How to Tame a Watchdog?

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How To Tame a Watchdog?’

A study into the factors of communication strategies that can make

the media follow the frames put forward by a minister facing

reputational threat

!

Lisa Schallenberg (s1429388)

10-06–2018 Den Haag

Thesis supervisors: Dr. S.L. Kuipers and Mr. Drs. W. Jong.

Master Thesis

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Preface

The past few months I have dived into the topic of ministers facing reputational threat. I have seen

them struggling to get a grip when a nasty journalist asked them an ever nastier question. I studied

the way in which they tried to talk their way out of accusations and blame. I caught them making

excuses, even though at first glance it might have came across as an apology. I have seen them

execute carefully crafted communication strategies and I have seen journalists fall for it. I have also

seen their communication strategies falling apart while there was a camera pointed at them. What

surprised me the most is that while I was sitting in the university library, writing this thesis, I could

very clearly see the mistakes they made. At times, I didn’t understand how ministers, who have

access to the best spokespersons and communication teams, could not have foreseen the negative

impact their communication strategies could have. During one of our first meetings, Wouter told me

that crisis communication comes down to common sense, but that the trick is to access that common

sense in the middle of a crisis. With that advice in mind, I have tried to approach this thesis. With

the benefit of hindsight, it is always easy to identify mistakes. The more interesting question is how

you can make sure that those mistakes will not be made in the future. I hope this thesis answers a

part of that question.

I would like to thank Wouter for his dedicated guidance from the very beginning. His stories about

the communication advice he had given to leaders in various scenarios were not only entertaining,

but also helped me in understanding the practical context that leaders in crisis situations operate in.

But next to Wouter, I have been privileged enough to have been supervised by another crisis

communication experts these past few months: Michel. The support and discussions between the

three of us have been very useful. They have given extra gravity to this research.

I would also like to thank Devin for voluntarily reading Benoit’s book in order to understand my

obsession with spotting image repair strategies every time we were watching the news. I forgive

you for losing the book.

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Abstract

The aim of this thesis is to understand how a minister, facing reputational threat, can make sure that

their defense becomes salient in the media reports. A comparative case study has been conducted,

analyzing the communication strategies of four (junior) ministers who faced reputational threat

between 2013 and 2018: Fred Teeven, Ronald Plasterk, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert and Halbe

Zijlstra. The analysis of their communication strategies and the way in which these were

represented in the media reports brought to light four tendencies that the media have when reporting

about ministers in trouble. 1) The political crisis is salient in media reports immediately after the

trigger. 2) The media tend to frame the event for which the minister has to account as a symptom of

a deeper problem. 3) The media tend to frame the severity of the event as tangible as possible. 4)

The media extensively offer a platform to people who are angry with the minister. Deriving from

these four tendencies are six factors of communication strategies of ministers that can influence the

degree of media alignment. (I) The timing of the delivery of the minister’s counter interpretation,

(II) The quality of the minister's counter interpretation, (III) The minister’s ability to anticipate what

the media will frame as the underlying problem, (IV) The minister's ability to anticipate the way in

which the media will frame the severity of the event, (V) The quality of the minister’s

stakeholder-management , (VI) The minister’s ability to identify the threat of a political crisis in an early stage.

Based on this thesis, the relationship between the media and ministers can be conceptualized as a

dynamic in which both actors influence each other. Understanding the tendencies that the media

have contributes to an understanding of how the behavior of a minister influences the behavior of

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Table of contents

Introduction

7

Theoretical Framework

10

§1. Political crisis communication: the academic debate this research ties into 10

§2. The concept of media alignment 12

§3. Analyzing the communication strategies of ministers 13

The aim of this thesis

22

Methodology

23

Fred Teeven

29

§1. The facts 29

§2. The minister’s frame 30

§3. The appropriateness of the minister’s image repair strategies 32

§4. The coherency of the minister’s communication strategy 36

§5. The media’s frame 37

§6. Concluding remarks regarding media alignment 39

Ronald Plasterk

41

§1. The facts 41

§2. The minister’s frame 43

§3. The appropriateness of the minister's image repair strategies 45 §4. The coherency of the minister's communication strategy 48

§5. The media's frame 48

§6. Concluding remarks regarding media alignment 50

Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert

54

§1. The facts 54

§2. The minister's frame 56

§3. The appropriateness of the minister's image repair strategies 58 §4. The coherency of the minister's communication strategy 61

§5. The media's frame 62

§6. Concluding remarks regarding media alignment 65

Halbe Zijlstra

67

§1. The facts 67

§2. The minister's frame 68

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§4. The coherency of the minister's communication strategy 73

§5. The media's frame 74

§6. Concluding remarks regarding the media alignment 76

Comparative analysis

78

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Introduction

“How long do you think you’re going to last in the debate?” (NOS, 2017a) This question was asked

by a reporter to minister Hennis. She was on her way to a parliamentary debate to account for the

death of two soldiers, for which her ministry was responsible. She was visibly nervous (De

Telegraaf, 2017a). She knew that during this debate, she would resign as minister of Defence (NRC,

2017a). Of all the questions this reporter could’ve asked, he chose to ask a question based on the

assumption that she wouldn’t survive the debate. A disruptive question at a disruptive time. This

type of question illustrates the attitude of the media, that - according to the academic literature -

characterizes the current relationship between the media and politics: the media have the incentive

to report interesting news, because it sells (Chandler & Munday, 2011; Takens & Van Atteveldt,

2013; Killough, 2007; Bryman & Haslam, 1994; Ahern & Sosyura, 2015). Therefore, they actively

look for juicy quotes and sensational topics. This characterization is also referred to as media logic.

In short: the media set the tone, the politicians follow.

However, this characterization seems to be an overly simplistic way to describe the

relationship between the media and politicians. We know that politicians use communication

strategies to influence the public (Chandler & Munday, 2011; Molenbeek & Aalberts, 2010;

Mcknight, 2015). We know that they have spin-doctors and spokespersons whose main task is to

positively influence media reports. An academic characterization of the relationship between the

media and politicians would therefore benefit from the recognition that it is characterized by a

struggle for power, rather than an exercise of power, and that the media as well as politicians use

strategies to play that game well.

Even though we know that politicians use communication strategies to ‘spin’ media reports,

little is known about the effectivity of these communication strategies (Boin, ‘t Hart, McConnell,

2009; Benoit, 2015). This thesis looks at one highly relevant effect of communication strategies: the

effect that communication strategies of politicians can have on the behavior of the media. This

effect is studied within a specific context: the context of ministers facing reputational threat.

Because ministers are national executives, they are under extreme scrutiny from the media. If their

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threats, and a lot of resources for crafting a communication strategy, this is an interesting context to

study the effectivity of these strategies.

In this thesis, the main question that will be answered is:

When a minister is under attack, what factors of their communication strategy can make the media

follow the frames put forward by the minister?

This question is divided into three subquestions, which will be answered through the method of

discourse analysis of statements of politicians and publications of the media.

1. What was the crisis communication strategy of the minister facing reputational threat?

A. How did the minister frame the event?

B. Was the frame appropriate?

C. Was the frame coherent?

2. To what extent do the media frames align with the frames put forward by the minister under

attack?

3. How can the communication strategy of the minister influence the level of media alignment?

The communication strategy of the minister (subquestion 1) will be determined by using the

theoretical typologies of Situational Crisis Communication Theory (Coombs, 2007) and the theory

of image repair strategies (Benoit, 2015). The exact ways in which these theories underpin this

research both theoretically and methodologically will be explained in chapters 3 (theoretical

framework) and 4 (methodology) of this thesis.

In order to answer these questions, four cases of ministers under attack will be studied and

compared. The cases that are selected were chosen based on three criteria: firstly, the incidents for

which the minister had to account should be similar in terms of severity. Secondly, the cases should

fall in the same timeframe because the media behaved differently in previous years. And lastly, the

ministers should represent different departments, to ensure a variety of communication-teams

responsible for the communication strategy. 


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1) Fred Teeven, junior minister of Security and Justice in cabinet Rutte 2. He had to account for the

suicide of Russian asylum seeker Aleksandr Dolmatov.

2) Ronald Plasterk, minister of the Interior and Kingdom Relations in cabinet Rutte 2. He had to

account for falsely accusing the US of tapping 1.8 million metadata of Dutch citizens.

3) Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, minister of Defence in cabinet Rutte 2. She had to account for three

Dutch military casualties of a mortar grenade accident in Mali.

4) Halbe Zijlstra, minister of Foreign Affairs in cabinet Rutte 3. He had to account for lying about

having met Putin.

When ministers get into trouble, the media tend to hunt them down. This thesis aims to create a

deeper understanding of how to make them follow your lead, and how to stay ahead in the struggle

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Theoretical Framework

The theoretical framework presented in this chapter does not only form the relevant academic

foundation of this research. It also forms the framework of analysis used to study the cases.

Therefore, this chapter will be divided into three parts. It begins with a brief overview of the

broader academic debate this research ties into. Then, the outcome variable of this research - media

alignment - will be conceptualized. Lastly, the theoretical foundation of the framework of analysis,

used to study the communication strategies of the minister, will be explained.

§1. Political crisis communication: the academic debate this research ties into

Crisis communication is a broad field of research. It can be defined as the collection, processing and

dissemination of information required to address a crisis situation (Coombs & Holladay, 2010, p.

20). Crisis communication serves two main goals: firstly, instructing the public about what's

happening and what to do in order to be safe. This is relevant in crises with a physical threat.

Secondly, marginalizing the reputational damage a crisis inflicted on the responsible institution.

Not all crises create a physical threat. Even though the definition of a crisis is a highly

debated topic (handbook), there is general consensus on key characteristics of a crisis: it is sudden,

unexpected, and it has negative consequences for an institution (Brody, 1991; Linke, 1989; Barton,

2001; Fearn-Banks, 1996; Seeger, Sellnow, & Ulmer, 1998). The crisis that is studied in this thesis

is the political crisis. These are described as a sudden turning point in the legitimacy of governing

elites, policy paradigms, political regimes of the political system as a whole (Ansell, Boin & t Hart,

2014). In this research, the specific type of political crisis that is studied is a turning point in the

legitimacy of an incumbent minister.

Given the lack of physical threat for the broader public, the first main goal of crisis

communication - instructing the public about how to achieve physical safety - is not relevant within

the scope of this research. This research is about the second goal of crisis communication:

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Figure 1. The way in which reputational repair ties into the broader field of crisis management

The gap within the academic research into political crisis communication

Within the study of (political) crisis communication, the main flaw is a lack of understanding of the

effects of communication strategies (Boin, ‘t Hart, McConnell, 2009; Benoit, 2015). Research has

been conducted into the types of crisis communication that can be used (Benoit, 2015), theories

have been brought forward that prescribe certain communication strategies in certain contexts

(Coombs, 2007; Moynihan, 2012; Boin et al., 2010) and studies have developed quantified methods

to understand the correlation between communication strategies and political support (Boin, 't Hart,

McConnell, 2009). However, a deep understanding of effects of certain communication strategies

over others is lacking. This is a highly relevant flaw because of the practical nature of crisis

communication studies. Academic research is the foundation of advice for leaders who find Crisis management

Crisis communication

Instructing the public

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§2. The concept of media alignment

This research focuses on one effect of communication strategies: namely the effect it has on the

behavior of the media. This effect is important because a political crisis is considered to be

dramatic; it is newsworthy (Coombs & Holladay, 2010; Millar et al., 2004). Therefore, the media

tend to report a lot on the political crisis within its time period. The media are also the main channel

that connects politics to the broader audience (Chandler & Munday, 2011). For the public, the

media are the main source of information about the political crisis. Because of this dependence the

public has on the media, media reporting not only define but make salient the conditions of the

crisis (Coombs & Holladay, 2010; Ansell, Boin & ‘t Hart, 2014). The selective information

provided to the audience frame the way in which they interpret the event, as well as how they

perceive the role of the minister. Therefore, as a minister, an important way to repair the damage to

your reputation, is to make sure that the media provide the information about the political crisis that

you want them to. In order words: the ministers interpretation of the event and the strategies they

use to repair their image need to be salient within the media in order to make it reach the public.

Within a democratic state it is important that the public believes in the good reputation of the

minister. Because of this context, the media form the arena in which crisis actors have to convince

news-makers to pay attention to their crisis frame (Ulmer et al, 2007; Seeger et al., 2003; Boin et al,

2009). 


Even though the media play a big role in framing the reputation of the minister, it is consistently

overlooked in the media when studying crisis communication (Boin, 't Hart & McConnell, 2009).

More often, opposition parties, incumbent ministers and public opinion form the object of analysis

(Coombs, 2007; Moynihan, 2012; Boin et al., 2010). However, media reports can influence all of

these actors at once. That is the reason that the mechanism of influencing the media is the central

topic of this thesis. 


There is debate among academics whether or not the media can even be influenced. Some

academics state that the media push through their own agenda, and report on whatever they want

(Streitmatter, 1997; Hearit, 2006). Others say that the media can be influenced by communication

strategies of politicians (Fearn-Banks, 2007; Ulmer et al., 2007; Boin, et al., 2005). There is not

clear answer in this debate and it seems to depend on many factors, such as how well-liked the

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2007; Hearit, 2006). The conclusion of this thesis can help in understanding the nature of the

relationship between the media and politics.

The concept ‘media alignment’ thus refers to the question of how salient the interpretation

the minister has of the event is in the media reports. Media alignment does not necessarily refer to

the degree to which the media explicitly confirm the interpretation of the minister. In democratic

states, it is a virtue that the media has the freedom - and the duty - to keep ministers who make a

mistake in check. In every democratic state, the media will therefore have critical reports on a

minister under attack (Mcknight, 2015). The question is not: how much do the media agree with the

interpretation of the minister? The question is: how much do the media report on the interpretation

of the politician? Putting forward the interpretation of a minister and asking different actors to

comment on it, is also media alignment. Through repeating the frame of the minister, and either

attacking or confirming it, it does become one of the dominant interpretations of the media (Takens,

Van Atteveldt & Van Hoof, 2013; Chandler & Munday, 2011). One can and should not aim to

restrict the freedom of the watchdog of our democracy, by preventing them from bringing criticism.

But one can aim to tame it, by making it report on your frames.

§3. Analyzing the communication strategies of ministers

How does a political crisis come about?

In order to understand how a minister aims to decrease their reputational threat during a political

crisis, it is first important to understand how a political crisis comes about. As has been defined in

the opening paragraph of this chapter, the political crisis that is studied in this thesis is described as

a turning point in the legitimacy of an incumbent minister (Ansell, Boin & ‘t Hart, 2009). The

question then is, how does that turning point occur?

In order to explain this, there are five core-moments in all four cases that have been studied,

that need to be introduced. Firstly, the event. This refers to the negative event that happened for

which a minister has to account. For example, in the case of minister Hennis, the event was the

mortar grenade accident in Mali.

The turning point - the moment the legitimacy of the minister is put into question - occurs

when an authority accuses the minister of an offensive act. An offensive act is conceptualized here

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Dutch Safety Board in which the ministry of Defence was accused of prioritizing the continuation

of missions over the safety of the soldiers. This turning point defines the beginning of the political

crisis.

The political crisis is the time period during which the minister has to respond in order to

decrease reputational threat. The point that marks the end of the political crisis is the debate in

which the minister officially accounts for the event in parliament. This debate can either result in the

minister staying in office or in their resignation.

The three aspects of communication strategies: content, appropriateness and coherency

Since it is now established when, and in response to what, the crisis communication of the minister

occurs, the aspects of the communication strategy of ministers that will be analyzed will be

explained. 


Within the academic body of literature, four ways of analyzing reputational repair can be

distinguished. Firstly, research that focuses on the way in which accused actors frame the event they

are responsible for (Boin, 't Hart, McConnell, 2009; Boin et al., 2010). Secondly, research that looks

at responsibility and prescribes how much responsibility the actor should have taken, given the

entire context of the crisis (Coombs, 2007; Lee & Chung, 2012; Mitroff & Anagnos, 2001). Thirdly,

research that maps out the image repair strategies that are used by an accused actor (Benoit, 2015;

Kauffman, 2011; García, 2011). Lastly, research that focuses on the timing and the Event

The negative event for which the minister

has to account

Trigger

The turning point of the minister’s legitimacy.

This is caused by an authority accusing the minister of an offensive

act that (in)directly created the context in

which the event

occurred

The debate

The debate during which the minister accounts for the event

and the offensive acts

they are accused of

The political crisis

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understandability of the message that is delivered (Choi & Lee, 2017; Beldad, Laar & Hegner,

2018; Claeys, Cauberghe & Leysen, 2013). Within this thesis, all these ways to analyze reputational

repair will be used. The reason for this is because of the explorative nature of this thesis: in order to

find factors within the communication strategies that can influence media reports, it is useful to

analyze the communication strategy as a whole, rather than focusing on one aspect of it. Therefore,

it is the aim of this research to map out the communication strategies of ministers in a holistic

manner.

This thesis looks at three aspects of communication strategies, rather than four. The reason for that

is that the image repair strategies used (the third type of research) and the responsibility that

should’ve been taken (the second type of research) are combined in this thesis and conceptualized

as appropriateness. Therefore, the three aspects of communication strategies that will be looked at

are (1) their frame of the event, (2) how appropriate their image repair strategies are, and (3) the

extent to which their story is coherent.

Communication strategy

Frame
 1. Cause
 2. Severity


3. Impact on political
 position

Coherency
 1. Consistency
 2. Timing
 3. Quantity

4. Understandability

Appropriateness


How much responsibility should have been taken minus 


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(1) Content: how does the minister frame the event?

The first aspect is the way in which the minister frames the event for which they have to account.

The frame can also be referred to as the interpretation of the event that the minister gives. This

frame consists of three characteristics of the event: (a) the cause of the event, (b) the severity of the

event (c) the impact the event has on the political position of the minister (Boin, 't Hart, McConnell,

2010). In the frame about the cause, the minister explains what factors they believe preceded and

directly led to the event. The severity of the event refers to the extent to and the way in which the

minister attributes negative qualities to the event and its consequences. The required impact on the

political position is about the political consequences of this event: is it severe enough for the

minister to resign, or can the minister stay in office?

The reason that the frame of the event is relevant for the minister to decrease reputational

threat is because it gives the minister the opportunity to alter the accusation by offering a

counter-interpretation of what caused the event (Beldad, Laar & Henger, 2018). If that counter-counter-interpretation

becomes dominant within the discourse, the frame of the event that the minister has to account for

can change to their advantage.

Boin, 't Hart and McConnell (2009) state that the degree to which the media’s reporting

align with the frames of an actor depends on the credibility of the actor’s crisis communication.

Unfortunately, they never conceptualize credibility. However, they do say that understating or

denying obvious problems undermines an actor’s credibility. In this thesis, what Boin et al (2009)

refer to as credibility, is conceptualized as the extent to which the minister’s frame of the event

relates to the common perception of the event - how intuitive the frame is. Lies, or understatements

about the perceived severity without offering an intuitive explanation undermines the intuitiveness

of the minister's frame.

Therefore, the first hypothesis in this research is:

H1) If the minister offers a non-intuitive frame of the event, there will be less media alignment

(2a) Appropriateness: how much responsibility should have been taken by the minister, given the context of the crisis?

Apart from looking at the content of the minister’s interpretation of the event, the second aspect that

will be looked at is the appropriateness of the communication strategy. Appropriateness is

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the crisis. The appropriateness is determined by using the Situational Crisis Communication Theory

(Coombs, 2007). This theory explains how much responsibility an actor should take in order to

diminish the reputational threat in a crisis, given the entire context of the crisis (Coombs, 2007).

The context of the crisis is made up out of three factors. Firstly, the perceived crisis responsibility.

Secondly, the crisis history of the institution. Thirdly, the prior reputation of the accused actor.


The perceived crisis responsibility refers to how much stakeholders believe that the

organizational actions caused the crisis (Coombs, 2007). This is determined by the type of crisis an

actor is dealing with. Coombs (2007) identifies three clusters of crises with subsequent levels of

crisis responsibility: the victim cluster, for crises in which the organization itself is viewed as the

victim. The accidental cluster, in which the incident is considered uncontrollable by the

organization. The intentional cluster, in which human errors or organizational misdeed caused the

incident (Coombs, 2007). Based on the cluster that the crisis falls into, the initial reputational threat

is determined. Higher perceived crisis responsibility comes with a higher reputational threat. 


This initial reputational threat can be adjusted based on two other factors: the crisis history

of the institution and the prior reputation of the accused actor (Coombs, 2007). Crisis history refers

to whether or not the institution had faced similar crises in the past. If it had, the perception that the

institution is not able to control errors and learn from past mistakes arises, and the reputational

threat intensifies.


The prior reputation of the accused actor refers to how good the actor’s reputation was in

different contexts before the crisis (Coombs, 2007). If the actor has showed little consideration for

stakeholders across a number of different domains, the prior reputation is bad and the initial

reputational threat intensifies. If the accused actor has a great prior reputation, there is goodwill and

the initial reputational threat decreases. 


According to Situational Crisis Communication Theory, the higher the initial reputational

threat, the more responsibility an accused actor should take in order to repair their reputation

(Coombs, 2007).

Type of crisis cluster Associated reputational threat

Victim cluster Low reputational threat

Accidental cluster Medium reputational threat

Intentional cluster High reputational threat

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(2b) Appropriateness: How much responsibility did the minister take?

Situational Crisis Communication Theory can be used to assess how much responsibility should be

taken. In order to determine how much responsibility was taken by the minister, the taxonomy of

image repair strategies by Benoit (2015) will be used. Benoit (2015) introduced a taxonomy of

image repair strategies that actors can use when they are accused of an offensive act. The goal of an

image repair strategy is to reshape the audience’s attitude about the minister’s character, creating or

changing beliefs about the minister’s responsibility for the event and/or creating or changing values

about the offensiveness of the act that the minister is accused of. Every defense, apology, excuse or

justification that a minister could bring can be divided into the five major image repair strategies.

The reason that this taxonomy is valuable in the context of this thesis is that all of these different

strategies represent a certain variant and degree of responsibility that is taken by the actor.


Benoit (2015) distinguishes between five major image repair strategies:

(I) Denial is the strategy to deny the action(s) someone is being accused of. In this image

repair strategy, someone takes no responsibility for the offensive act.


(II) Evading responsibility occurs when someone admits that they performed the offensive

act, but claim that they were not (fully) responsible for it. This strategy consists of four

subheadings. Provocation is the defense that the offensive act was provoked by another offensive

act. Defeasibility means that the rhetor claims that they committed the act due to a lack of necessary

information. Accidents is the argument that circumstances beyond their control caused the offensive

act. Good intentions is the attempt to claim that the rhetor is responsible for the offensive act, but

Intensifying factors Quality Effect on reputational threat

Crisis history High

Neutral

Low

Reputational threat intensifies

Reputational threat is unchanged


Reputational threat diminishes

Prior reputation Bad


Neutral

Good

Reputational threat intensifies

Reputational threat is unchanged


Reputational threat diminishes

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that they had good intentions. In this image repair strategy, someone takes low levels of

responsibility: they accept that they did it, but they claim that they are not (fully) responsible for it.


(III) Reducing the degree of offensiveness is the strategy with which someone admits to

being responsible for the act, but reduces the offensiveness of the act. This strategy consists of six

subheadings. Bolstering is the strategy to emphasize the good attributes of the accused actor to

remind the audience of their ‘goodness’. Minimization refers to the claim that the incident actually

was not that harmful. Differentiation is the attempt to compare this act with another, worse act to

make this act seem better in comparison. Transcendence is the attempt to appeal to higher values,

claiming that this bad act was necessary for the greater good. Attacking the accuser occurs when

one tries to minimize the credibility of the accuser. Compensation is the strategy with which the

accused compensates the victim financially or in another way to reduce the offensiveness. In this

image repair strategy, someone takes medium levels of responsibility: they accept that they are

responsible for it, but they marginalize the severity of the act.


(IV) Corrective action is the strategy with which the accused promises to install measures

that prevent a similar incident in the future. The difference with compensation is that compensation

does not address the root of the problem, but rather counterbalances the offensiveness of the act. In

this image repair strategy, someone evades the question of responsibility all together: they neither

take nor deny responsibility. Instead they divert the attention towards solutions and improvement.


(V) Mortification describes an apology for the act. In this image repair strategy, someone

takes high levels of responsibility.


Often, a combination of the above-mentioned strategies are used, and therefore the

combination of strategies ultimately determine the overall amount of responsibility that was taken

by the minister.

Research into the relevance of past perceptions of leaders on the degree of media alignment

shows that the media reports correlate highly with pre-crisis reporting and opinion about the actor

(Boin, 't Hart, McConnell, 2009). When an actor was perceived as a bad leader, the media are less

likely to align with them in times of political crises than if they were perceived as a good leader.

Even though this previous research does not mention the effect that responsibility has on media

alignment, it is possible to combine Situational Crisis Communication Theory with these findings.

Crisis history and prior reputation both say something about the quality of the leader. When there is

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the crisis itself, it does show negative attitudes about the person of the leader, and therefore can

harm the perception of the quality of his leadership. SCCT assumes that taking high levels of

responsibility in some way can make up for being a bad leader (Coombs, 2007). Therefore, it could

be concluded that taking appropriate levels of responsibility, as a minister, can make up for bad

reputation and make the media align with their statements.

Therefore, the second hypothesis is:

H2) With an appropriate response, the media will be more likely to align with the minister

Table 2. Image repair strategies and responsibility

Image repair strategy Substrategies Explanation Responsibility taken

Denial - I didn’t do it none

Evading responsibility Provocation

Defeasibility

Accidents

Good intentions

He provoked me


I didn't know
 Beyond my control
 I meant well

low

Reducing the degree of

offensiveness

Bolstering

Minimization

Differentiation

Transcendence

Attacking accuser

Compensation

I'm a good guy
 It’ s not that bad
 Another act is worse
 For the greater good


You’re not credible
 e.g. damages

medium

Corrective action - It won't happen again neutral

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(3) Coherency: how coherent is the communication of the minister?

The last aspect of the communication strategy is coherency. Coherency refers to 1) whether the

statements were not inconsistent, 2) the timing of the statement, 3) the amount of statements, 4) the

understandability of the statements. In terms of inconsistencies, research suggests that a

disorganized crisis communication diminishes the credibility of the actor and therefore also the

degree of media alignment (Fearn-Banks, 2007; Ulmer et al. 2007). Apart from whether or not the

message changes, the timing and understandability of the frame also play a role in determining its

coherency. Timing refers to how quickly the minister replies, after they got in trouble. Research has

shown that the rule of thumb in crisis communication is: present a statement as soon as possible

(Claeys, Cauberghe & Leisen, 2013; Beldad, Laar & Hegner, 2018; Seeger et al., 2003). The

amount of statements are also a part of coherency. Multiple statements are considered to be better,

because it allows a leader to dominate the discourse (Choi & Lee, 2017). Understandability refers to

the quality of the message: whether or not it is easy to understand and easy to repeat. Research has

showed that the more ready-to-go the frame is, the more likely it is that the media will pick up that

exact frame (Choi & Lee, 2017; Sleurs et al., 2003; Strobbe & Jacobs, 2005). This is because of the

practical context in which the media operate: the need to deliver well-formulated messages and the

time pressure under which they should deliver these messages.

Based on the academic body of literature related to coherency, the third hypothesis is:

(22)

The aim of this thesis

What this thesis is not

This thesis does not aim to prescribe ministers what to do when they face reputational threat. When

reading this thesis it is important to take into account that decreasing reputational threat can be of

secondary importance to a minister. During a political crisis, many different forces are at play and

ministers have divergent interests, that need to be weighed-off. For example, a ministry can face

legal charges, which makes it difficult to explicitly take responsibility or apologize for a negative

event. Political forces can also play a role: admitting that a policy didn't work can be more

problematic for a coalition party than dealing with reputational damage for a minister. In short,

during a political crisis, decreasing reputational damage is neither the only, nor necessarily the most

important goal for a minister.

What this thesis is

What this thesis can do, is provide a deeper understanding of how, in an ideal scenario, one could

decrease reputational threat. It is necessary to understand what the possible effects of reputational

repair are, in order to weigh the benefits or costs of those effects of against the benefits or costs of

prioritizing the political or legal aspect of the situation. Without understanding the process and

(23)

Methodology

Research Design and Case Selection

This research will be conducted through a qualitative comparative case study research design. The

communication strategies and media reports of four different cases will be analyzed.

The case selection is done based on the following criteria:

Firstly, the severity of the reputational threat a minister faces has to account needs to be

similar. If one minister only faces a minor reputational threat and another a very large one, the

media sentiment will naturally be different in their style of reporting and it will not be possible to

isolate the effect of the communication strategy. Therefore, all cases studied in this thesis have a

high initial reputational threat, according to the SCCT.

Secondly, the events need to have taken place in roughly the same time-period. Cases from

the early 2000s can not be compared to cases from 2016 because the attitude of the media has

changed drastically since then (Chandler & Munday, 2011; Molenbeek & Aalberts, 2010; Van

Zoonen, 2000; Killough, 2007)). The present is the most relevant time period to study because it

gives us the best insight into how to act when a similar incident would occur now. Therefore, all

cases fall within the same half of a decade: from 2013 until 2018.

Thirdly, the cases need to vary in terms of their communication strategies: the content of

their frame, the appropriateness and the coherency of their communication strategies. This is

necessary in order to be able to compare the effect of different communication strategies on the

(24)

By applying these criteria, the following cases have been selected:

Table 3. Case selection

Method

The communication strategies of the ministers will be analyzed by doing a discourse analysis on all

written and spoken statements of the (junior) minister from the trigger until the debate. The reason

that this timeframe was chosen is that accounting for the incident ends at the end of the debate:

that's when a final judgement is made. Therefore, the most urgent need to repair their reputation,

ends after the judgement of the debate.

Fred Teeven Ronald

Plasterk Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert Halbe Zijlstra Political function

Junior minister of Security and Justice in cabinet Rutte 2

Minister of the Interior and Kingdom Relations in cabinet Rutte 2.

Minister of Defence in cabinet Rutte 2.

Minister of Foreign Affairs in Rutte 3.

Event the suicide of Russian asylum seeker Aleksandr Dolmatov on January 17, 2013

Falsely stating that the US tapped 1.8 million

metadata from Dutch citizens on October 30, 2013.

The death of 2 Dutch soldiers and a

heavily injured soldier as a result of a prematurely detonated mortar grenade during a military exercise in Mali on July 6, 2016.

During the VVD-conference in 2016 he lied that he was present in Putin’s Dasja in 2006, and that he heard him talk about wanting to expand to former Soviet territory.

Political crisis

From April 12, 2013 until April 18, 2013

From February 4, 2014 until February 11, 2014.

From September 28, 2017 until October 3, 2017.

From February 12, 2018 until February 13, 2018.

Outcome of the debate

He stayed in office

He stayed in office.

(25)

Table 4. Operationalization of the core concepts for analyzing the communication strategy of the minister

Table 5. Operationalization of the core concepts for analyzing the media reports

Concept Operationalization Method

Frame 1. Frame of the cause of the

event

2. Frame of the severity of the event and the offensive act 3. Frame of the impact of the

event on the political position of the minister

Discourse analysis of all spoken and written statements of the minister, presented during the political crisis

Appropriateness Amount of responsibility that should have been taken (SCCT) 


minus


amount of responsibility that was taken (image repair strategies)

Discourse analysis of all spoken and written statements of the minister, presented during the political crisis

Coherency The level of consistency of the

statements, the timing of the statements, the quantity of the statements and the

understandability of the statements

Discourse analysis of all spoken and written statements of the minister, presented during the political crisis

Concept Operationalization Method

Frame 1. Frame of the cause of the

event

2. Frame of the severity of the event and the offensive act 3. Frame of the impact of the

event on the political position of the minister

Discourse analysis of the media reports during the political crisis that mention the name of the minister (Volkskrant, NRC, Trouw, Telegraaf, NOS

journaal, Nieuwsuur)

Alignment The extent to which the media

frames (cause, severity and impact on political position) correspond with the minister's frames

(26)

Data selection

The alignment of the frames the media use will also be analyzed by doing a discourse analysis. The

media that will be studied are the four biggest newspapers in The Netherlands: De Volkskrant, Het

NRC Handelsblad, Trouw, De Telegraaf (Haan & Bardoel, 2013). Apart from newspapers, two TV

outlets will be analyzed: Nieuwsuur and the NOS-journaal. These TV outlets are chosen because the

NOS is considered to be the main and most respected news source in the Netherlands (Van

Teeffelen, 2016). Nieuwsuur offers the most extensive interpretation of these political crises, and is

therefore a good source to study the media alignment with the frames of the minister.

All television shows and newspaper articles within the time period of the political crisis that

mention the name of the minister have been read (in the case of newspapers) or watched and

transcribed (in the case of television shows). The most representative frames that were used have

been mentioned in this thesis.

Table 6. Data selection

Table 7. Duration of political crises

There is a wide variety of the amount of media reports produced between the four cases. There are a

few explanations for this. Firstly, the amount other newsworthy events that took place during the

political crisis influence the attention given to the minister. For example, during Hennis’s political

crisis, Anne Faber was missing, the referendum for Catalonia’s independence was held and there

were leaks from the formation of Rutte 3 (Nieuwsuur, 2017a; Nieuwsuur, 2017b; Nieuwsuur,

Media outlet Teeven Plasterk Hennis Zijlstra

Newspaper articles

63 138 70 38

Television shows 6 12 9 3

Teeven Plasterk Hennis Zijlstra

Duration of political crisis

(27)

2017c; Nieuwsuur, 2017d; Nieuwsuur, 2017e). Teeven shared media attention with the terrorist

attacks on the Boston marathon (Nieuwsuur, 2013a; Nieuwsuur, 2013b; Nieuwsuur, 2013c;

Nieuwsuur, 2013d). This decreased the amount of attention the media could give to these events. 


The second factor that influenced the amount of media reports is the duration of the political crisis.

This depends on when the debate is scheduled in, which is determined by how long the opposition

wants to prepare for the debate.

Pitfalls


Determining the communication strategy of the minister is an important aspect of this research.

However, what this communication strategy was, is determined based on written statements and

media statements. It is not determined based on interviews with spokespersons or the ministers

themselves. This can be a pitfall, because for determining the communication strategy of the

minister, this research relies for some part on what the media decides to show. This problem has

been minimized by looking at a wide variety of news sources. Statements that were not shown in

TV reports, were mentioned in newspapers. Apart from that, the parliamentary documents that the

ministers wrote were also part of the analysis. These documents are very extensive and therefore

present a conclusive overview of what their defense was. Furthermore, it can be an advantage not to

know what the minister and spokesperson aimed for in their strategies. This allows the research to

approach the political crisis with an open view and to objectively describe what has been said and

how that was reflected in the media, rather than by looking to confirm the strategy that was set out

by the minister themselves.

Through these methods, the level of media alignment in each political crisis will be

established. By mapping out the entire communication strategy of the minister, the factors of that

communication strategy that can influence the level of media alignment will be determined.

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This is the consequence of a unique

and tragic turn of events”

(29)

Fred Teeven

§1. The facts

On January 17th 2013, Russian asylum seeker and political activist Aleksandr Dolmatov committed

suicide in a detention centre on Rotterdam airport, awaiting deportation to Russia (Trouw, 2013).

An inquiry by the inspection for Security and Justice into the suicide, published 3 months

later, concluded that the Dutch government made many mistakes in dealing with Dolmatov’s

asylum application and detention (NRC, 2013a). Firstly, he should not have been detained.

Dolmatov appealed a rejection for asylum and during an appeal you can legally stay in the country.

An error in the system attributed the wrong status to him. He was put in detention after Dolmatov

called the police in confused state because he had suicidal tendencies. The police checked his status

and due to a system-error, assumed he was illegal. They arrested him (Nieuwsuur, 2013b). Here, the

second major mistake occurred: Dolmatov was not offered the possibility to call his own lawyer.

The third mistake that the inquiry identifies is that, even tough Dolmatov had attempted to commit

suicide on two days before his death, the paramedics did not consult a doctor and did not take

further precautionary measures such as put him in a observation cell.

The offensive act that Teeven had to account for, as formulated by the inspection, was that

he was politically responsible for the department that made so many mistakes in dealing with the

asylum request and procedure of Aleksandr Dolmatov (Inspectie Veiligheid en Justitie, 2013).

Event


17-01-2013


The suicide of Aleksandr Dolmatov in the detention

centre of Rotterdam Airport, awaiting

deportation

Trigger


12-04-2013


The publication of the inquiry of the inspection for Security and Justice

Accusation for Offensive act

Teeven is accused

of being politically responsible for the

mistakes in his department.

The debate


18-04-2013


A vote of no confidence was supported by 50 parliamentarians.

Teeven chose to remain in office.

(30)

§2. The minister’s frame

Cause

Teeven frames this as an event caused by individual misdeed in the organization rather than by a

structural flaw in the system. On the day of the trigger, Teeven is a guest in Nieuwsuur. When asked

what happened, he states:

In fact three mistakes were made. Certain procedures were, wrongly, not followed, and also

personal mistakes. (Teeven, in Nieuwsuur, 2013a)

The words ‘mistake’, ’wrongly’ and ‘personal mistakes’ all suggest that individuals did not follow

the procedures that the ministry set up: procedures were there, and that they could have been

followed, but individuals, wrongly and mistakenly, did not.

During the debate, a few days later, Teeven is more explicit about what he thinks caused the

event.

Teeven:

12-04 13-04 14-04 16-04 17-04 18-04

Teeven announces that he adopts all recommendations from the inquiry

Trigger: The inquiry is published

Teeven in Nieuwsuur: “I am politically

responsible”

Weekend: no news

Teeven: I want to stay in office and introduce improvement measures

Opposition: Teeven should not have said this before the debate

15-04

no news

The debate: Teeven fights to remain in

office. 2/3 of parliament support a vote of no confidence

(31)

I do not think there are so many structural problems. […] It is described in policy, chairman, it is

described what employees have to do. Up to 4 decimals it is described what you should do when

someone enters the facilities during the evening hours. If those procedures are not followed then it

is a deep tragedy, it is ... but it is not a structural error. (Teeven, 2013)

Severity

Teeven mostly frames the severity of this event in an emotional sense. He does that by sharing his

personal feelings, “It affects me”, “I have a hard time with it”, (NRC, 2013b)and by publicly and

saliently recognizing the emotional impact this has on Dolmatov’s family (Ministerie van Veiligheid

en Justitie, 2013; Teeven, 2013).

I find it very tragic what happened. It has also deeply affected me and others, and I sympathize with

the relatives of Mr Dolmatov.

-

Teeven (Ministerie van Veiligheid en Justitie, 2013)

His self-presentation enforced this frame. With his mimic and body language, he seemed genuinely

hurt by the death of Aleksandr Dolmatov.

Impact on political position

This frame changes throughout the political crisis. On the day of publication, he states explicitly

that he can not comment on whether or not he will resign, because it will be up to parliament to

decide.

“In the end, parliament will have to decide how they judge this.”

- Teeven (Nieuwsuur, 2013a)

Three days later, after the weekend, he makes a seemingly similar comment in the media, but adds a

very important sentence:

“Am I the one who must also introduce these improvement measures? Yes, at this moment, I think I

can, but I will discuss that with parliament.” (Nieuwsuur, 2013b)

He still states that he will discuss this with parliament, but he explicitly states that if it was up to

(32)

Teeven increasingly fights for his position. During the debate on the 18th of April he states:

I think I am very capable of implementing these measures. I know the field of Security and Justice

very well. I also know what went wrong. But it is up to you, chairman, to your parliament, to make a

statement about it. (Teeven, 2013)

Teeven did not get a lot of explicit support from the coalition. Sources within the VVD stated that

there was a lot of doubt as to whether or not Teeven could remain in office (Telegraaf, 2013a). Most

VVD and PvdA members chose not to comment on the impact on his political position: they

emphasized the severity of the accusation in the media, and stated that they would form their

opinion about his political position after the debate (NRC, 2013b).

The only one who explicitly supports Teeven is Zijlstra, who states that this event is not comparable

to the Schipholbrand in 2006, because this event was caused by execution errors, rather than policy

errors (De Volkskrant, 2013a). This aligned directly with Teeven’s frame that this was an incident

and not a structural problem.

§3. The appropriateness of the minister’s image repair strategies


Application of Situational Crisis Communication Theory

This incident would fall in the intentional cluster. It were human errors and system failures that

created the context in which this could happen. Therefore, the initial assessment of the reputational

threat is high.

In order to see whether or not that reputational threat intensifies, the crisis history and prior

reputation have to be looked at. There was no relevant crisis history in this case. There were a few

cases in the past during which asylum seekers committed suicide. For example, in 2011 Kambiz

Roustayi, an Iranian asylum seeker, put himself on fire on the Dam in Amsterdam after his asylum

application had been refused (NRC, 2013c). However, those suicides were never directly linked to

mistakes by the ministry. Therefore, this did not intensify the reputational threat.

The prior reputation of Teeven is characterized by names as ‘crimefighter’, and

‘law-and-order poster-child’ (Telegraaf, 2013b; NRC, 2013d; De Volkskrant, 2013b). He was known for

strict, immigration policy, aiming to keep asylum seekers out of The Netherlands. This reputation

became relevant in this context, because opposition members stated during the political crisis that

(33)

All these factors considered, there was a high reputational threat due to the fact that the crisis fits

the intentional cluster. This threat further intensifies because of the prior reputation of Teeven as a

minister who does not care about respecting the humanity of asylum seekers, but rather a minister

who tries his best to keep them out. According to Situational Crisis Communication Theory, he

should have taken high levels of responsibility in order to repair the reputational threat.

Table 8.2 SCCT - Teeven's intensifying factors

Image repair strategies

The image repair strategies that Teeven used were mortification, corrective action, reducing the

degree of offensiveness (compensation) and evading responsibility (accident).

In the beginning of the political crisis, the most salient image repair strategy that Teeven

used was mortification. Apart from statements in which he expresses how this case emotionally

affected him, he also explicitly takes political responsibility, right from the start.

Type of crisis cluster Associated reputational threat

Victim cluster Low reputational threat

Accidental cluster Medium reputational threat

Intentional cluster High reputational threat

Table 8.1: SCCT - Teeven’s initial reputational threat

Intensifying factors Quality Effect on reputational threat

Crisis history High

Neutral

Low

Reputational threat intensifies

Reputational threat is unchanged


Reputational threat diminishes

Prior reputation Bad


Neutral

Good

Reputational threat intensifies

Reputational threat is unchanged


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I am political responsible (Nieuwsuur, 2013a).

Teeven also used corrective action when the report was just published. In a letter to parliament on

the 12th of April, he mentions that he will adopt many recommendations from the inspection, and

that he will additional improvement policies (Ministerie van Veiligheid en Justitie, 2013).

Corrective action was a very important strategy during the debate on the 18th of April: he

eventually receives support from the CDA and PvdA through the use of corrective action: he

promises to request an external inquiry into the treatment of asylum seekers in order to learn more

about the possible flaws of his policy (NRC, 2013e).

He also monetary compensation to Dolmatov’s mother.

Given the findings of the inspection, I see sufficient ground in this specific case to compensate for

the possible damage of the relatives due to the death of Mr Dolmatov. Contact will be made with the

relatives to discuss the extent of any damage (Ministerie van Veiligheid en Justitie, 2013).

The final strategy he uses is evading responsibility by framing it as an accident. In the

context of image repair strategies, an accident refers to situations in which the incident is a

consequence of circumstances beyond your control (Benoit, 2015). By pointing to individuals who

did not follow orders, he framed himself and the ministry as innocent, and therefore evaded

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Table 9. Fred Teeven’s image repair strategies

Two strategies he used seemingly contradict each other: mortification and (explicitly)

evading responsibility. How can someone take full responsibility for something and at the same

time evade responsibility? The explanation for this is that Teeven distinguishes between two

different forms of responsibility. On the one hand there is the institution of political responsibility,

which prescribes that a minister is responsible for every mistake that happens on your department,

regardless of if you could’ve done anything to prevent it. On the other hand there is direct

responsibility: did anything you do or did not do add to the context in which the incident could’ve

occurred? Teeven takes on the full political responsibility, but evades the personal responsibility. He

wants to make it clear that his policies are not the reason this happened, and that there are no

structural problems within his department that he should have been aware of as minister.

The question is, was his frame appropriate, given the amount of responsibility SCCT would

require him to take? Based on the analysis and on the ambiguity of his communication, it was not

an appropriate frame. The reason for that relates to the fundaments of SCCT. This theory was built

on the attribution theory of Wiener, which is based on the premise that people need to assign

Image repair strategy Substrategies Explanation Responsibility taken

Denial - I didn’t do it none

Evading responsibility Provocation

Defeasibility

Accidents

Good intentions

He provoked me
 I didn't know
 Beyond my control


I meant well

low

Reducing the degree of

offensiveness Bolstering Minimization Differentiation Transcendence Attacking accuser Compensation

I'm a good guy
 It’ s not that bad
 Another act is worse
 For the greater good
 You’re not credible


e.g. damages

medium

Corrective action - It won't happen again neutral

(36)

leader for mistakes made in an organization can fulfill that need: it shows that that person knows

what went wrong and, if that person is still considered credible, gives consolation that it will not

happen again.

However, Teeven did not actually show that he knew what went wrong.

This is the consequence of a ‘unique and tragic turn of events’. (NRC, 2013e)

This implies that it could happen again in the future. Therefore, the need that people had (assigning

responsibility for the event) is not met. Taking political responsibility in this case was nothing more

than acknowledging that an unwritten rule exists that all ministers are always responsible for what

happens on their ministry, regardless of if they could’ve influenced the incident. Teeven uses

political responsibility as a hollow frame. His strategy is not appropriate.

§4. The coherency of the minister’s communication strategy

The cause-frame that Teeven brought forward, that it was an incident and not a structural problem,

was carefully crafted. It became more explicit, but it was consistent from the first statement

onwards. This frame was brought forward in a coherent manner.

The frame of resignation did change. On Friday he stated that he would not comment on

that, on Monday he stated that he wanted to remain in office it would’ve been up to him. This shift

from not commenting on resignation towards stating that he wanted to stay in office went very

gradually. As an anonymous insider of the ministry stated:

‘He said that [parliament has to determine his fate] ten times. But the eleventh time he adds a little

sentence ‘En then then the question is: who is going to implement those improvement measure? I

think I can.” (Volkskrant, 2013c)

This statement does not directly contradict his previous statements, but it does add crucial new

information. Therefore, it can not be concluded that his communication strategy was incoherent. It

is possible that this was the strategy from the beginning: start of with mortification, and gradually,

towards the debate, focus more on his own political position and make it clear that he wants to stay

in office. 


(37)

Therefore he was able to deliver his own frame very quickly. His frame that it was an incident

rather than a structural problem was clear and easy to understand. Teeven's communication strategy

can be considered coherent.

§5. The media’s frame


Cause

Many media reports explore the validity of Teeven’s claim: was this an incident, or were there

structural problems. To explore that, many possible indicators that there are structural problems are

discussed, for example that Teeven’s policy is inhumane (Telegraaf, 2013b) and that Teeven is not

open to criticism (NRC, 2013c).

In sum, the salient cause pointed to by the media is that there are structural problems within

the organization. However, in all these reports they do state what Teeven's view is. Some headlines

directly pose this question "Is it a structural flaw or an incident?” (Trouw, 2013a). Even though

Teeven’s frame is not confirmed, his frame does become salient in the media reports. Therefore,

there is alignment in the frame of the cause.

Severity

The media frame the severity through illustrations of the emotional impact this had on the relatives

of Dolmatov.

Godfroid:

Dolmatova [Dolmatov’s mother] is just as inconsolable as the lsat time we spoke to her, shortly

after the death of her son. Aleksandr Dolmatov’s mother still has great difficulty dealing with his

tragic suicide. (NOS, 2013a)

Mother:


Deep in my heart, all my thoughts go to Aleksandr. Whatever I do, wherever I am, I think: why is he

no longer here? I have lost the purpose of my existence. (NRC, 2013a)

(38)

Impact on political position

The question of what political responsibility means arises in the media. What does it mean to take

political responsibility, if it does not mean resigning? The media don't dare to make any predictions

about whether or not he will resign. They do state what the core question is that the debate will

depend on:

Van de Westelaken:

Junior Minister Teeven has to account in parliament tomorrow, and the core question that the

debate will depend on is: was the Dolmatov-case an unfortunate incident, or should Teeven have

taken action? (NOS, 2013b).

This aligns with Teeven’s communication strategy: if he wins the battle that it was a unique incident

he can stay, if loses and parliament considers it a structural problem, he might have to go.

Table 10. Media alignment in the case of Fred Teeven

Frame Minister Media

Cause The incident was caused by

individual misdeed in the organization rather than structural problems in his department

The media report on the question whether it was a structural problem or a unique incident. Therefore, they report on Teeven’s frame a lot as well.

Severity Emotional: he states that he

‘genuinely’ has a hard time with it.

Emotional: focus on the pain of the mother of the deceased

Impact on political position Changes: first he states that parliament would decide on his political decision. Towards the end he fights to stay in office.

Figure

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