In discussing the original assignment's application to a writing classroom, I came to realize that the assignment could be effectively tailored to aid workplace communicators in ordering workplace messaging. I began exploring visual techniques used in crisis communication and discovered that mapping has been used successfully to teach message creation in crisis situations. The visual organization of information has interesting implications in workplace settings if the original idea or mapping strategy is altered to afford a new goal: organizing responses to crisis events.
Work performed in the area of corporate communication in times of crises or disasters by Robert C. Chandler, Marci rae Blue, Jennifer Roberts, and Morgana Wingard (2005) suggests that the use of maps as visual displays of information can be a means of spatial thinking. Building on the arguments offered in Informing the Project, in this section I define Chandler et al's Message Action Plan (MAP) as it is used in crisis communication, diagram the usefulness of the plan as a way to instruct workplace learners on analytical thinking, and connect that back to the Classroom Writing Assignment used as a tool to introduce students to rhetorical analysis and academic writing.
Crisis communication is a form of workplace communication dictated by specific events and the responses to those events. Crisis scholars classify events using four categories: incident, accident, disaster, and crisis. These four categories denote the potential severity and impact of an event. Further, these events have both unique and common characteristics. The event and response are the domain of crisis communication. An event necessitates a response and each category of event lends itself to a certain form of response. Based on the event, a specific type of response is required and that response is what I refer to as crisis communication.
Crisis communication is an inclusive label for a specific discourse that encompasses the four categories listed above. Crisis communication involves a fast, well-crafted response, not a knee-jerk reaction to the situation. Despite the apparent scope and size of a particular crisis, specific rhetorical techniques are deployed in relationship to the crisis. The response must include a description of what happened, provide an accurate account or status of the current situation, and provide information on what will be done to reach “normal” again.
While crisis communication differs greatly from academic writing, there are similarities between the two discourses that allowed my original assignment for the composition classroom to transfer to crisis communication situations. There are several common crisis and corporate communication problems similar to analytic writing: the message is misunderstood due to poor word choice; the perception of the message and intent is based on idealization or misinterpretation; and the flow of information can suffer from too much, too little, or convoluted presentation of materials. According to Chandler, Blue, Roberts, and Wingard (2005), “Messages have a basic underlying purpose to seek an object for information, refusal, provision of information, indications of agreement, or social engagement” (p. 50). Using the spatial and visual organization of the information allows the author to organize what to communicate, identify what order to communicate it in, and decide how best to deliver the information.
A particular site of visible displays of information related to mapping and crisis communication are Chandler et al's Message Action Plans (MAPs). They recommended the use of MAPs in crisis situations and disaster recovery efforts. The MAPs focus on the goal of the message (the expected audience action or behavior), define the target audience, identify the spokesperson, characterize the communication vehicle, list the necessary messages to communicate, and influence the readability of the key messages by the intended audience. The MAP operates as a visible communication matrix. It provides a quick understanding of what must be accomplished when, how, by whom; it defines target audience(s); it develops techniques (or identifies vehicles or media) to communicate the message; and it assigns responsibility for communicating (e.g., who says what). (Read more on how Chandler et al's MAPs are structured.)
Applying visual and spatial techniques to workplace crisis communication can help educate individuals about the visual organization of information and prepare them for writing, and communicating verbally, in a structured and coherent manner by focusing on key messages, audience, and delivery. As an additional bonus, writing instructors can tailor Chandler et al’s MAP to assist students in visually organizing their thoughts and making strategic decisions before composing. This visual organization can aid the student in creating one voice, preparing the analysis and argument by identifying the audience and key messages, and providing a timeline for structure and organization. These MAPs allow students to visually organize messages and audiences.
In an annual disaster responses and recovery training exercise I conducted for corporate internal response and recovery team members, the use of MAPs allowed the team members to identify the many audiences they would need to communicate to/with and the messages they would need to communicate. By visually organizing their responses to specific audiences, the participants were able to organize their thoughts, prioritize their messages, and tailor their responses.
In the organizational response and recovery training session, I used a familiar and potentially realistic scenario. The attendees were given the following information:
Your significant other leaves work, locks his/her laptop in the trunk of the car and stops at the grocery store on the way home. When s/he exits the grocery store, s/he realizes that the car has been stolen! You are stuck at the office working on a high-priority project, and it was your significant other’s responsibility to pick up your two children from daycare/school.
In this exercise, the attendees identified several audiences: the spouse, the grocery store manager, the customer service desk at the grocery store, a boss or manager at work, the police, the insurance company, and so on. Based on the multiple audiences, the messaging was also different: where to store the cold or frozen groceries, reporting the crime, making alternate arrangements for child care and work, and so on. The exercise helped the attendees to become more situationally aware and to organize the required messaging by what had to be communicated, when, to whom, and by whom.
MAPs in the Writing Classroom
This tool could also carry over to the composition classroom as another way to teach spatial and visual mapping. In a classroom, the plan could be altered to help students capture their messages, identify what needs to be analyzed for the proposed argument, and coherently organize the structure. For students, the instructor would want to brainstorm a realistic situation to which students could easily relate in order to help them successfully practice using the matrix. This would vary on the demographics of the classroom. Examples scenarios students might find accessible may include having a paper due and their computer hard drive crashes. Or they missed the bus and must get to campus for an exam.
MAPs are indeed similar to outlines in the organization of themes, arguments, and supporting evidence or statements. Yet this matrix offers more than just a tool for structure and ordering. It provides a visual organization that allows students to contemplate their messages and arguments first, then provides the space for them to consider delivery, audience, agency, and ordering with a focus on information flow, which becomes important in analytic writing when the goal is ordering information of the problem over the solution.