8 Questions About Crisis Communications Answered by the Experts at IPRRC

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This post from 2016 has been by far our most popular article on crisis communications. It was recently updated  for reprinting.

The International Public Relations Research Conference (IPRRC) is a three-day idea fest that takes place in Orlando every spring. There are so many ideas presented that it’s impossible to write just one article about it. (If you missed the first article I wrote about IPRRC 2016, read “Who Needs Brain Training Software When We Have the IPRRC?”) As for this new article, here are eight critical crisis questions answered by this year’s conference:

Question #1: Who’s the best spokesperson when you’re facing an international PR crisis?

It depends on where the crisis is taking place.

In general, a spokesperson using the local language and from the local culture will generate a more favorable response than someone from the “home office” who is not local. Click here to read “Who Shall Speak in a Crisis? — The Role of Spokesperson Nationality.”

Question #2: How does my organization’s crisis history influence the public’s perception when a new crisis strikes?

If your organization has previously had a similar crisis, then the public may perceive that you have more control over the event. Research on organizations that weathered prior crises showed that their publics expected them to be able to manage the next one, regardless of whether or not it’s the same type of crisis.

LaShonda L. Eaddy and Yan Jin, of the University of Georgia, have explored the impact of past crisis history on the credibility of information sources. Their research shows that, in situations where the organization has weathered prior crises, spokespeople are more credible than the media. They also found that, in these days of citizen journalists, if the author of a post or blog is perceived to be a peer, i.e., “someone like me,” then they are more believable than mainstream media. Click here to read “Crisis History Tellers Matter.”

Question #3: How should I deal with millennials when handling a crisis?

If you don’t want them to get active, make sure they won’t getting any satisfaction from being active.

For the most part, research by Sasha Dookhoo and Melissa Dodd at the Nicholson School of Communications at the University of Central Florida showed that most millennials live up to their reputations as slactivists, willing to Like a post or a tweet, but rarely taking activism to the streets. The vast majority see social media as entertainment. However, the few that are highly active online—for instance working to mobilize others, changing their profile picture to support an issue, or donating money—have a far higher likelihood of becoming active offline, like protesting on your door step. Click here to read “Millennial Engagement in Online Activism.”

Question #4: What should I do if my competitor is embroiled in a crisis?

During a crisis than can be perceived as industry-wide, companies should be proactive in distancing themselves from others in the industry.

When your brand may be tarnished by the actions of another, it’s called a “spillover crisis.” Back in the 1990s AT&T research found that even though AT&T wasn’t slamming (changing customers’ long distance providers without permission), when their competitors did it, the AT&T brand was losing favorability and loyalty in customers’ minds.

In many of today’s crises it is likely that an industry association will be the source of information. But research by Shari R. Veil, Lindsey Dillingham, and Alyssa G. Sloan from the University of Kentucky argues that industry associations may not be the most effective response. They conducted an in-depth examination of the Salmonella outbreak caused by contaminated peanuts sold by the Peanut Corporation of America in 2009. The outbreak wasn’t found in jarred peanut butter, and the American Peanut Council specifically publicized a list of all peanut products that were not recalled. But that didn’t stop the public from worrying. Peter Pan and Skippy sales fell 45 percent and 54 percent, respectively. Jif, on the other hand, ran ads aggressively distancing themselves from the crisis and the other brands, and offered discounts in national advertising campaigns. As a result, Jif sales increased 3% by the end of the year. Click here to read “Reputational Interdependence and PR Strategies in a Spillover Crisis.”

Question #5: Should I offer the opportunity for a two-way conversation in a crisis?

The short answer: Definitively yes.

Research by Tsuyoshi Oshita and Shupei Yuan, of Michigan State University, tested one-way vs. two-way conversation in a crisis scenario. Two-way conversation won hands down, creating more trust, confidence, and cooperation. In fact, lack of communication has a negative impact on confidence and cooperation. Click here to read “The Impacts of Two-Way Communication in Crisis Response.”

Question #6: How transparent do I need to be in a crisis?

Not very. In fact, “translucency” (promptly saying as much as you can, but not dumping information without context) may be much more effective than full transparency.

Jensen Moore and Michael Climek, of Louisiana State University, teamed up with Robert Pritchard, of University of Oklahoma, to test a theory, first presented by Robert Wakefield and Susan Walton of Brigham Young University, that full transparency in a crisis may not be as effective as what they termed “translucency.” The researchers analyzed social media response to the disappearance of Malaysian Air Flight 370 to assess the reaction to the airline’s actions. At first the company was criticized for lack of communication and withholding information. Then, after weeks of “no comment,” they released raw transcripts of all the conversations between the plane’s ground crew, with no context and little explanation. Analysis showed that this dumping of information only served to increase the spread of rumors, the volume of discussion, and the distortion of the facts. Click here to read “Transparency in Social Media Crises Responses: The Case for Translucency.”

Question #7: What should I tell my employees during a crisis?

Tell them everything you can, and be as authentic and true to the company culture as possible.

Research by Alessandra Mazzei, Yunjae Lee, Gianluca Togna, and Jeong Nam Kim proved that employees who perceived their organization’s behavior as authentic and felt empowered were far more likely to positively “megaphone” the organization’s messages during a crisis. The lesson here is that, when trouble hits, turn to your most motivated and engaged employees to act as ambassadors. Click here to read “The Impact of Perceived Authenticity and Employees’ Empowerment on Communicative Behavior.”

Question #8: Should I use a spokesperson in a military uniform?

Yes! The public loves a person in uniform.

Researchers from San Diego State University showed that newsroom decision-makers were more likely to consider uniformed military public affairs officers more credible than their civilian counterparts. Click here to read “Information Subsidies & Organizational Affiliation.” ∞

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Katie Paine

I've been called The Queen Of Measurement, but I prefer Seshat, the Goddess.