3 Tips on How to Best Handle a Crisis, from the IPRRC 2019

As much as we in PR like to talk about our contribution to revenue via product launches and other strategic efforts, there’s little doubt in anyone’s mind that PR is at its most valuable before, during, and after a crisis. Which is probably why our articles on crisis management consistently see the highest readership. (And why this year’s Summit on the Future of Measurement is all about measuring crises: come join us! )

The source of most of those crisis articles is research presented at IPPRC (read more of our IPRRC 2019 coverage here). Academics love analyzing crises because they provide a ton of content that they can use to test interesting theories. This year’s IPRRC was no exception. Here are three of my favorites:

1. If your management gets caught behaving badly, an apology won’t help

W. Timothy Coombs and Elina R. Tachkova gave us some great insights on what they call the “Preventable Crisis,” i.e., those crises an organization brings on itself, caused by human error or management misconduct. (Can anyone say Boeing?) They argue that those types of scandal-based crises (which they call “scansis”) require a very different response than what would be recommended as a response to accidents and natural disasters. And the data is particularly timely, given how many preventable crises we are seeing from organizations these days.

They argue that while the established response strategies for unpreventable crises (accidents and natural disasters) are well proven, there is little data on what actually works for preventable crises. Their research looked at two different types of crisis: human error and management misconduct. They then tested three classic crisis response strategies: apology, information only, and no response.

They found that only in a human-error crisis does apologizing help your reputation. If the crisis swirls around management misconduct, apologies have little impact. People responded to management misconduct with feelings of moral outrage. And their feelings toward issues such as greed and injustice impact their response to an organization’s statements.

2. If you can’t be helpful, don’t say anything at all

Jensen Moore and Robert “Pritch” Pritchard of the University of Oklahoma and Vincent F. Filak of the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh tackled the opposite challenge: how organizations should respond in natural or man-made disasters. It has become fairly standard for organizations to offer “thoughts and prayers” to victims of disasters, using the relevant hashtags. But what the researchers wanted to find out was if those expressions were effective and what influence they may have had over perceptions.

They used focus groups to query 52 people who had used social media for mourning and grieving in the wake of hurricanes, snow storms, mass shootings, and explosions. They wanted to know the differences in how people react to corporate statements, what emotions they have about the experience, what attitudes they have toward the corporation as a result, and if the corporate statements will have an effective on future purchases or potential boycotts.

Results showed that while, generally, participants felt it was acceptable for organizations to offer support, any whiff of marketing or sales would cause them to respond negatively on Twitter and in some cases boycott the brand. Participants also felt that “anniversary posts” which corporations put out a year after an event sometimes perpetuated the mourning and grieving process by keeping the disaster in the public eye, which respondents felt was inappropriate for corporations. By far the best thing organizations can do is to offer donations and volunteer to help post-crisis.

Finally the research found that transparency and authenticity is key. So make sure that your response is in line with your brand positioning and not diametrically opposed. If the crisis is environmental and you are seen as a polluter, any response will be labeled as phony and spark outrage. But if you can leverage your brand or products to help, it will enhance your brand.

3. CSR: Your good deeds don’t outweigh your sins

We talk a lot about CSR, but we don’t often discuss the implications of CSI. Not the ubiquitous TV series, but Corporate Social Irresponsibility. That’s the topic that April Cen Yue and Mary Ann Ferguson of the University of Florida tackled. They describe CSI as “companies knowing or intentionally engaging in behaviors that are illegal or perceived to be unethical.” They point out that there is relatively little data on the implications of CSI. Their research posed the question: “Is there is an interaction between CSI and CSR?” In other words, can a company’s good CSR activities mitigate an CSI-generated crisis?

They presented two cases to subjects: one a story about positive CSR, and a second about a crisis that caused environmental damage. They manipulated the order in which the subjects saw the stories to determine if there were different reactions depending on when consumers saw each event.

What they found was when subjects saw the CSR information first, and then read the “irresponsible” story, they were more negative and saw all behavior as corporate hypocrisy. They also found no moderating effect from CSR.

Their advice is that preventing CSI from happening in the first place is more important that doing CSR well. And they advise that, in a crisis, the best strategy is to not even mention prior CSR actions, because that only emphasizes the hypocrisy. It is only by addressing and removing the hypocrisy that consumers’ responses will change.

(Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash)


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Katie Paine

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