There are myriad reasons companies fumble responses, be it a social or political issue or a PR crisis. Obvious reasons include moving too quickly, without thinking much about external or internal implications of what you’re saying or doing and what it could mean for your business. The lack of a wide perspective can result when PR pros are excluded from the decision-making process.
Sometimes a bungled response is viewed best as a combination of the likes and dislikes of those humans who crafted it. As former Burson-Marsteller chair Jim Lindheim said about companies responding to PR crises, “Egos, fear, organizational tensions, panic, personal agendas [and] strong personalities in the C-suite can get in the way.”
Using Lindheim’s personality-driven view of interpreting corporate behavior, it seems fair that emotion is a driving force in how companies arrive at decisions on what to respond to, when and how.
Yet when you’re in the heat of a situation, emotion and loud voices can overtake reasoned thinking. Sometimes this is the case when a company lurches from situation to situation without having formal guidelines for crafting responses.
Removing emotion from responses is part of the thinking behind STAR (Social Threat Analysis and Response), a tool that Washington, D.C.-based ROKK Solutions created several years ago for a global pharmaceutical company struggling with responding to external social issues.
Essentially, STAR is a framework in the form of a scorecard. It’s loaded with questions that brand personnel answer when an issue arises, says ROKK’s managing director, Lindsay Singleton. Each question answered is scored with points. “You literally tally the numbers…if you reach a certain sum, you respond,” Singleton says.
“It helps companies remove emotion from the decision of ‘what should we respond to,’” she adds. “Emotion tends to be one of the elements that really holds companies back in terms of their ability to effectively respond to these kinds of crises.”
STAR’s questions are crafted after a series of interviews ROKK personnel conduct with company officials. This process lasts three to six months, depending on schedule coordination. It’s a “deep dive,” Singleton emphasizes.
“We want to get a sense of their culture, values, existing business structures and how they make decisions,” Singleton says. For example, “what are their ESG goals and what [political and social] issues are relevant to their products and services?”
How/If You Respond
More than offering a series of questions to Fortune 500 and other companies that use STAR, the tool suggests how and if a company should activate around an issue. Should the company issue internal or external statements? Write thought-leadership essays? Hold a town hall, smaller sessions or nothing at all?
In addition, STAR isn’t only a response tool. For example, while using the tool a company might be prompted to re-think some of its ESG priorities, Singleton says.
After a STAR is born (pun intended), it’s “pressure tested during a table-top exercise,” Singleton says. This involves working with the company’s response team. “We put [the team] through the [STAR] process…go through the structure and the framework that we've set up for them.”
After that, STAR is at the company’s disposal when a political or social issue arises. It can provide a response suggestion in as little as 60-90 minutes.
However, Singleton notes STAR is just one part of a company’s toolkit. “You also need a good crisis plan…with a team that’s ready quickly and knows its responsibilities.”
ROKK suggests small groups from various company units answer STAR questions. “You look at an aggregate” of scores, Singleton says.
Companies choose whether or not ROKK personnel are present during these sessions. While ROKK generally is present the first time a company deploys STAR, “the beauty of it is that it really leaves [companies] with a sense of comfort and confidence in their ability to tackle these really tough issues.”
DEI and Data
Similarly,The Sway Effect and machine-learning firm Crant collaborated on a tool that deals with a difficult subject: DEI. And like STAR, the DEI Barometer is tailored to each user-company, Crant CEO & co-founder Álvaro Melendez says.
And while diversity is an emotional subject for Melendez–as a native of Colombia, “I’ve experienced discrimination many times…I know what it feels like”–he notes the importance of data when evaluating a company’s DEI efforts.
As such, in a basic sense the AI-fueled Barometer separates what a company feels it’s doing on DEI and "what it's actually doing, says Jen Risi, The Sway Effect’s founder and president. Available in real-time, the Barometer’s work removes much of the guesswork around DEI.
In addition, the Barometer compares some of a company's DEI-based data with that of competitor companies in the same sector. So, data of athletic-wear companies.
Sway Effect clients can start their Barometer tracking relatively quickly. It begins with Barometer officials interviewing company executives about their DEI programs and goals.
And while companies using the Barometer are intentional about DEI–“We wouldn’t work with them if they’re not,” Risi insists–there are limits. “We are very clear,” ‘You can’t achieve every one of [your DEI goals],’ we tell them,” Melendez says.
Public Information Monitor
Once goals for DEI programs are set, the Barometer’s AI technology monitors the company’s public information about DEI, mostly on social media. As noted above, that data is compared with competitors’ output.
In addition to raw data, the Barometer offers sentiment analysis about how audiences are interacting with a company’s DEI content. Moreover, its AI technology also monitors imagery.
For example, are photos in company messages inclusive on gender, sexual orientation, age, disability, class and race?
A large part of deploying the Barometer, pardon the pun, is moving the DEI needle. “Once you measure, you’re probably going to want to get better,” Melendez says.
On the other hand, even companies that believe they are intentional on DEI can falter when they don’t measure, Risi and Melendez say. Melendez cites an example where a film studio believed its work was diverse, but when it measured data in its scripts it discovered several issues.
Yet Alvarez is quick to add, “we don’t see [DEI] as a competition.”
Instead, “it's more like, if we do this, right, everyone wins. We'll get more diverse talent. Our customer base will expand and people will feel more comfortable with us,” Melendez says. So, it's good for everyone. And that's what we're focusing on.”