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On the heels of the Tiger Woods scandal last April and only days before the BP rig explosion and oil spill, the Economist ran a story calling attention to the fact that brand-threatening scandals are becoming a regular feature of the corporate landscape.

This, the Economist said, is because of “a toxic (sic) mixture of globalization, which scatters corporate activities hither and yon, and the internet, which allows bad news to spread like wildfire.” It cited estimates that executives have an 82% chance of facing a corporate disaster within any five-year period, up from 20% two decades ago.

Taking a page from Crisis Management 101, the Economist suggested that the key to a successful brand re-launch lies in making a cool-headed assessment of how much a crisis damages a company.

“Does it involve life and limb, rather than less consequential matters? Has it spread beyond particular products or particular divisions to afflict the entire corporate brand? If the answer to both questions is yes,” the Economist concludes, “then companies are well advised to go into collective overdrive; if it is no, then they can experiment with more nuanced responses, such as lopping off a tainted product or sacrificing a rogue division.”

My experience managing public relations during crises – especially at Dow Corning during the height of the silicone breast implant crisis from 1988-1992 – suggests a different reality. The lesson I learned then is that organizations in trouble would do well to practice transparency and pursue dialogue. Nuanced calculations about when and how to “go public” when in crisis are almost always wrong. Just ask BP.

The Economist’s larger point was that crises – when managed well – can give brands a long-term boost. The newspaper cited Coca-Cola, which emerged stronger from its disastrous recipe change in 1985. In response to widespread outrage from customers, it reverted to the original formulation within three months. The Economist also cited Johnson & Johnson’s handling of the 1982 Tylenol crisis (when an unidentified attacker poisoned some bottles of the painkiller), calling it “the gold standard of crisis management because the company simply recalled all Tylenol without hesitation or demur.”

However, as with so many topics today, it seems there’s a conspiracy theory surrounding the Tylenol recall. Our friend, the PR trade reporter and columnist, Jack O’Dwyer insists that the Institute should investigate and expose J&J’s handling of the Tylenol crisis 28 years ago as something less than “gold standard.”

“I have looked at the Institute’s website and see the words “science” and “scientific rigor” there and I don’t think they should be, Jack told me. “”Real scientists confronted with even a particle of new evidence or new interpretations on something in their fields, would descend like locusts on whatever had turned up.”

If you care to read more about conspiracy theory, you can Google the topic or read Jack’s blog.

Regarding the Institute’s tagline, the science beneath the art of public relations,™ it describes perfectly our foundation’s core mission over the past 50+ years. “Science” in this context means we seek to combine the rigor of academic thinking with the practical application of conducting research to demonstrate the value of public relations and improve the day-to-day practice.

Since the 1990s, research to measure the value of public relations has become more important, in part, because CEOs face an 8 in 10 chance of serious crisis during their tenures, and because research is driven hard by public relations academics and some professionals who have background in anthropology, communication, psychology and sociology.

These colleagues and this Institute have argued hard for the mediating impact of public relations and demanded that public relations research and measurement – the science beneath the art – begin to focus on non-financial variables on bottom-line results.

The primary limitation continues to be the focus on an intermediary in the process – the media – rather than on the target audiences for these public relations activities.

I like Jack O’Dwyer, but something inside me keeps saying, “Never argue with someone who buys ink by the barrel.”

Then again, that is so “old school.”

For current thinking on the science beneath the art of public relations, I recommend you visit the research section of this website. Or, read The Practitioner’s Guide to Public Relations Research, Measurement and Evaluation, a practical new book by researchers Don Stacks and David Michaelson.

The opportunity for public relations has never been greater!

Robert W. Grupp
President and CEO
Institute for Public Relations

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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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