally, they often include safety procedures, technical information, product specifications, descriptions of corrective actions, and so on. Such aspects are the expertise of business and technical communicators, regardless of the delivery channel.

PROBLEM:

Unfortunately, there is little information or training available to business and technical communicators regarding responses to accusations of wrongdoing (or apologia). In order to educate the next generation of communicators, we should start including case studies of apologia in business writing, technical communication, and new media courses.

ASSIGNMENT DESCRIPTION:

Here is a brief description of an assignment or exercise that can easily be included in any business writing, technical communication, or new media course.

1. Take some class time to highlight real product recall situations or accusations of wrongdoing in the news. Look at press releases, corporate websites, and social networking sites that are used by the company to address the situation.

2. Assign students into groups and have them select a case from the news. Ask each group to provide a brief analysis of the situation (including what happened, why it was perceived as being wrong, and what the company’s messaging should be to overcome the problem).

3. Ask each group to devise a plan to address the problem/situation using the corporate website and social networking. Here is an initial list of questions that you can include on the assignment sheet to help the groups get started:

  • What needs to be communicated?
  • How can/should the company’s corporate website be used?
  • What role can/should social media play?
  • What documents will consumers need to see and download?
  • Is video important? If so, how? To show a CEO apologize? To demonstrate how to find product numbers and identify recalled products? To provide instructions for fixing a product defect?
  • How are all of these pieces integrated in terms of information architecture? How will they be connected in terms of link, buttons, and navigation?

4. In addition to analyzing the situation and producing a response plan, you can also assign the groups to produce mockups of their plan’s deliverables. For example, if a goal of your course is to teach document design, you could have them produce PDFs that would be downloaded from the corporate website. Similar deliverables can be assigned regarding website and video production, if those aspects are part of your course goals.

PEDAGOGICAL GOALS:

By positioning real-world scenarios in such a way, professors can help lead discussions not only about tools, software and delivery methods, but also about the rhetorical goals behind such responses. Here is a list of pedagogical goals that this assignment can help achieve:

  • Place rhetorical situations and rhetorical goals at the forefront of class discussions.
  • Practice considering multiple audiences—including consumers, employees, shareholders, regulators, etc.
  • Highlight the ways in which new media and social networking can be used in business and technical communication.
  • Help students learn and hone skills such as website development, video production, document design, social networking, etc.
  • Help business and technical writers understand how corporations address accusations of wrongdoing and how they can contribute to the process.

SAMPLE WEBSITES:

To help your students discuss potential solutions, you can conduct class discussions about these websites:

MEGA Brands—Note the downloads that are available and use of video.

http://www.megabrands.com/en/customerservice/recallinfo/

Mattel—Note the use of information available on the website and the method of linking information. In addition, you can view a video on YouTube that was originally posted on the main page of the corporate website.

http://service.mattel.com/us/recall/default.asp?recall_id=52434

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xH9O8JlvOe4

Domino’s—Note the use of social networking sites, such as YouTube, FaceBook, and Twitter (for Facebook and Twitter, you’ll need to search back to posts on or near April 15, 2009).

http://www.dominosbiz.com/Biz-Public-EN/Extras/Cares/

http://twitter.com/dpzinfo

http://www.facebook.com/Dominos?v=wall&viewas=0

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES:

First, let me stress that you do not need to be an expert in apologia theory or crisis management to include this assignment in your course work. Many of the scenarios can be analyzed using rhetorical theory and common sense regarding messaging and delivery.

However, if you’d like to look up additional information, the following books can provide quick and easy explanations regarding how to respond to accusations of wrongdoing:

“Ongoing Crisis Communication” by W. Timothy Coombs–In this book, Coombs helps alleviate the confusion of what to say by outlining a continuum for evaluating the specific situation you face and then selecting the appropriate response. While the details are too long to explicate in this post, here’s what it comes down to. Say your company faces rumors of wrongdoing. According to Coombs, your level of responsibility is low, since rumors constitute unfounded statements or gossip. In that case, the continuum indicates that the appropriate response would be to attack the accuser, calling his or her information and motives into question. Coombs’ continuum provides a visual way to address a situation and select an appropriate response. This visual continuum can be discussed with students in a matter of minutes and given to them as a handout along with the assignment sheet.

“Crisis Management by Apology” by Keith Michael Hearit–Hearit breaks apologia into two aspects—the “manner” and the “content.” In terms of the “manner,” Hearit states that an ethical apologia is: truthful, sincere, timely, and voluntary. In terms of the “content,” it should: acknowledge wrongdoing, accept responsibility, express regret, identify with the victims, ask for forgiveness, seek reconciliation, disclose relevant information, provide an explanation that addresses the victims’ questions and concerns, and offer corrective actions and compensation. These elements can be used by the students as well as the professor to analyze responses and discuss their appropriateness.

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  1. Emil,
    I was working on an assignment based on readings from your blogs about apologia rhetoric. I found this tonight. I’m going to use this with my Business Writing students. Great ideas. I’ll check back later in the semester when I’m implementing it to see if you made any changes.

    Excellent!

    • So glad you’re finding it useful so far, Debra. I’d love to hear any feedback you have in the future. You can email me using the info on my contact page.

  2. This assignment is great. It can open up discussion on ethical behavior, too, as students think critically and communicate effectively.

    If I ever teach TC, I’ll use this assignment.

    –Jen

    • I completely agree. We have a couple of ethical concerns here.

      The first issue is: To what extent and how should new and social media be used to disseminate product recall and safety information? That is, what are the ethics of not including information on a corporate website? What are the ethics of including it to address government guidelines, but not making it prominent enough for viewers to easily find it? What are the ethics of releasing or not releasing safety information on social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace?

      The second issue has to do with the wording of online product recalls and crisis communication. This is an area for apologia theory. Despite the odd sounding word, this really comes down to how a company words their release of product recalls, corporate apologies, and so on.

      You don’t have to look much further than the Zicam example that I analyze on this site (https://emiltowner.wordpress.com/2009/06/17/zicam/) to see how a company can address the FDA’s recommendations and even make safety information prominent online, but word it in such a way that consumers receive a mixed message that may result in them being confused and continuing to take medication that may harm them.

      Yes, there are definitely a lot of ethical questions and discussions that can and should come out of this assignment. I completely agree.

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