As PR pros know, rule one for communications pros and attorneys specializing in crisis or litigation management is to never be unprepared or surprised when a situation arises. To quickly respond in a credible and effective manner, communicators must change their approach to crisis management. They must proactively utilize research capabilities to gain accurate, actionable intelligence on the issue at hand as well as the expectations of key stakeholder audiences. The communications trifecta is credibility, speed and resonance for brands and organizations caught in the grasp of a PR crisis or high-profile litigation. For communications pros, reaching that trifecta calls for a response strategy that answers the questions weighing heaviest on the minds of customers and clients, the media, regulators, and vigilant watchdog groups. It also requires meeting the expectations of an increasingly discerning court of public opinion. Failing to do so can unleash a wave of business and reputational damage that can be difficult, and in some cases impossible, to reverse.
Address Stakeholder Concerns Head On
Knowing the full scale and impact of a crisis or litigation, and making decisions on a response strategy, require a multi-perspective, research-based approach that identifies key stakeholders, uncovers their positions and marshals support for the organization. Many communications professionals and attorneys struggle with PR crises and litigation because they often lack the insights needed to make informed decisions. By improving your understanding of stakeholder audiences and their opinions on the crisis or litigation, you will strategically position yourself to reassure stakeholders and win their support.
Answers to the following key questions are at the core of a strategy that not only leads to informed decisions but can also weather even the harshest and most unpredictable media and societal climates.
Question: Who are the most influential stakeholders driving opinions, trends and public sentiment?
Result: Identification of influential voices who can serve as advocates and spur support among other audiences.
Question: What information are they receiving?
Result: Insights into the intelligence that is forming and shaping opinions, and the opportunity to reinforce positive information and correct inaccurate reporting where needed.
Question: How are their opinions being impacted?
Result: Ability to further strengthen the opinions of supporters, and meet the concerns of critics and uncertainties of undecided audiences with objective, fact-based information.
Question: What do they need the brand to do and say?
Result: Customized responses that directly resonate with stakeholders and speed resolution, while maximizing the strengths of the organization’s messaging and mitigating or eliminating attacks from critics.
Question: Who would be most persuasive to them?
Result: A spokesperson with the knowledge, credibility and confidence needed to communicate an understanding of, and build support for, the organization’s position
The disciplined approach that identifies response-strategy content applies equally to the research methods used to learn stakeholder opinions. By analyzing digital data to inform rapid opinion research, you are able to receive the insights needed to determine the scope of the crisis or litigation, provide potential remedies and in many cases, predict a situation before it occurs.
Digital Data Research
Being an expert in stakeholder audiences, and realizing how they receive, process and share information, are mission critical requirements for a response strategy. Research designed to build stakeholder expertise uses a three-tiered approach that focuses on the integrated issue landscape, stakeholder audiences and key messaging.
Integrated Issue Landscape: Starting your research with a 360-degree view into the offline and online issue landscape provides insights ranging from the types of conversations stakeholders are having and the forums they frequent to the information sources they trust and forces guiding their opinions. By analyzing content from traditional earned media, blogs and social media, you can learn where the most influential and vocal stakeholders obtain their news and where they can be found.
Stakeholder Audiences: Understanding how stakeholders are organizing themselves online, and how information and influence flow between them, helps inform content and amplification strategies. It also ensures that communications target audiences in a way that is compelling, relevant and optimized for engagement. Stakeholders form like-minded communities online based on shared interests, beliefs and opinions of the organization
that is caught up in the crisis or litigation. When you know how your stakeholders behave and what they believe, you can create opportunities to connect with and engage them as advocates who can sway critics and the undecided, and further galvanize supporters.
Key Messaging: Effective response strategies recognize that stakeholders are individuals first, each with a viewpoint, experiences and beliefs. As a result, stakeholders respond to messaging and situations differently. Research based on digital data informs an in-depth understanding of the complex nature of stakeholders, resulting in messaging that aligns with their key priorities and helps drive positive relationships.
Rapid Opinion Research
The most effective response strategies share a key element – the voices of stakeholders. By learning stakeholder questions and concerns, you will realize the full extent of their awareness of a crisis, and create, test and refine messaging. Rapid opinion research uses three methods to capture stakeholder voices, while meeting the quick connection and response times needed for an always-on media cycle. The outcome is an understanding of perceptions and beliefs, identification of effective messaging and a path to positively impact public opinion.
Online Focus Groups: These allow for real-time conversations among 25-30 stakeholders that reveal the information they are receiving, and need to receive, surrounding a crisis or litigation. They also identify the words, phrases and tone that resonate positively or negatively with key audiences. Group discussions generally take place during an evening and can be accessed from any Internet-enabled device.
Surveys cast a wider participant net than online focus groups and online communities. They also are very reliable in identifying supporters, critics and the undecided as well as effective, pressure-tested messaging. There is also more flexibility in the timing and frequency of surveys. Some are performed before and after a crisis or litigation, and daily, weekly or monthly depending on the immediacy of the need to identify changes in stakeholder reactions.
For example, an entertainment company was facing litigation over the use of animals in its show. By convening a series of focus groups among their primary customers to gain feedback on corporate messages and outside-the-courtroom sound bites, the entertainment company was able to frame its case and develop its defense strategy.
Online Communities: Interaction among stakeholders and insights obtained over an extended period make online communities a critical component of a response strategy. Session formats depend on circumstances and range from opinions on trial summaries to reactions to videotaped news reports. They usually involve 30 to 100 participants who can share their opinions, including those formed between sessions, with the online community. Sessions can be held over a few days, weeks and even up to one year.
Surveys: A point-in-time measurement of stakeholders’ awareness of a crisis or litigation, and the significance it may have on their opinion of an organization, is one of the top contributions surveys make to a response strategy. For example, a telecommunications company seeking to stop a merger of its competitors deployed a survey and discovered that subscribers of the would-be-merging companies were the loudest opponents of the proposed deal. The company utilized this fact to recruit and mobilize a community of like-minded subscribers to oppose the proposed merger. Surveys cast a wider participant net than online focus groups and online communities. In addition, they are highly reliable in identifying supporters, critics and the undecided as well as effective, pressure-tested messaging. There also is more flexibility in the timing and frequency of surveys. Some are performed before and after a crisis or litigation, and daily, weekly or monthly, depending on the immediacy of the need to identify changes in stakeholder reactions.
Getting Crisis Management Right
Being better informed improves stakeholder engagement and promotes smarter decision-making. By continuously analyzing the integrated issue landscape and your stakeholders, you can not only build a timely and effective response strategy, but also identify trends that are predictive of a crisis or litigation to come.