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December 14, 2009
Letting a Climate Crisis Grow Wings

When science got caught (if that's the right word for exploiting hacked e-mails) using loose language on climate-change research, that fit anyone's definition of a communication crisis. Yet the University of East Anglia, where the flap began, apparently doesn't excel in crisis communication, for it has thoroughly botched the e-mail crisis.

British environmental writer Fred Pearce has a lengthy blog post on Yale Environment 360 detailing the consequences of using loose language in e-mails. Most of us do that. It's why e-mail is so popular -- it's fast. However, we don't expect to have our in-boxes broken into by thieves who then claim to be champions of corrective information. This is all to damage our understanding of the threat of global warming.

Confronted with this situation, Pearce advises, the University of East Anglia kept silent for a couple of weeks, then countenanced the temporary (hopefully) withdrawal of the director of its Climatic Research Unit while it sorts through what's becoming known as Climategate. Loose e-mails may sink science, but only if those who can set the matter straight dither about them. 

The university should have been into this situation from the start, understood what occurred, and explained it. That's "all" that a crisis-communication plan requires. Pearce quotes an "angry media insider" as saying the university's response, or lack thereof, "will be taught in university communications courses. Because I'm going to make sure it is."  Right on. Universities are supposed to shine lights, not cower in darkness. Crisis communication disciplines are precisely for setting things straight. 




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Doug Bedell has a background in journalism and PR and is the owner of Resource Relations LLC in Central PA, focusing on organizational and crisis communication. He’s the community manager of SimplyFair.net, a social network on fairness. On the Web, Doug’s at www.ResourceRelations.com. On Twitter, he’s @DougBeetle.
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