The Evolutionary Nature of Crisis Communication

Corporations are combining 21st-century technologies with evolutionary psychology to influence public opinion.
Crisis communications, public relations news, PR news, crisis management for companies, online crisis management, Timothy Coombs crisis management, damage control PR, social media damage control, public relations strategies, crisis management strategies

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November 21, 2019 14:42 EDT

In an era when 280 characters can spur the demise or salvation of entire companies, so-called crisis communications has become an increasingly important and technically complex profession. Today’s successful specialists in this craft must be knowledgeable about a variety of topics including public relations, psychology, data science and law. They spend a great part of their professional lives between a rock and a hard place, working around the clock in key moments for the company to minimize the damage caused by others.

They must not only consider the ethical considerations of their communications but keep a Machiavellian eye on business results when managing their company’s overall reputation.

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Whether it be Johnson & Johnson, Boeing or Volkswagen, large corporations are fully aware of the damage that a reputational crisis can have on revenues. Smart phones, social media and echo-chambers have amplified the speed at which it’s important to react. For this reason, the new generation of crisis communications experts are combining new technologies with theories in evolutionary and social psychology to come up with pre-formulated strategies to break in case of emergency.

But what are some of the latest technologies and theories behind this quickly evolving profession?

The New Tools of the Trade

From a technical point of view, today’s corporate communications specialists have a variety of tools at their disposal. Developments in data science — the multi-disciplinary field which combines computer science, business and statistics — has created a new generation of platforms. Through social listening tools like Hootsuite, Clarabridge and Talkwalker, companies can monitor what is being said about their firm on social media. Other platforms like Google Alerts and Google Trends focus on what is being mentioned about the brand more broadly online (not necessarily on social media), while video analytics tools search the web for images and videos related to the brand.

These platforms are being improved every day by developments in Artificial Intelligence (AI) including sentiment analysis, the automated process that uses AI to identify positive, negative and neutral opinions from text; machine learning, or rather the capability of machines to improve the performance of a task and learn from structured data without explicitly being programmed to do so; and deep learning, a subset of machine learning with the key difference of not requiring structured data, but which can use unstructured and unlabled data to learn instead.

Companies can now quickly sift through thousands of social media comments, survey responses and product reviews, and create easy to read graphs and numeric scores that estimate their target audience’s overall sentiment. Popular with the higher echelons of corporate management, public relations decisions today can be measured numerically rather than on instinct, personal anecdotes or macro-level analysis.

However, even as these technologies advance, the same psychological instincts that helped us build communities and survive in the savannah more than 200,000 years ago are influencing our behaviors today. By understanding the psychology that has accompanied us throughout our history and combining it with the tools of the future, companies can not only mitigate, but also sometimes prevent reputational crises altogether.

Say Hello to the Bad Guy

Evolutionary psychologists have hypothesized that our brains were designed to function in hunter-gatherer communities of approximately 150 people. To survive and compete against other groups and species, we created collective identities based upon shared traditions, rules and accepted behaviors. As the respect of these guidelines was crucial to the group’s collective survival, humans would lash out on those who broke them, including through violence.

Our ancestors who were wired to be part of the mob survived and prospered, while those who went against the pack mentality were ostracized and sometimes eliminated altogether.

As the world becomes smaller, and we slowly realize that the planet and our very existence are being threatened, this may be why it is so easy for us to label corporations as the bad guys when they don’t follow the rules. Even in moments when there is no one to blame, our groupthink mentality can often lead to us to make bad decisions collectively because we value harmony and coherence above rational thinking. Criticizing a scape goat online can give us the feeling that we are fighting for what’s right, increasing our self-esteem and feelings of social cognition even when we are not addressing our own responsibility or really doing much to improve the situation ourselves.

The horrors of the 20th century should have taught us that we are all capable of evil given the right circumstances, but instead parochialism and the us-versus-them mentality is returning under new guises. With a significant portion of the Western world frustrated at being worse off than its parents’ generation, online platforms have become an easy way to vent and identify common enemies.

Responding to Crises

In order to alleviate the damage a crisis of this type can cause, companies have developed specific communication strategies for different types of events. According to Timothy Coombs, there are four types of crises: faux pas, accident, transgression and terrorism. A faux pas is an unintentional tactless action made by the company, whereby an external agent is transforming the action. This could be, for example, the very poorly thought-out and culturally insensitive Dolce & Gabbana ad showing a Chinese woman eating pizza with chopsticks.

Accidents, on the other hand, while also unintentional, happen during the course of normal organizational operation. Boeing’s two deadly 2018 crashes caused by what appears to be the malfunctioning of an anti-stalling system at first appeared to be one such type of crisis, although a recent lawsuit alleges an “unprecedented cover-up” of a flaw in the design of the plane. Transgressions are intentional actions taken by an organization that knowingly place people at risk and break the law. Volkswagen’s Dieselgate scandal, in which millions of cars worldwide were equipped with cheating software to make them seem less polluting, is one such crisis.

Lastly, terrorism refers to intentional actions taken by external actors designed to harm the organization directly or indirectly. The most famous example of this is probably the series of deaths in 1982 when unknown perpetrators laced Tylenol capsules with potassium cyanide, forcing Johnson & Johnson to recall its products in the US market and overhaul its product safety regulations.

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Classifying crises into these four types is useful because it allows the company to respond with an appropriate communication strategy. The decision is taken based on how much the public perceives the organization as culpable for the crisis. For example, if there is a terrorist type of corporate crisis where there is a low perception of responsibility, the company can use a distance communication strategy whereby it finds excuses, external scapegoats and downplays the chance of the event happening again.

If the crisis, on the other hand, is a transgression, where the company is clearly to blame, it could use an acceptance communications strategy and apologize, remediate and illustrate the steps that are being taken to prevent such crises from happening again. It might not be too far of a stretch to compare this approach to one of our early ancestors asking for forgiveness from the rest of the group, thereby endorsing the established order, hierarchy and rules.

Playing with Memory

Since crisis management experts are focused on the long-term reputation of their firm, they consider carefully how salient the issue is in the public eye. Perhaps one of the most important realizations we have made about our brains in the last years concerns how imperfect our memory is. Not only do we have a hard time remembering information, we can quite easily be manipulated into creating false memories as well.

Corporate communications experts know this and realize that if they are able to weather the storm caused by a crisis, time can be on their side. For example, in the midst of the Volkswagen emissions scandal, the company handed out pamphlet’s urging people to join Emissions Anonymous — a 12-step program the company was creating to fight climate change. As of November 10 this year, the link to this website is no longer functional and its Facebook page has had little engagement since 2018. Meanwhile, Volkswagen sales have returned to pre-crisis levels.

What we have also understood is that our memory systems have evolved to help retain survival and fitness-related information. Therefore, if a crisis is perceived to potentially cause direct harm or death, it will be more likely remembered in the collective memory of the public. The best way to counter this for corporations is to tackle the fear factor at its root and actually solve the issue, even if it means taking a hit financially in the short term.

When in 1997 German media reports emerged that the new Mercedes A-Class would flip over when conducting an evasive maneuver test — the so-called moose test — the initial reaction of Mercedes was to attribute this to “extreme driving conditions that pushed the laws of physics.” It was only after this backfired that the company took the decision to recall all units sold and suspend sales until the problem was technically solved.

What added to the company’s successful elimination of the fear factor was the decision to add a stuffed toy elk as a gift. Furthermore, tennis star Boris Becker was featured with the slogan, “You are strong when you make no mistakes, but stronger when you learn from the ones you have made.”

It’s Still About Communication

There are many different theories about how early humans communicated and how language began. Amusingly, these theories are often referred to by the names chosen by those who criticized them. According to the bow wow theory, for example, early humans developed language when they first started imitating natural sounds such as birds. The yo he ho theory, on the other hand, stipulates that humans started using rhythmic chants and grunts to coordinate their physical work together.

Whatever the origin of language, we know that communication was an important part of our early story in that it helped us to hunt, gather and compete against other species. It also helped us to warn each other when there were dangers afoot.

An important step for a company in a crisis is to set oneself up early on as an authority and provider of useful and accurate information. Needless to say, when there are dangers to the public, the main purpose of the crisis communications function must be to serve as a hub of safety-related information. However, the need to set up an appropriate frame early on is also very important from a purely public relations point of view.

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Crisis communications professionals today must deal with an abundance of fake news that they must counteract quickly. Juicy lies and gossip spread faster than the truth, so it’s important to make sure to grab the attention of a public already overloaded with information. In today’s environment, a witty soundbite can do much more than a structured logical response.

Fortunately for them, these professionals can select the keywords they use, identify influencers, run simulations and ultimately design their response strategies in a more targeted way than ever before. To ensure that all the employees in the company communicate in the same way, the corporate communications teams will often implement trainings, mock crisis simulations and general guidelines for employees to follow.

The main goal of a crisis communications expert is to make sure that the reputation of the company is protected. While there is a variety of new tools that make it easier to influence public opinion, corporate environment has clearly changed in the last years. Firstly, it has become increasingly difficult for sensitive corporate information to remain hidden in the long term. Therefore, a company should strive to behave ethically not only for moral reasons, but because the truth will eventually come out.

Old wounds can quickly be reopened when a company that was perceived as culpable for a crisis has another one, often causing even more damage to its reputation. Even though our memories are flawed, today we are able to retrieve online records at an almost instantaneous speed. Therefore, it is important for a tainted company to not only communicate virtually about what it’s doing to make amends regularly, but also to take appropriate actions to change.

Irrational Minds

Lastly, as the lifespans of companies continue to drop, the focus should be on maintaining a strong reputation in the near future. This can be best achieved by investing in preemptive strategies and tools that help prevent and manage the crisis quickly from the beginning.

While data tools will become increasingly important and effective in the coming years, the need for more humanistic-focused professions like psychology will remain. Ethical and legal restrictions on the use of data imposed by governments, which have struggled to keep up with the speed of the tech industry so far, will have an enormous impact on how the profession evolves.

Ironically, the limitations of our imperfect and often irrational minds make it harder for consumer attitudes to be predicted by AI, at least for the time being. That’s why combining these new technologies with a realistic approach to psychology will provide the best communications strategies in the short term. Above all, it will be important for both humans and machines to learn from past mistakes. Maybe Boris Becker had a point.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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