Though we live in an era defined by transformational advances in science and technology that make our ability to quantify, interpret, and predict what happens in the world more powerful than ever, contemporary events seem increasingly erratic. We have experienced this unpredictability acutely during the COVID-19 crisis. While scientists had warned about the possibility of increasingly devastating pandemics for years, the majority of the globe was poorly equipped to respond to the grave challenges presented by the COVID-19 virus when it emerged. As millions died and ordinary life was upended, a dire need emerged to respond and adapt to the novel and unanticipated challenges posed by the pandemic.
Dr. Rebekah Fox, Professor of Communication at Texas State University, explores the role that organizations can play in supporting communities through such times of crisis in her recent publication with Dr. Joshua Frye, “Pivoting in the Time of COVID-19: An In-Depth Case Study at the Nexus of Food Insecurity, Resilience, System Re-Organizing, and Caring for the Community.” Events like the COVID-19 pandemic cause obvious and direct harm, but also have indirect impacts that stem from the way they jeopardize existing frameworks working to fulfill community needs and exacerbate existing structural political and socioeconomic inequalities.
Dr. Fox and Dr. Frye’s research investigates this dynamic with respect to food insecurity: a major issue that impacts communities across the United States and tends to be stratified along the lines of race, gender and class. The authors describe how “when COVID-19 forced many schools to close, students who depended on the public schools to meet the majority of their nutritional needs faced an even larger battle with food insecurity.” While federal institutions like the USDA made efforts to combat this issue, “unmet need continued to be a problem with many communities.” In circumstances such as these, they observe that organizations can play a vital role in fostering community resilience by “pivoting” — redirecting their organizational outreach and community engagement and shifting resources and staff to address community needs that emerge during crises.
To examine the potential of organizational pivoting to make a positive impact in times of crisis, Dr. Fox and Dr. Frye conducted a case study on the singular efforts made by the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art to address food insecurity in Bentonville County, Arkansas during COVID-19. As the authors describe, seeking to keep their staff employed after the museum closed to the public, Crystal Bridges “pivoted its operations from a ‘business as usual’ cultural art institution to what could only be described as a crisis intervention and humanitarian relief organization.” How it carried out this initiative provides a model for how organizations could work to serve their communities while, at the same time, addressing the demands organizational crises put on them.
This article is part of a series on recent communication research that has important implications for understanding issues of public concern. We had the privilege of speaking with Dr. Fox about her research on Crystal Bridges and the importance of critical organizational communication scholarship. Our conversation with Dr. Fox explores her research on organizational pivoting, the lessons her scholarship holds for how organizations might adapt to aid their communities in times of crisis, and how this can importantly reframe our understanding of the social role of organizations. Our goal is to highlight insights from Dr. Fox’s research that are valuable to organizational communication scholars and practitioners, as well as anyone invested in addressing the pressing needs faced by their communities, especially in times of crisis.
Meet the Scholar
Dr. Rebekah Fox is Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Texas State University. Dr. Fox’s research applies rhetorical criticism and critical perspectives in health and communication in a variety of different and important contexts, including food health and food security, communication in professions like nursing and firefighting, and issues of free speech and extremism. Her research has appeared in publications like Journal of Contemporary Rhetoric, Health Communication, and Food Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal and has been funded by a number of grants, including from the Austin Community Foundation, The Motorola Solutions Foundation, and the Department of the Interior Bureau of Land Management. “Pivoting in the Time of COVID-19: An in-Depth Case Study at the Nexus of Food Insecurity, Resilience, System Re-Organizing, and Caring for the Community,” the subject of this article, was published in Frontiers in Communication.
Dr. Fox is Chair of the Freedom of Speech Division at the Southern States Communication Association and Associate Editor of the Communication Law Review, among other journals. She has also received certifications as a Type II Wildland Firefighter and a Technical Specialist in Communication for the United States Forest Service. Dr. Fox’s teaching has earned a number of accolades, including the Golden Apple Teaching Award from Texas State University.
Prior to joining the faculty at Texas State, Dr. Fox was Health Services Research and Development Associated Health Postdoctoral Fellow at the Richard L. Roudebush Veterans’ Administration Medical Center, and Basic Course Director for the Department of Communication at the University of Arkansas. She received her Ph.D. from Purdue University and her M.A. and B.A. from the University of Arkansas, all in Communication.
To learn more about Dr. Fox’s career and research, be sure to read her full-length interview.
Pivoting in Times of Crisis
Alongside its grave human costs and ramifications for communities, the business closures and labor shortages caused by the COVID-19 pandemic embodied an organizational crisis for many private, public, and not-for-profit institutions. Dr. Fox notes that, for the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, being required to close its doors to the public meant that the museum was unable to continue to pursue its mission of inclusive community engagement through the arts — a mission that has been foregrounded in response to the internal organization research that found people of color in the community experienced a perceptual barrier toward Crystal Bridges’ engagement efforts stemming from discomfort in attending indoor events at the museum. It was also facing the reality that “it no longer had work for dozens of employees the organization employed to support and engage with visitors inside the museum.”
In “Pivoting in the Time of COVID-19,” Dr. Fox and Dr. Frye draw on the rhetorical term-of-art kairos to describe the complex context the museum found itself navigating: “Crystal Bridges was in a kairotic moment: a time of crisis and opportunity.” In “pivoting” to address the needs of their community, Crystal Bridges was able to respond to their own organizational demands (employment and community engagement) while also responding to the needs the pandemic had generated in the community. As Dr. Fox described in our discussion, “Since the schools were closed, kids that qualified for free or reduced lunches were no longer going to be able to go to school and get those meals. The museum prioritized helping the community and pivoted.”
Pivoting, Dr. Fox specified, is “a metaphor that explains how [Crystal Bridges] took their resources and what they were able to do and moved them into a different direction.” Effective organizational pivoting in times of crises requires organizations to identify how their own resources and abilities might be reworked and repurposed to effectively respond to the intersecting demands that crisis places on both organizations and communities.
Communication is key to every level of successful pivoting. Addressing organization and community needs requires, first, the identification of that need. This involves external dialogue with other organizations as well as direct engagement with members of the community. Crystal Bridges conducted a number of listening sessions aimed at discerning the most urgent needs in the community, which were identified as “1) food 2) housing 3) mental health 4) suffering artists and 5) a digital divide.”
It then coordinated with community agencies and formed “task teams” that engaged, respectively, in “1) food distribution; 2) household and personal care supply distribution; 3) social connecting, 4) artist support and 5) internet and information sharing.” It also involved internal communication within the organization, like the kind required in training employees to engage in new forms of labor, and in responding to new and rapidly developing challenges presented by crises.
Having identified food insecurity as their top concern, Crystal Bridges then engaged in dialogues and established partnerships with other organizations already working to ameliorate the problem, like the Northwest Arkansas Food Bank, in order identify areas of greatest food insecurity in the area and mobilize resources to support the most vulnerable within the community. They then formed teams dedicated to distributing over 6,000 meal kits (the equivalent of nearly 30,000 meals), as well as kits designed to meet the other needs identified in their listening sessions: a social connecting kit, a “My Museum” kit, a house cleaning supply kit, and a personal care kit.
The process of pivoting entails negotiating a wide variety of practical and logistical considerations. For example, in our discussion, Dr. Fox described how Crystal Bridges faced the “logistical questions of how you get enough space to organize getting these boxes of food,” as well as the deeper considerations of “how you plan food for kids who are 8 years old or 9 years old, who might be taking care of four and five-year-old kids at home. You have to have things you can microwave. You can’t have things you have to cook on a stove.”
Dr. Fox’s research takes Crystal Bridges as a case study because, as an organization with resources and funding, it was able to dedicate itself to negotiating these difficulties, and can therefore provide important lessons learned so that, as Dr. Fox described, “If there is COVID 2.0 or something that affects us dramatically in that way, we don’t have to start at square one to figure out logistics, planning, operations, and how to execute something like that.” The organization also provides an exemplar for initiatives aimed at addressing food insecurity. As Dr. Fox and Dr. Frye put it in their publication, “While the particularities of the kairotic moment Crystal Bridges faced may not be replicable, their process and the thoughtful, effective outcomes instantiate the kind of creative rethinking and reworking more individuals and institutions will need to engage in order to creatively address persistent and troubling food system problems.”
Critical Organizational Research
Critical research in organizational communication investigates the relationship between organizations, communication, and power. In many cases, it seeks to understand and critique the communication dynamics of organizations that work to sustain inequitable relationships between, for example, employers and employees, or along the lines of race, class, gender, and sexuality. In this way, critical scholars view entities like corporations, governmental institutions, and nongovernmental actors as sites of social, political, and cultural struggle, and attempt to locate communicative means to resist and reform organizations in the pursuit of more just and liberatory forms of labor and organization.
Dr. Fox’s work purposefully synthesizes the critical perspective’s attention to power with its practical dedication to pursuing concrete change. In the case of her study at Crystal Bridges, this involves mapping out the ways in which organizations can provide paradigms for meaningful community engagement while remaining sensitive to the complex dynamics of power involved in such efforts. As Dr. Fox explained in our interview, “My brand of organizational communication is always going to be critical, but that doesn’t mean that I’m standing there trying to take down organizations. Organizations are like communication — they have potential for good or evil, you just have to harness the power and point it in a particular direction. There’s nothing in tearing down an organization for me.”
A critical perspective, Dr. Fox offers, “can help an organization better realize their goals,” by highlighting the disconnections between how they act and communicate and the already existing values articulated by the organization. These same critical perspectives can subsequently encourage organizations to “align [their actions and communication with their values] if the ultimate outcome is going to be better for workers, the community, or the public.” The ultimate goal of the critical perspective should not be all-or-nothing critiques of organizations for not living up to ideal values, she argues, because such critiques prevent pragmatic changes that can help people in the short term.
For example, Dr. Fox noted that “a lot of the money for the Crystal Bridges Museum comes from the Walton Family Foundation.” The Walton Family Foundation is a charitable organization founded by heirs to the Walmart fortune that has dedicated considerable resources to charter school programs. “Because of their controversial investments, this is something I had to wrestle with when writing the article. We wrote about it openly in the document: what we thought about that and how we dealt with that. I had to separate that part of it from the goal of helping kids in the community. That was what I was focused on. We can pick up the fight and push back in different ways, but we can also help the person right here. That was the bigger goal.”
“Our research can help improve people’s lives just as much as we can point the fingers at organizations whose goals are not emancipatory,” Dr. Fox emphasized. “If I can help make organizations better or help them realize their goals, I think that’s where I do my best work. The idea that what we do with the critical perspective is a binary between shaming people or giving faux-emancipatory strategies to management that perpetuate oppressive structures is limiting. I think there’s an important middle ground.”
Dr. Fox drew from her experience working as a Technical Specialist for the US Forest Service and researching communication among wildland firefighters to provide another example of her pragmatic and applied critical organizational scholarship. “With the Forest Service, in particular, having a ‘lessons learned’ website was an important accomplishment. It says, ‘We’re not going to hide things. We’re going to embrace what we call a justice culture, where people can talk about what went wrong instead of pushing it underground and having more people die as a result of it.” Efforts at organizational transparency such as these are valuable because they aid organizations in improving, while admitting and accepting that they are imperfect.
“When an organization has already stated its values, it’s easy to say, ‘You didn’t achieve them. You didn’t get there,” Dr. Fox explained, “But we’re in the process of trying to do better, and we can’t let the fact that we haven’t achieved it yet stand in the way of our efforts.” Her approach to organizational communication, then, is both critical and pragmatic. This sensibility is reflected well in “Pivoting in the Time of COVID-19,” as Dr. Fox and Dr. Frye draw on Crystal Bridges’ interventions to provide valuable lessons for how organizations might aid their communities, and shed light on the deeply rooted inequities that crises expose and exaggerate– disparities which, in turn, intensify the human cost of those crises.
Pivoting to Support More Just Communities
Dr. Fox’s research on pivoting testifies to the importance of critical scholarship in identifying how organizations might make a beneficial difference in their communities, and go beyond that to begin to address structural problems that cause issues like food insecurity. The critical tradition’s attention to power is necessary to attaining this goal. This is reflected well by Dr. Fox and Dr. Frye’s attention to the important difference between food security and food justice in “Pivoting in the Time of COVID-19.”
The efforts of Crystal Bridges, Dr. Fox and Dr. Frye offer, are vulnerable to the criticism that their efforts at addressing food security fail to tackle underlying structural issues that motivate food insecurity and therefore stop short of pursuing food justice. The authors admit that there is validity to the critique that “Crystal Bridges is only reinforcing the perpetuation of a disempowering hunger management status quo for the school children of low-income households in Benton County.” In response, however, they argue that, “Even though the museum was mandated to shut its doors to the community, potentially removing employees from its payroll and further exacerbating the structural inequity that hunger is merely an ugly symptom of, it was able to creatively adapt and pivot its entire identity and structure and thereby attack both food insecurity as well as advance food justice.” The museum, then, helped address the underlying dynamics driving food insecurity by “keeping community members and their households in gainful employment while contributing to an immediate need which highlighted even more weaknesses in the political and economic arrangements within United States society.”
The efforts of Crystal Bridges models an approach to crisis intervention that remains mindful of structural factors, moving to prevent exacerbating economic need in their community by redirecting their labor toward meeting other communal needs. This experience, moreover, provided many employees with a greater understanding of the larger political and economic issues underpinning food scarcity within their community.
Crystal Bridges’ pivoting efforts also reflected a recognition of the holistic approach necessary to supporting communities in times of crisis and fostering resilience. As Dr. Fox discussed during our interview, after the museum went through the “troubleshooting and problem solving” process and began to deliver food, “they started to realize that feeding children in the community was going to take care of a very small portion of their day. Of course, it’s a very important one, but then they’re stuck for the rest of the day in the apartment by themselves.”
Working from this experience and listening sessions they conducted with the community, the museum worked to “expand their efforts to become much more holistic.” This involved, Dr. Fox explained, working from their existing roster to provide, not only practical materials like “cleaning supplies and hygiene projects,” but also opportunities for creative expression, learning, and social engagement.
Dr. Fox explained that, “Since the museum already had the list of people who needed food delivered, they used their education and outreach division to create art boxes and then they delivered those to the kids.” Rather than simply providing them supplies, “Crystal Bridges connected the young people they were serving in the community to long term nursing care facilities.” Combining the museum’s organizational connections and its expertise in artistic outreach and education presented a unique avenue to foster social connection. As Dr. Fox discussed, “The kids would do their postcards and their artistic designs and they would send them to the nursing homes, where they would be displayed.”
This mutually creative, mutually-beneficial collaboration testifies to the rewards of pivoting for organizations and the communities they are involved in alike. “It was one of those things where they were working really hard to do as much as they could do in the community during a time when nobody could go to the museum and they didn’t want to lay people off,” Dr. Fox concluded, “They needed to figure out a way to pivot inside of that so they could maintain their labor force, maintain their commitment to their employees, and so they could do something that was worth it.” Doing something “worth it” had positive impacts on the satisfaction of the museum’s employees as well as the community members they served.
Pivoting and Preparing for Future Crises
In “Pivoting in the Time of COVID-19,” Dr. Fox and Dr. Frye draw from Bridie McGreavy’s article “Resilience as Discourse,” in characterizing the present moment as “an era of crisis acceleration wherein organizations have to monitor increasingly complex risks with the potential to become crises, and once they do become crises, organizations must move quickly.” The authors lay out three central lessons that Crystal Bridges’ pivoting efforts exemplify as a model for organizations inhabiting such a time of unanticipated and expanded crisis: “planning to learn,” congregation through segregation, and external and internal communication strategies.
First, organizations responding to a crisis must “plan to learn” by proactively managing employee’s acquisitions of new skills as well as the value and investment they place in the new types of labor they are performing. While pivoting constitutes a challenge for workers in as much as it requires the acquisition of these skills and may require performing mundane or stressful tasks, the employees Dr. Fox and Dr. Frye corresponded with reported taking a great deal of satisfaction in their crisis response work, partly because it generated a greater understanding and awareness of their communities.
Collaborations between workers who would not usually interact during business as usual also generated productive connections between employees that led to the exchange of specialized knowledge. These meaningful connections stemmed from collaborative problem solving on issues ranging from distributing paperclips to collecting sensitive data. Not all learning that occurred during the crisis was task-based; it also involved the cultivation of a deeper sense of connection with the community and, as one museum worker put it, a feeling of being ignorant to the disparities that had been afflicting the community prior to the crisis. The learning involved in pivoting can contribute to the amelioration of short-term community needs while fostering a critical sensibility that might lay the groundwork for lasting pursuits of justice, within organizations and more broadly.
The second key lesson the authors offer is that crises may have the effect of producing congregation by segregation, which they use to refer to the interpersonal and organizational connectivity generated in facing a shared problem or threat. Response to a crisis incentivizes organizational collaboration and cohesion. Dr. Fox and Dr. Frye describe this as generating an affinity between members of organizations as well an affinity between different organizations, such as the Northwest Arkansas Food Bank. Indeed, the affinity between the two organizations formed while schools were closed remains in place today, speaking to their observation that the museum is invested in structural transformations, not just short-term solutions.
Finally, internal communication strategies refer to communications among and between employees and management, as well as between different organizational teams assembled to address the crisis at hand. External communication, on the other hand, refers to the organization’s communication with other organizations as well as with the community they are engaging. This form of communication is absolutely integral to the successful adaptation to the rapidly shifting dynamics of a crisis.
In an important example of external communication, Dr. Fox and Dr. Frye note that, “As a non-profit organization with some standing, Crystal Bridges began its food distribution community outreach work by going through official channels. That is, an inquiry was made to the Department of Education officials to verify the food access gap of community schools in Northwest Arkansas.” The Department of Education, however, responded to their inquiry by claiming that food access was not an issue in local Title 1 schools. Crystal Bridges went through the additional effort to verify this information through “conversations with local school administrators” whose answers were “markedly different from the perspective of the DOE.”
This example from “Pivoting in the time of COVID” demonstrates that the triangulation of information and the practice of “redundant communication” (that is, multiple instances of communication focused on securing and cross-referencing information) is crucial in emergencies, because “distant, official sources may not have…on the ground, locally relevant, and accurate data or understanding.”
As Dr. Fox and Dr. Frye conclude, “Scholars and analysts have anticipated the need for deliberately building more resilience into our local communities and basic life support systems for some time now. This became strikingly clear during 2020 with breakdowns in supply chains. Building community level resilience means building redundancy into the system. One of the kinds of redundancies that may be essential but overlooked in crisis mode is communication behavior.” Foregrounding communicative considerations and integrating redundancy alongside direct community engagement is critical if organizations hope to meaningfully mitigate the damage caused by crisis proliferation.
Finally, the critical and applied nature of Dr. Fox’s research offers a fourth meaningful takeaway for both critical organizational scholars and anyone who wishes to meaningfully engage in aiding their communities. Maintaining an awareness of how organizations can and often do perpetuate oppressive power relations is vital to understanding how we might meaningfully solve the structural problems that times of crisis augment and make obvious. Dr. Fox’s research on the crisis is both practical and personal while maintaining this critical sensitivity.
In our interview, Dr. Fox related that her brother works for Crystal Bridges, which gave her a personal connection and closer understanding of the museum’s efforts. “Sometimes the best things we write, we write because we’re closer to them, we’re connected to them, and we have a desire to understand them,” she suggested, then advised, “Don’t deny that part of you that wants to connect your interests and your academic research. We can do some of our most productive work when we’re personally invested in it.”
Lobbying to make organizations and the world more just, as scholars, activists, or everyday people, is not a matter of uncompromising criticism. It is a matter of striving to make practical changes in the lives of others, driven by a real care and compassion for our communities and the people who make them up.