What the Newest Public Relations Research Says On How to Best Handle a Crisis

The International Public Relations Research Conference (IPRRC) always reveals some interesting new best practices for managing a crisis, and this year’s version did as well. I just wish some folks at United, Pepsi, and the White House were there to hear them. Here are my seven top takeaways:

1. Use network mapping to identify your loudest opponents.

Mikkel Christensen, Erika Johnston, and Thomas Albrechtsen of the University of Missouri and East Carolina University used NextWork Strategy’s mapping tool to track explosions of anger and frustration that erupted when Nykredit, a customer-owned mortgage bank based in Denmark, raised the monthly payments for thousands of mortgage holders. They specifically tracked and mapped out the 45,000 conversations that were taking place among the 40,000-plus angry customers on an opposition Facebook page. Within that mass of voices, they could quickly identify the most influential and their role in spreading the criticism. By mapping the conflict and its key players, they could present a powerful story about the politics and attitudes of the opposition. The tool shows great promise for organizations that need to quickly identify and manage opponents during a crisis.

2. Treat your employees well—or your organization will suffer in a crisis.

Recent research on how emloyees impact the aftermath of your crisis  is from Seoyeon Kim, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Grace Park, of the University of Missouri. They studied the impact of employee mistreatment on reputation and customer behavior. The authors conducted a test with 169 undergraduate students, exposing them to two different types of crises.

They found, not surprisingly in these interconnected times, that how an organization treats its employees has an impact on how consumers view that organization during a crisis. If customers know a company mistreats its employees, then they are more likely to retaliate against that company in the wake of a crisis. That retaliation takes the form of negative social media and word-of-mouth, specifically, suggestions that people avoid purchasing from that company. Further, the more they are aware of employee mistreatment, the more likely they are to rate that company’s reputation negatively.

3. Beware identity branding: it makes people hate you more in a crisis.

We love it when data blows up certain PR myths. Our favorite assumption-busting study from the recent IPRRC was presented by Liang Ma, Ph.D. from Texas Christian University. She showed that just because you have a strong positive relationship with your publics, it doesn’t always mitigate negative public reactions. Ma studied two brands with historically good reputations, Whole Foods and Apple. She surveyed 500 Apple consumers and 400 Whole Foods consumers via Amazon Mechanical Turk.

Her results showed that identifying with a brand doesn’t necessarily mean sympathy during a crisis. When consumers feel close connections to the company, a crisis will bring out feelings of betrayal. Thus the love they used to feel becomes anger and disappointment. Ma recommends that brands focus more on how their products fulfill needs, rather than “identity messages” based on demographic and psychographics. She argues that the stronger the self-identification with a brand, the more negative the response.

4. Social media may or may not help you in a crisis.

Sonjin Roh of Syracuse University set out to demonstrate the role that an organization’s presence on social media plays in crisis and crisis recovery. She found that having a very visible presence in social media leads to higher credibility, a better reputation, and a higher likelihood of believing your messages. It had little mitigating effect on anger towards the organization.

5. Don’t try to capitalize on national tragedies.

Jensen Moore and Ashley Stevens of the University of Oklahoma studied the various organizations who have tailored their messages to reflect, sympathize, and induce patriotic feelings among their stakeholders. 109 students took part in an experiment to test various social media remembrance messages about 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. While they concluded that publics are receptive to messages around disasters, any hint at commercialization leads to higher negative perceptions, increased boycott intent, and decreased purchase intent. If, however, a company sticks to high level public interest messages with no brand identity, the backlash is reduced.

6. Negative media coverage can affect stock price and trading volume.

Using the General Motors recall as an example, Yang Cheng, Research Fellow at PRIME Research, studied the long-term impact of negative media coverage on share prices. She found that media coverage was an accurate predictor of stock price as well as trading volume. In contrast, social media conversations were tied to volume but not actual share price.

7. Over-reacting in a crisis is almost as bad as not reacting at all.

Tyler G. Page of the University of Maryland studied the case of Shirley Sherrod, a U.S. Department of Agriculture employee who was fired after her remarks were taken out of context and framed as racist by Breitbart News. The initial reaction from the Obama administration as well as the NAACP was to agree with Breitbart’s conclusion. However, when the full speech was found and published, it was clear that her comments were anything but racist.

Ultimately President Obama apologized and offered her a position, which she declined. Page tested the two crisis responses illustrated by the case: over-apology and over-response. He found that over-apology negatively impacts crisis outcomes, and that the magnitude of the response does have an impact on the outcomes. ∞

About Author

Katie Paine

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