This blog post, written by Dr. Terry Flynn and Tim Li, is based on a research paper by Seoyeon Hong, Ph.D., Webster University, and Glen Cameron, University of Missouri-Columbia. 

Key findings

  • Perceptions of an organization’s reputation and responsibility in times of crisis can be influenced by online comments responding to PR statements.
  • Supportive comments improve an organization’s reputation and further reduce attributions of responsibility for the crisis.
  • When comments blame the organization and run counter to the statement provided, viewers find the organization more responsible.

Implications for Public Relations

Public relations professionals should take online comments into consideration when managing organizational crises. Online comments aren’t only a useful metric for measuring message uptake and impact; they can actively influence people’s perceptions of an organization’s reputation and responsibility during crisis. Positive comments can amplify statements that minimize responsibility, while negative comments can limit the efforts to mitigate damage. When online discourse contradicts professional communication strategies, like press releases, audiences must reconcile the discrepancy and will often shift their perceptions based on the views provided by the comments.

The number of “likes” that comments receive is also an important factor in the online landscape of crisis communication. Comments with more “likes” are usually shown to readers first and therefore more likely to be seen. People also use “likes” as a heuristic or mental shortcut for judging message credibility. As a result, popular comments are more likely to be process for evaluating information.

It is important for public relations professionals to recognize the influence of public responses to press releases and other communications. Monitoring online comments can help inform ongoing strategies. Online communications should be framed and presented in ways that promote social support and not negative responses. Tactics like responding to commenters may be helpful for remediating the influence that comments may have on people’s perceptions.

 Summary

The internet has dramatically changed the landscape of communication, making information more widely accessible and creating avenues for audience interaction. The ability for users to express their opinions through comments and “likes” presents unique challenges and opportunities for public relations professionals, especially those in crisis management where comments may influence how audiences perceive a crisis. An inconsistency between the framing of communications like a statement from the organization, and public comments may result in cognitive dissonance, which is mental discomfort from trying to hold two opposing views. To resolve this dissonance, people must engage in certain dissonance-reduction behaviors, including shifting their view to one side or the other.

Hong and Cameron evaluated how online comments on a news story about an organizational crisis influenced perceptions of that organization’s reputation and responsibility. They presented participants with two news stories about corporate crises that contained statements from the companies minimizing their responsibility. The stories were accompanied by comments that either defended the companies or attacked them, and varied in number of “likes” they received.

Participants that saw supportive comments rated the organizations as more reputable and less responsible for the crisis than those that just saw the story alone, demonstrating that online comments can have a meaningful impact of perception. When presented with negative comments that attacked the companies and their statements, participants had lower perceptions of crisis responsibility, suggesting that they changed their views of the organizations to align more closely to the comments. Although the number of “likes” a comment received did influence how credible it seemed, it did not appear have an impact on perceptions of reputation and crisis responsibility. The author suggest that the “likes” may not have had an effect due to instructions to process all the information carefully, which prompted more central processing than heuristic processing in which the number of “likes” may have a greater influence.

Blog post compiled by Dr. Terry Flynn and Tim Li of McMaster University.

Citation

Hong, Seoyeon, & Cameron, Glen T. (2018). Will comments change your opinion? The persuasion effects of online comments and heuristic cues in crisis communication. Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management, 26(1), 173-182. https://doi.org/10.1111/1468-5973.12215

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Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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