Is communication ambiguous?

5 09 2008

After reading an article in Dr. David Novak’s organizational communication class about communication, I felt that I could connect this to one of the examples of PR we talked about in my PRinciples class.

The article was a series of questions proposed to five communication scholars Kevin Barge, Brant Bureleson, Dennis Gouran, Lynn Harter, and John Heineman.  One of the questions proposed had to deal with misperceptions about communication.  Kevin Barge’s response to this question was that people think that communication must always be clear and be about getting your message across despite the context of the situation.  He goes on to explain that in some situations ambiguity can be every effective and he gives the example of PR.

This reminded me of David Neeleman’s youtube responseto the JetBlue Airlines crisis.  If you had no knowledge of the crisis you would have no idea what Mr. Neeleman was apologizing for.  This case is an excellent example of good PR.  Mr. Neeleman used ambiguous communication to respond to the crisis and apologize for the events that took place at JetBlue.  Therefore, I do think that ambiguous communication is necessary in some situations.  Repeating the incidents that occurred would have only given more media coverage to something that JetBlue wishes could just disappear, therefore approaching the situation by talking generally was an excellent way to address upset costumers and keep the news from spreading too much.  After all good PR is ethical yet effective.

The article was originally published in Communication Currents, Volume 2, Issue 4, August 2007


Sorry.  As Dr. Novak pointed out, everyone may not have known what the crisis was.  Here is an article from the New York Times that explains the situation.




10 responses

6 09 2008

Alyssa, this post makes me doubly-happy:

1) – you’re making connections between classes. I can see LEARNING happening here and I absolutely LOVE IT!!!! (so excited, please excuse the caps and multiple exclamation marks 🙂

2) – in the process you have discovered yourself a very important concept, used both in organizational communication and PR: the concept is “strategic ambiguity.”

It was originally proposed in this article:

Eisenberg, E.M. (1984). Ambiguity as strategy in organizational communication. Communication Monographs, 51, 227-242.

See an example of how strategic ambiguity and stakeholder theory, which we discussed in class this week, were used to study crisis communication:

Ulmer, R.R., & Sellnow, T.L. (2000). Consistent questions of ambiguity in organizational crisis communication: Jack in the Box as a case study. Journal of Business Ethics, 25(2), 143-155.

Please note the correct spelling: Brant Burleson. You can see his photo and listen to some audio clips about his work on social support here:

8 09 2008

Great post Alyssa. This is an excellent connection between the two classes and yes, as Dr. V says, this IS strategic ambiguity. I think your point is dead on here as I have no idea what this issue is with Jet Blue…I’ve watched the video now…and I STILL don’t know what the problem was. Yet, David Neeleman’s response/apology seems sincere and dedicated to keeping Jet Blue’s customers happy. But to an outsider (i.e. me), you leave the video not knowing what the original problem was.

Nice post!

8 09 2008

Ambiguity does seem to have a rather negative connotation in our society, especially when it comes to communication and PR. People want to believe in and trust what they are being told, and oftentimes that’s hard to do when it feels as though something is missing. However, I think it’s great you brought up the JetBlue clip because that is such a good example of ambiguity done right. It looks to me that a good PR practitioner knows not only what to say and how to say it, but also knows when it is best to just not say anything at all.

8 09 2008

Thanks for connecting those dots Alyssa! I’m in organizational communication too and I learned something from this post 🙂

8 09 2008

Ambiguity certainly has a negative connotation in our society, especially when it comes to communicating and PR. People want to trust and believe in what they are hearing but that becomes hard to do sometimes when there’s a fishy feeling that something is not being said. I think the JetBlue clip example is wonderful to bring up in this case. He was ambiguous with the right information without leaving gaps in what his message was. The best PR practitioners not only know what to say and how to say it, but also know when it is best to just not say anything at all.

8 09 2008
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8 09 2008
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10 09 2008

I was talking with Dr. Hawkins (our department chair) about this, and she brought up a good question: Was strategic ambiguity the most effective way for Jet Blue’s CEO to deal with this crisis? Was it the most ethical?

What do you think?

18 09 2008

I think it was the most effective, but maybe not necessarily ethical. Mr. Neeleman’s apology seemed very sincere, yet not very detailed. A few comments posted on this blog even said that they had no idea what issue was being discussed even after watching the youtube video. I think this was exactly the point. Mr. Neeleman’s purpose was not to publicize the fact that his organization disappointed its public, but rather to apologize for their actions to the people who were affected. One can argue that this is not the most ethical, since he is hiding something from potential consumers. In my eyes hiding something is just as bad as lying. Honesty is always an important value. If JetBlue becomes known for its dishonesty, then it will lose many of its consumers. I do believe that ambiguity was necessary in this situation.

11 01 2010
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I don’t usually reply to posts but I will in this case, great info…I will add a backlink and bookmark your site. Keep up the good work!

I’m Out! 🙂

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