New Measurement Studies Provide Crisis Control Tips
Research presented at the IPRRC has practical results.
by Katie Delahaye Paine
We've been saying forever to anyone who'll listen that PR measurement is not just about demonstrating ROI or proving value, but is really about having data on which to make better decisions. Never was that more evident than in the plethora of papers on crisis communications presented at this year's IPRRC in Miami. I personally listened to a dozen papers on the topic, and there were a other dozen or so more that I didn't even get to.
IPRCC researchers studied the impact on crisis communications of everything from involvement to intimacy. A lot of the findings fell into the "duh" category (as in "we professionals probably knew that already"), but it's always useful to have solid data to back things up. Here are three studies with some results that will come in handy.
1. The More They Know, the Angrier They Get
Yoonhyeung Choi and Ying-Hsuan Lin of Michigan State presented a paper on the Mattel product recall that has interesting implications for any consumer company under fire that is trying to manage customer expectation. Choi and Lin compared what moms and mommy-bloggers had to say about the toy recall to how the daily newspapers reported it. As it turns out, the four major newspapers studied blamed the Chinese manufacturers more than twice as often as did the consumers. The consumers were twice as likely to point their collective fingers at Mattel than at China.
As the crisis unfolded, and recall followed upon recall, the media's portrayal of China was consistently negative, and the reputation of Chinese manufacturers declined over time. However, among consumers, anger was more frequently directed at Mattel and its sister company Fisher Price. What this tells us is that even though consumers may be getting their information from the media initially, their long term opinions are formed less by the media and more by people like themselves. The bad news is that your customers are likely to ignore any of the mitigating factors that the media reports on, but the good news is that if you have highly engaged consumers, they may also ignore the pounding you're getting in the media.
Another conclusion from Choi and Lin is that engaged consumers are more likely to dig deeper than the media into a crisis, looking to go beyond the headlines to find the real issues at hand. And the more they know, the angrier they get. "Consumers with high involvement are more likely to scrutinize and elaborate crisis information and generate more counter arguments as they process the crisis information, as covered in newspapers."
The important conclusion the authors draw is that monitoring media in a crisis is no longer enough. You need a clear understanding of how your stakeholders are responding to the media, particularly as consumer generated media continues to increase in awareness and credibility. More importantly, success should be measured by the speed with which one's headlines go away. Essentially what Choi & Lin found was that the more media exposure a crisis got, the angrier the consumers got at the company. Lesson learned: Get the story out of the headlines and into the back pages as fast as you possibly can.
2. Good Relationships Mean Fewer Bad Rumors
An equally intriguing paper was presented by Hun-Jim Kang from Pennsylvania State, with co-authors Karina Garcia Ruono and once again, Ying Hsuan Lin of Michigan State. This study examined the manner in which rumors were spread, specifically the impact of relationships on the rumor mill. The authors started out with the premise that there were two kinds of rumors: "dread" rumors, which foretold of something bad about to happen, and "wish" rumors, which foresaw something good happening. The study compared the speed with which dread vs. wish rumors circulate, as well as the credibility of the different rumors.
Their hypothesis was that the spread of rumors was closely tied to the health of the organizational public relationships (OPR) behind the entity under discussion. OPR was defined according to the standard Grunig terms such as trust, control mutuality, satisfaction, and commitment. Each participant rated statements on a 7-point scale. The study was conducted on the campus of Michigan State among 109 undergraduates. With a mean age of 22, it may not be relevant if your target audience is senior citizens. Nonetheless, the findings were fascinating.
Not surprisingly, the propensity to spread dread rumors was significantly higher than that to spread wish rumors, and the credibility of dread rumors was also higher. But the most telling information was on the impact of relationships: The health of your relationships has a great deal to do with the likelihood of people to spread nasty rumors about you. People with low relationship satisfaction were more likely to spread dread rumors than people with good relationship satisfaction. Additionally, people with good relationship scores were more likely to check out the validity of rumors before passing them on. The clear lesson is, if you want to squelch rumors, keep your relationships healthy and strong.
3. If You Are Innocent, Act Indignant
Then there were the really surprising and interesting findings of someone (I'm sorry, I've forgotten your name) who studied communications in the military. He concluded that when you are in crisis and you are in the right -- i.e. your organization has not done anything wrong -- the public position that is most likely going to generate a positive response from your target audience is an aggressive, proactive response. So if you need ammo to keep those lawyers quiet, you got it. Again, something we always knew, but it's nice to have it verified.