In a  2019 presentation to the International Public Relations Research Conference ( IPRRC,) the guru of crisis response, Professor W. Timothy Coombs and his co-author Elina R. Tachkova argued that the “Preventable Crisis,” i.e., those crises an organization brings on itself, caused by human error or management misconduct. require a very different response than any of the standard crisis response strategies. They suggested that while there is lots of research for other types of crisis, there is almost none on what is effective at managing a  preventable crises.

To me, that was a crisis in and of itself, given how many preventable crises dominate the headlines these days.

Six months later, at our Summit on the Future of Measurement,  I asked the traditional closing question “What do you see as the future of measurement?” About half the respondents mentioned AI. When it came around to my answer, I suggested that AI would only become a truly valuable tool if it could identify the type of crisis (preventable vs accidental vs victim etc.)  and the most effective response.

One of the sponsors, Gaugarin Oliver CEO of Fullintel piped up with an answer like the old FedEx commercial. “We can do that,” he said. So a couple of weeks later we chatted with Professor Coombs to map out a research project that would test the theory.

The test

Fullintel gathered a robust data set of traditional media coverage of three recent human error and management misconduct crises—the Boeing 737-Max, the demise of WeWork and an accidental toddler death. We started with definitions of different types of response  from Professor Coombs Situational Crisis Communications Theory (SCCT) and Fullinteltaught  their machine learning technology how to identify a crisis, how to classify the type of crisis, and how to identify different responses.

The response types were also based on Coombs’ theory:

Deny crisis response strategies
Attack the accuser: Crisis manager confronts the person or group claiming something is wrong with the organization.
Denial: Crisis manager asserts that there is no crisis.
Scapegoat: Crisis manager blames some person or group outside of the organization for the crisis.
Diminish crisis response strategies
Excuse: Crisis manager minimizes organizational responsibility by denying intent to do harm and/or claiming inability to control the events that triggered the crisis.
Justification: Crisis manager minimizes the perceived damage caused by the crisis.
Rebuild crisis response strategies
Compensation: Crisis manager offers money or other gifts to victims.
Apology: Crisis manager indicates the organization takes full responsibility for the crisis and asks stakeholders for forgiveness.
Secondary crisis response strategies
Bolstering crisis response strategies
Reminder: Tell stakeholders about the past good works of the organization.
Ingratiation: Crisis manager praises stakeholders and/or reminds them of past good works by the organization.
Victimage: Crisis managers remind stakeholders that the organization is a victim of the crisis too.

The next step was to check the accuracy of the AI-programmed data. And the results surprised us all. In terms of whether a media narrative was or was not a crisis, we found that humans and AI agreed  97% of the time.  We found similar results (97.4%)  when we asked tested the AI system to correctly identify the type of crisis. Agreement with crisis response was slightly lower (94% agreement, most due to confusion between “No response” and “No comment.”

The next challenge was to see if it answer my question which was can it predict the “best” response type.  We defined  “best” .. i.e. most effective, as that which produced the fewest negative articles and had the shortest time between crisis peak and neutral coverage. The machine data confirmed what most of us know in our gut, denial, attacking the accurse and scapegoating are the least effective response types in a self-inflicted crisis.  Providing information was the most effective. 

Implications

Of course the first question most people asked was – will AI replace the PR person? The answer is a definitive no. AI can’t replace years of experience or good gut instinct, but what this does do is provide PR pros with a tool that will show them the best way to response in a manner that might break through with recalcitrant leadership – numbers and charts. It is also far better than most of the systems today that look at volume of social media or at negative coverage increases. And it shows that the potential to use AI to help one manage a crisis  is not some distant pipe dream but something that you might want to put into next year’s budget. Fullintel’s services start at $12,000 a year and if you want more information, contact Fullintel at crisisinfo@fullintel.com

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