Crisis management professionals have long known that the way we respond to a crisis can drastically alter the public’s perception of the organization(s) involved, and now there’s scientific proof.
A joint study between the University of Missouri and Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University followed the reactions of news readers when reviewing an article about a crisis. The stories were written from two different angles.
The first, an “anger-frame” story, was written in a way that laid blame on the involved organization. The second, a “sadness-frame” story, focused on the victims and their plight in the crisis. The “anger-frame” story led readers to follow the story less closely, and afterward they had significantly negative attitudes toward the involved organization. The “sadness-frame” story, on the other hand, had readers focused on the victims and recovery efforts, and left them in a more positive state of mind.
What does this mean, then, for real-world crisis communications? First, it demonstrates the power of working with the media. Giving a curt “no comment” is a great way to lead a reporter directly into writing that “anger-frame” story you’re trying to avoid.
In contrast, offering details and current information often can create lasting relationships that help reporters to write catchy articles and that also grant you a modicum of control over how your organization’s story is told.
“It is important for corporations to put on a human face during crises,” said University of Missouri’s Glen Cameron, one of the lead scientists on the study. The old strategy of just firing off a press release to various media outlets is long dead. Now, when things get gritty, victims and outsiders alike clamor for a human touch.
Luckily, social media has made that possible on a scale never before seen. You don’t have to fight for a spot on the evening news in order to get your apology out to the world; all you’ve got to do is register a free YouTube channel and put someone competent in front of the camera. Ditto for Facebook, Google+, Twitter, and beyond.
“We aren’t big enough to get the message out,” is no longer an excuse. Given enough effort and the social media monitoring suites like HootSuite, even one-man shops can establish a powerful Web presence.
What’s this all boil down to? What should your attitude as an organization be in order to avoid the public’s ire? It’s simple: Be compassionate. Offer sympathy to individuals who have been harmed, wronged, or upset by your actions. Express that loud and clear with not only words, but also actions, and your reputation should come through intact.
Erik Bernstein is a freelance writer and editor/social media manager for Bernstein Crisis Management, where he is responsible for helping to maintain its Web presence.