Public relations agencies can — and should — take advantage of a thoughtful media measurement program to help their clients preserve their valuable reputations when a crisis occurs.
Historically, agencies have often looked at media measurement as a tool to demonstrate ROI to their clients. Or perhaps the client uses it as a way to check up on the performance of their agencies.
But this is a pretty simplistic view of how quantitative and qualitative analysis can be utilized to benefit clients. In fact, measurement can play a vital role in reputation management.
Most PR agencies begin their engagements with new clients during good times — or at least not mid-crisis. That means that the focus is usually on generating media attention to help achieve important business objectives like revenue growth and customer retention.
It’s natural for the client and its outside advisers to spend most of their time talking about how to spread the word about positive accomplishments, new product announcements, and customer success stories.
Just as most of us prefer not to dwell on negative outcomes in our personal lives, we do the same in business. That means that most organizations find themselves underprepared when a crisis hits.
Effective crisis communications planning should be part of any PR plan, but frequently these exercises overlook the value of integrated measurement activities.
Start with a Baseline Assessment
When PR agencies do incorporate measurement planning into their client engagements, it often starts with a baseline assessment. That same process will work well in preparing for a crisis if you make just a few modifications.
Typically, the initial measurement is designed to establish goals and objectives for an upcoming PR campaign. It sets targets and expectations for what the agency’s work should achieve.
That’s beneficial, but it is not enough.
Smart agencies work to go beyond basic “counts and amounts” to conduct research that evaluates the state of the client’s reputation. That might be done just through a media survey, but it will be even more effective if it includes primary research like surveys and focus groups.
If the agency understand the state of the client’s reputation, it provides a benchmark to evaluate the impact of a future crisis.
Identify Key Reputation Drivers
Of course, knowing how the client is perceived by key audiences is only the first step.
Just as important is to understand what is driving that perceived reputation. What past events — and related media coverage — cause the public to hold a particular point of view? Which messages has the client driven effectively in the past (and which ones need more work)?
Think about it this way. It’s one thing to know you’re overweight. It’s another to figure out which foods and moods may be your downfall.
Organizational reputation works in a similar way. It’s not enough to know that an organization is viewed favorably or unfavorably without getting to the why.
Work to Bank Positive Reputation — and Know Your Reputation Balance
One of the best ways to minimize lasting damage from a crisis (apart from avoiding the crisis in the first place) is to burnish the organization’s reputation in advance.
If an agency’s client is viewed unfavorably to begin with, a crisis will likely feed preconceived negative perceptions and make things worse.
On the other hand, an organization with a strong positive reputation — especially one built on a foundation of trust — will be more likely to get the benefit of the doubt when it comes to how the crisis is handled.
If an agency puts in place an ongoing communications and measurement program targeted at building favorable reputation, the odds of surviving even the worst crisis increase substantially.
A good PR agency engages in a constant cycle of communicate-then-measure. That produces the best results when it comes to promotion, but it has the same effect in protecting reputation in a crisis.
It used to be that annual or quarterly assessments were the norm in media measurement. Today, we see more organizations moving to monthly reporting, with daily dashboards.
Every client engagement needs to find the right measurement cadence, and this will depend on the specific communications activity and available budget, but the most important thing is to create and stick to a consistent schedule.
Since there is no single standard for a good reputation — I would never want to put an airline head-to-head with a children’s hospital, for instance — the key is to track progress over time. Trends in the measurement reporting mean far more than even comparisons with peers and competitors (though incorporating those do have value).
Be Prepared to Adjust Measurement in a Crisis
The asterisk to the “stick to a consistent schedule” rule is that there should be a provision for ad hoc measurement to occur during and/or immediately after a crisis.
Some crises are quick, while others linger for long periods of time (think the BP oil spill or the disappeared Malaysian airlines flight).
If it is a lasting crisis, then you can do measurement that may help with ongoing course corrections during a crisis. Identifying those pivots can greatly increase the client’s perceived value of the agency.
Compare to Baseline and Trends to Guide Reputation Repair
In most cases, an ongoing measurement program will produce solid data points that the agency can use to properly evaluate damage to the client’s reputation.
This is where the research around reputation drivers comes in handy. If you can dig below the top-line numbers and understand which drivers were most impacted by the crisis, it provides a roadmap for reputation repair.
Good crisis planners think of the process as an ongoing one that involves planning, preparation, response, and assessment. By incorporating media measurement throughout the process, an agency will be better positioned to protect and repair the client’s reputation capital.
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