Navigate Dangerous Crisis Roads With Opinion Research

Think about the American Red Cross, BP and Toyota. Chances are there is a clear image in your mind of what they stand for and how they operate. But, think about the Liberty Fund, Deepwater Horizon and “sticking gas pedals,” and chances are your image of each of these enterprises shifts somewhat.

During and in the aftermath of a crisis, one’s reputation can change. With 24-hour-per-day cable news outlets looking to fill time, the Internet streaming images as it happens and bloggers endlessly opining, it is important to vigilantly guard one’s reputation. Those that are able to successfully navigate a crisis will likely emerge stronger, while those that don’t may be weakened for years.

Think of a crisis as a trip—with proper information, planning and execution, the damage to one’s reputation is minimized. Charting a course for any trip requires both planning and execution. A well-executed plan will keep you on track and minimize the possibility of dangers along the way.


â–¶ Meeting Stakeholder Expectations: Reputation is the extent to which the enterprise is meeting the expectations of its stakeholders. It should be noted that reputation is different from an enterprise’s brand. A brand is the relationship consumers have with products and services; one’s reputation is how well perceptions of an enterprise align with expectations unique to its products or services, operations and business environment. Reputation is the currency of enterprises; it gives them a license to operate. Just like any currency, it can be banked, accumulate interest and be withdrawn when needed. And, an enterprise will need that reserve when it encounters a crisis. It will need to spend some of its reputation capital because it is trying to get stakeholders to give it the benefit of the doubt.

But will it have to empty the account? Opinion research is one tool an enterprise has to understand to measure the impact of a crisis on its reputation and indicate the response necessary.

In a crisis, opinion research’s primary purpose is to assess the real and potential damage to one’s reputation. As such, it is important to ensure that what an enterprise says has the desired impact of both winning the argument and also protecting its reputation.

Because reputation is about stakeholder perceptions, it is important to identify the key contextual stakeholders relevant to the situation. Key stakeholders will vary depending on the enterprise and the crisis it is facing. For a nonprofit, it may be donors, while a company in a regulated industry may be interested in government perceptions.


â–¶ Pointing You in the Right Direction: Crisis communications should be grounded in qualitative research to provide context and assess awareness of the facts of the crisis, evaluate the messaging that present the facts, delve into deeply held beliefs and uncover the language stakeholders use so that it can be readily adopted.

Qualitative research answers the why and the how; why people feel a certain way and how an enterprise successfully communicates the facts. It uncovers the emotional and rational connections stakeholders make with the enterprise and identifies potential leverage points.

The most common qualitative research technique used in a crisis is the focus group. Focus groups are preferred because they are fairly quick to assemble and the group dynamic provides interesting insight into how the message is received and distributed among stakeholders. To assess reaction to a crisis, one would gather a group of similar stakeholders (donors to a charity, for example) to gain insights that will help determine the enterprise’s course of action.

Sometimes, focus groups are enough to answer the enterprises’ questions. Preparatory work for one recent APCO Insight client showed very low awareness of the potential crisis situation and little risk to reputation once the information became public; upon evaluating the information we were able to counsel the client on how to respond and when to elevate the response, if necessary.

In another instance, focus group research found that while “environmental activists” were viewed negatively in the context of the client’s situation, using the term “environmental special interest groups” was even more powerful, as the term both raised suspicions about their motives toward our client and repositioned our client as the victim of harassment.

In each of these cases, focus groups alone were enough to provide the information needed to respond to the crisis. But other times the path forward is not quite so clear.


â–¶ Confirming the Route: Taking the next step and conducting quantitative survey research provides an enterprise with an opportunity to evaluate fully which potential messages uncovered in the focus groups are the most powerful in presenting its story and to determine the impact of the crisis on its reputation. Quantitative research answers the who, what and where; who feels a certain way, what do they know or feel; and where you can find allies, opponents and persuadable stakeholders. A survey can show the strength of emotional and rational appeals, confirming the most efficient and effective course of action.

A crisis management baseline survey can combine pre- or early crisis measures of awareness and situation knowledge with a message study that isolates the most powerful communications points.

A key component of the survey is an initial message assessment designed to determine the impact of the enterprise’s messages and to isolate the most powerful and persuasive ones. Conceptually, this study simulates the give-and-take inherent in crisis communications, bringing survey respondents from little awareness to full awareness while measuring the impact of information as it is introduced.

To isolate the most powerful and persuasive messages, APCO Insight uses advanced analytics such as regression or correlation. Comparing pre-message reputation metrics with post-message measures enables the research firm to determine how many stakeholders change their opinion.

Opinion research is just one more tool in the crisis communicator’s toolkit. If employed early, it can assist you in preparing for and navigating your crisis situation, making the trip smoother and enabling you to reach your destination with your reputation intact. PRN

[Editor’s Note: This article is excerpted from the new PR News Crisis Management Guidebook, Volume 4. This and other guidebooks can be ordered at]


This article was written by Bill Dalbec, senior VP at APCO Insight. He can be reached at [email protected].

In a Crisis? Opinion Research can answer key Questions

Research prior to or early on in a crisis, says Bill Dalbec of APCO Insight, sets a baseline for the enterprise’s image, awareness of the crisis issues, recall of the issues and impact of the issues; research during and after the crisis measures the impact on the enterprise’s reputation and associated business outcomes. Here are some examples from Dalbec of what opinion research can provide:

• Understanding current perceptions and attitudes toward the enterprise;

• Determining awareness of the issues involved;

• Uncovering the language used by stakeholders to help guide development of public messages;

• Evaluating an enterprise’s story line and isolating the most powerful messages in protecting its reputation;

• Identifying emerging issues as the crisis unfolds and how the messaging may need to be refined;

• Connecting the enterprise’s reputation with specific business outcomes such as giving the enterprise the benefit of the doubt in litigation or a crisis situation; and,

• Monitoring any escalation in negative attitudes toward the enterprise, its executives and products or services, and developing appropriate responses to mitigate these negatives.