Chaos Theory originated in the math and physics world, but has increasingly been used in the social sciences to help explain large, dynamic systems. A number of scholars have applied the ideas to crisis communication. In a paper available through Google Scholar titled Chaos Theory, Informational Needs, and Natural Disasters, authors Sellnow, Seeger, and Ulmer describe the theory this way:
Chaos theory expands the systems perspective to the behavior of large, complex, non-linear systems, including those where social and technical elements interact in highly dynamic and casually disproportionate ways. This normal interaction within highly complex systems increases the probability that unanticipated and highly disruptive outcomes will occur.
In a 1993 paper also available through Google Scholar, Karl Weick (he of Managing the Unexpected) looks at the Mann Gulch Fire and goes on to use parts of Chaos Theory to try and explain the cosmological episode, which happens:
...when people suddenly and deeply feel that the universe is no longer a rational, orderly system. What makes an episode so shattering is that both the sense of what is occurring and the means to rebuild that sense collapse together.
In a cosmological episode--a major crisis--sensemaking falls apart. To many, there is no analogous previous experience--it is unimaginable, the events make no sense. Weick suggests that at Mann Gulch sensemaking had so completely disintegrated that the smokejumpers could not comprehend the escape fire lit by Wag Dodge. PIOs frequently see a somewhat less dire but still meaningful dynamic on incidents when conversing with stakeholders and the public. On more assignments than not these days, we hear someone bewilderingly utter, "We just don't get fires like that around here." It makes no sense to them, the incident shattered their normal systems. Yet that chaos is not sustainable. Nature abhors a vacuum and doesn't think highly of chaos either.
From social media studies, we know during the first 24-48 hours after an incident begins, people are trying to figure out what happened and telling the story of how they were affected. For that timeframe, you will see discussions about what residents did during the evacuation, where the neighbors went, which communities were affected, what the responders were doing, and so on. After one or two sleep periods, the conversation changes from what happened to why it happened. While there will be individuals asking why during the initial hours, it will not become a major topic of discussion until after the majority of the affected public has processed the implications of the initial stage of the incident. At that point, chaos is on the way out and sense is being created, for better or worse.
Theorizing Crisis Communication authors Sellnow and Seeger say this:
Communication is a factor bringing about stability, order, and balance, even in the face of chaos. Significant changes in both the topics of communication and the communicators often accompany a crisis. Crisis changes the agenda for both public and private discourse. Crisis can create a sense of commonality and community and thus modifies the climate and tone of communication. Shared values, needs, goals, threats and interdependencies may become salient in the face of a crisis. Stakeholders may communicate in new ways, exhibiting high levels of cooperation, creative problem-solving, and collaborative decision making.
From chaos, some kind of order--some sense--will emerge, but what kind and from where? Answering that question and influencing the new order is the great challenge of crisis communications, particularly when the crisis is large, dynamic, and involves threats to lives, livelihoods, and property.
If you are a PIO on an IMT, the most common scenario sees you arriving just as or just after sensemaking starts in earnest, 36-48 hours or more after the crisis begins. However, you have to first make sense of your own chaos that includes everything from learning the names on the map to getting internet access before you can adequately respond. That puts you even further behind in your ability to influence the new order of communications and what is being communicated. If you cannot identify the budding post-chaos communication streams and insert the team messages and information into those streams, it will be tough to align the community with the reality of the response. The longer those channels go without your influence, the more potential for divisiveness and misinformation to spread as people try to make sense of it on their own using incomplete or inaccurate information.
Accepting this description of the dynamic puts an even greater burden on the host unit as they must not only deal with the initial response, but also provide frequent and factual information during a cosmological episode while monitoring community communications so that the incoming IMT does not have to figure it all out on the fly. I would argue that is a compelling reason for PAOs to have both training and experience as PIOs.
And of course, the bulk of conversations now take place on social media, putting a priority on understanding where you can go to quickly leverage your official information and help the public move closer to the reality of the incident. The more an IMT can learn about the social media landscape prior to their first operational period, the quicker alignment can happen.
The more we understand about how crises and incidents evolve, the more important it is to set up successful crisis communications pathways during the earliest stages of the incident. Chaos theory and how it applies to crisis communications also shows it is imperative that crisis communicators and organizations be comfortable with social media and the immediate demands it creates on the delivery of incident information. Again, if the public and stakeholders are not aligned, it will be difficult to garner support for future decisions and actions.
Copyright © Jim Whittington, 2018, All rights reserved. Academic use approved with notification and attribution.
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Occasional thoughts on incident response, crisis communications, wildland fire, and other topics.
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Blog DOB: 4/26/2018
Copyright © Jim Whittington, 2019.