How To Enhance Crisis Management Efforts

Katie Paine
Katie Paine

The International Public Relations Research Conference (IPRRC), better known as “The Miami Conference,” gathers academics and PR professionals for three intense days that offer the opportunity to hear more than 100 research papers presented by the world’s leading thinkers in public relations. It generally takes about a week for your brain to get back to normal after being battered by so many new ideas in 72 hours.

This year’s gathering was no exception. As usual, about a third of this year’s presentations focused on some aspect of crisis management and presented a variety of twists on the practice. The number one research subject at the conference was the crisis that erupted when Susan G. Komen announced in 2012 that it would cut funding to Planned Parenthood.

The research yielded several PR lessons.

Understand your audience. All four of the papers that studied Komen versus Planned Parenthood attributed Komen’s failure and Planned Parenthood’s success to the organizational understanding of its primary audience—women.

As soon as it heard of the defunding, Planned Parenthood began preparations to take advantage of the breaking news in order to change the conversation. It crafted messages that would resonate with women—specifically that the issue was all about women’s health and health screenings.

The organization also took advantage of what it knew would be a publicity opportunity to reposition the brand away from the debate about abortion, and towards a new debate about an unmet need for women’s health care and Planned Parenthood’s role in that safety net.

The problem, according to research by Christine M. Willingham, from Florida State University, was that both organizations thought they were positioned as being “advocates for women.” But whereas Planned Parenthood’s messages were consistent with that positioning, Komen’s were not.

Be consistent and accommodating. Research has shown that consistency builds greater credibility, and studies conducted by Alan Abitbol of Texas Tech University (and presented at the event) proved it once again.

Abitol examined the content of Susan G. Komen’s Facebook posts during the crisis and found that Komen’s stance was initially accommodating, but then as the vitriol increased, Susan G. Komen shifted to a more advocating approach.

When that didn’t work, it switched back to accommodation. As the research showed, the more accommodating stance generated more likes and favorable comments.

Partners and sponsors are an important audience. In the heat of planning your crisis response it is easy to forget other stakeholders such as sponsors and partners.

Willingham found that a large number of the comments during the crisis called for boycotts of those sponsors.

So if you’re going to prominently feature sponsors on your website, prepare them for backlash in a crisis.

Consult with informed constituents before the crisis erupts. Jessica Wendorf and Randall Martinez, from The University of Miami, examined Walt Disney Co.’s handling of its controversial policy to end Guest Assistance Cards in response to an expose of abuse of the policy.

In trying to do the right thing and react to a problem, Disney prolonged the crisis by angering disability groups. It wasn’t until after the backlash began that Disney consulted with these groups. The lesson: Collaborate with impacted constituencies before you change policy if you want to reduce the risk of a crisis.

Consider the media channels that your audience relies upon. Several papers addressed the fact that, increasingly, people rely on social media networks such as Twitter and Facebook in a crisis, yet often priority is given to traditional media.

Their advice: Make sure you do an analysis of what channels your stakeholders rely on. In a crisis, priority should be given to the specific channels that your audience relies upon.

Transparency will have the most positive outcome. If you’ve ever read Image Patrol in PR News, this advice will not come as a surprise, but it is always nice to have more data to back it up. Ginny Chadwick of the University of Missouri conducted a fascinating experiment to compare the impact on reputation of different types of responses in a crisis.

Her findings were clear: Corrective action had the highest positive impact on reputation, and denial/defensiveness created the most negative response. The advice: the more transparent and authentic you are, the less your reputation will suffer from a crisis.


Katie Paine is CEO of Paine Publishing. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter, @queenofmetrics.

This article originally appeared in the March 31, 2014 issue of PR News. Read more subscriber-only content by becoming a PR News subscriber today.