Build a Measurement Dashboard Now & Survive a Crisis Later

Fireman now what

(Please note: This article is a companion piece to “The Crisis Measurement Checklist.” They are designed to be used together so you’ll be well-prepared to weather any crisis.)

“Great emergencies and crises show us how much greater our vital resources are than we had supposed.” William James

In fact, many corporations in crisis demonstrate just how much fewer their vital resources are than previously believed, assuming that vital resources include reputation, leadership, and integrity, as well as customer and employee loyalty. During a crisis, all of these factors are put under enormous strain. Thus the survival of an organization’s reputation during a crisis depends on its internal culture, strength of its communications, and integrity of its leadership.

Most large organizations have a crisis communications plan, complete with a dark website set to go live at the drop of a hat and probably even a crisis newsroom on standby. Smaller organizations typically lack such resources. But if they have a monitoring and measurement system in place, many valuable resources will already be at their fingertips.

James Grunig

James Grunig

Of course, the best type of crisis communications is that which avoids the crisis all together. According to James Grunig, retired Professor of Public Relations at the University of Maryland, good crisis communications starts way before an incident occurs:

“Communication with publics before decisions are made is most effective in resolving issues and crises because it helps managers to make decisions that are less likely to produce consequences that publics make into issues and crises. If public relations staff does not communicate with its publics until an issue or crisis occurs, the chance of resolving the conflict is slim.”

To make sure you are doing all you can to avoid a crisis you need to always be listening carefully to your audiences. What are the issues that are surfacing in social media? On customer support lines, and in the news? How are employees, vendors, and the community responding to your messages? These questions can easily be answered through regular surveys and content analysis of the media.

But sometimes all the listening in the world can’t prevent the unavoidable accident or the simple twist of fate. Through no fault of your own, the TV cameras are at your doorstep and the spotlight is upon you. Now what?

If you’ve studied crisis management then you know that you have a choice of ways to respond. If you don’t have a crisis communications plan in place, then start with Timothy Coombs’ “Situational Crisis Communications Theory,” a great overview of your options. Denial and blame almost never work, and being as honest, open, and authentic as possible invariably shortens the duration. (See our previous article “15 Lessons Learned from 17 Years of Crisis Post-Mortems.”)

A good measurement system will provide critical data to help you in your decision-making. It will help you:

  • Define the key journalists, authors, bloggers, and social media influencers who are most likely to cover the crisis, and which ones are most receptive to your messages.
  • Provide a benchmark , so you know whether those 10 negative stories are worth worrying about or if they’re just par for the course.
  • Track the themes and messages that the crisis is bringing out, and let you know if your existing messages are still coming across.
  • Learn how effective your spokespeople and the announced actions are at ameliorating the crisis.

While every crisis is unique, measurement and research is critical no matter what the nature of the crisis or the organization. Because, ultimately, the best thing that can come of a crisis is learning from your mistakes.

So, how do you develop your crisis measurement dashboard? Follow these 5 steps:

Step 1: Define your key stakeholders.

Make a list of your key stakeholders and rank order them in terms of impact on your organization.  Typical key stakeholders might be: Employees, Board Members, Customers, Donors, Shareholders, Community Members, and Elected/Appointed Officials.

Also, add to that list any individuals whose writings, blogs, columns, or reporting influences your key stakeholders. Include all forms of media. If there’s a YouTube star that is important to your audience, you’ll need to reach out to him or her as well.

Step 2: Get clarity on the goals, objectives, and key performance indicators (KPIs).

There are three elements to measuring your performance during a crisis. Make sure your dashboard can report on all three:

  • Measuring the effectiveness of your process: Hour-by-hour, or day-by-day monitoring of the media to determine if your key messages are being communicated and to whom.
  • Measuring the impact of your efforts: Determining if the messages are having the desired effect, if they are being believed, and if they’re swaying public opinion.
  • Measuring outcomes: In the long run, did the crisis impact your reputation? Customers’ intent to purchase? Employee turnover? Shareholder confidence?

Step 2: Make sure you have a command structure that can respond.

Daily or hourly monitoring is a wonderful tool, but if you can’t respond or react to the data, then there’s no point in commissioning it. Before you set anything up, make sure you have consensus about who can respond and with what information. Whoever that person is will quickly become the “face” of your crisis, so make sure it’s someone with some media training.

Step 3: Set up a monitoring system.

If your crisis is ongoing and you need to make decisions hourly or daily as to what to say or not say, monitoring will be essential. You should schedule delivery of monitoring reports in plenty of time to allow you to craft and refine the key messages you need to be communicating. A monitoring report typically examines print, television, radio, social media, and chat rooms to determine what is being said, how your organization is being positioned, and what messages are being delivered.

Real-time monitoring is a wonderful tool, but if you can’t respond/react to the data, then there’s no point in commissioning it. Before you set anything up, make sure you have consensus about who can respond and with what information. Whoever that person is will quickly become the “face” of your crisis, so make sure it’s someone with some media training.

Sometimes the ultimate measure isn’t the content, but the sheer volume of crisis coverage. The following charts track the volume of clips over the first few weeks after a crisis has broken for several well-known crises. On the vertical axis is the number of impressions in millions. The chart then plots the number of impressions made each week from when the crisis breaks. As you can see, sometimes the volume of coverage goes up after the crisis breaks and sometimes it goes down. That’s the difference between well-managed crises and poorly-handled ones. A well-managed crisis gets all the bad news over with upfront by aggressively dealing with a problem. A poorly-handled one can drag on for months.

In the infamous case of the Intel Pentium flap, Intel long denied its existence until camera crews showed up on their doorstep. As you can see in the chart below, the resulting negative coverage lasted for months:

Mea Culpa graph 1

In sharp contrast, Odwalla, a natural juice company, was found to have sold batches of contaminated unpasteurized apple juice that sickened a number of people and resulted in the death of a child. Their corporate culture and reputation for social responsibility was strong enough so that they managed to contain the crisis in a few short weeks and ultimately avoided lawsuits all together. The chart below shows the success of their approach:

mea culpa graph with green

Step 4: Measure change in perceptions, trust, and reputation.

Looking at volume of clips after the fact is one way to judge how effective your actions were. But just getting answers out into the world is seldom enough to turn around a crisis. Frequently you need to confirm that your messages are actually being heard and believed. The best way to check in with your key audiences in a crisis is through overnight polling:

  • One cost-effective way to conduct overnight polling is to add a question to an omnibus poll.
  • If you have an email list of your customers then you can conduct a quick email poll.
  • If the general public is what you’re worrying about, try Survata. They provide respondents for $1 per completed survey.
  • Alternatively,  you can commission your own overnight telephone poll. It may seem expensive, but given the cost of “talking” to your audiences via a full page add in The New York Times ($100,000) the cost of “listening” seems relatively cheap.

Compared to the legal, personnel, and emotional costs of a crisis, research always represents a relatively small percentage. Here’s an example: A major high tech company under intense fire at a highly visible sports event was able to ascertain that its key customers were highly supportive of its actions, despite a loud media outcry. The data served to calm executives, and enable the company to make more rational decisions.

Post-mortem measurement examines not just how well you did at getting messages communicated, but what ultimate impact the program had. (i.e., Did consumers change their behavior? Did employees leave at a higher-than-normal rate? Did the stock drop?)

Some of these measures are easy, for instance looking at the stock price and adjusting for other activity in the market as a whole. Tracking consumer behavior requires broader cooperation with the organization. Frequently, consumer data is readily available from your organization’s market research or customer intelligence department. There are also many firms that specialize in integrated marketing research. One such firm, Loyalty Builders, examines customer transactions to determine the impact of events on customer loyalty. They examine how frequently they purchase the amount of purchase and the time between purchases and can then plot their data against your crisis data.

Even, if you don’t have “customers” you may still need to check on the ultimate impact of a crisis on your target audiences. That’s what Habitat for Humanity did after a television reporter in Illinois launched an “investigation” of its Chicago office. Concerned that the negative publicity might discourage volunteers from participating or donors from giving, they commissioned a survey of their stakeholders to determine what impact it had on Habitat’s reputation. The study showed that, thanks to a coordinated and consistent effort to provide information, and thanks to the organization’s strong relationships with its constituencies, the negative publicity achieved scant awareness and had no impact on the audience.

In a similar example, a waste disposal company sued a television station for libel, charging that a negative story about dumping of sludge wastes had damaged its reputation. The suit was dismissed because research showed that very few people remembered seeing the show and no one remembered the name of the company.

Step 5: Analyze and report results.

Once the lawyers and the media have gone home, and everyone’s caught up on their sleep and their email, someone will no doubt want a post-mortem on what worked and what didn’t. So grab your data and get to work. If you have your results in an on-line dashboard, great. If not, put them all into an Excel spreadsheet. The spreadsheet should contain the date, media type, author, outlet name, and notes on what happened that day.

Now, using the key performance indicators you defined in Step 2 above, rank order each day to see which day in the crisis was the worst and which was the best. What happened? What was different between the best and the worst?  Discuss, write up, and report.

About Author

Katie Paine

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