Crisis Communications Research: Assumptions vs. Proof
By: Frank Ovaitt
If you follow the work of crisis communications scholars such as Tim Coombs, perhaps you too have wondered about assumptions versus proof. How much of what we take for granted about effective crisis response is supported by empirical evidence? Is there more to go on than the war stories of crisis veterans, as important as stories can be to professional learning in public relations? Thus, I was drawn to a title in the latest issue of PR Journal : “Tell It All? Challenging Crisis Communications’ Rules” by Jo Robertson, D.Sc.
A very readable literature review establishes that the prevailing body of thought supports the cardinal rules you have always heard. For instance, if you are prepared for crisis, you suffer less damage and recover faster. And it’s best to reveal information that the media can easily obtain elsewhere.
But can such common wisdom be proved or disproved through research? Specifically, Robertson tackles the assumption that a company in crisis should release potentially damaging information immediately. Even more to the point, asks the author, does the proactive release of all damaging information shorten the period of negative press attention?
Robertson selected some of the most widely publicized crises from 2003 to 2006, plotted the daily number of broadcast news stories, and surveyed journalists in Washington, DC, area on their attitudes toward organizations that were found to be withholding key information. The researcher also tracked stock price fluctuations to determine impact on the company’s market value.
It’s not surprising that the data, though on a limited number of cases, support the assumption that more peaks equate to more coverage. There can be many reasons why a story comes back to life in a second or third peak of coverage. But the discovery of unreleased information can surely mean that those follow-up stories are done by angry journalists. Plus, according to Robertson’s research, the later spikes can be larger than the original burst of coverage.
The author concludes that in this case, the research does support the “rules.” But the line of thinking inRobertson’s article should remind us to constantly question the degree to which assumptions we make each day are supported by empirical evidence. How often do we think to ask that?
Frank Ovaitt is President and CEO of the Institute for Public Relations.