Getting serious about PR crisis case studies

Whenever an organisation experiences a ‘crisis’ (or more commonly an incident of lesser magnitude), it is invariably jumped upon as a PR disaster by the online PR pundits who cannot resist the opportunity to criticise how the situation was handled. The view is almost always: “I wouldn’t have done it like that”, accompanied by a list of rules which, in the opinion of the supposed PR expert, should have been followed.

Rarely is any research done to accompany the critique. Sources within the company are not consulted, nor is any reference to literature or studies generally included to underpin the commandments that have been expressed. However, unless you have been there at the time and experienced the build up, execution and consequences of any incident or crisis, you don’t really know what has gone on.

Whether or not the PR practitioners who were handling the situation presented advice which was – or was not – followed, or whether there were other factors involved in the decisions and behaviour that transpired is largely ignored by any commentators. Indeed, in the majority of situations, the so called PR disaster is most likely to be an operational matter or failure of senior management, with any PR or communications activity evident mainly in the attempt to address what comes next. Having been involved in incident/crisis management myself, and knowing many practitioners who have been in the fire of online critics, I am aware the reality is that PR practitioners are rarely responsible for, or in control of, the actions that attract negative comments.  They also cannot directly come out and say this, without being disloyal to their employers and threatening their immediate career prospects.

Frankly, I think it is time that fellow PR practitioners stopped their trial by Twitter or blogpost.  That’s not to say those with an opinion on social media and crisis communications shouldn’t be heard (or researched as per Tegan Ford’s PR Conversations’ post on her MA thesis), but if we are going to reflect upon examples to help improve practice, then these should be robustly researched case studies.

The same applies to case studies that are intended to demonstrate best practice in public relations as I commented upon in my June post: We need bigger ambitions in public relations.

I have five suggestions of what could be done to improve our practice-based body of knowledge:

Respect the case study as a research method
Rather than anecdotal views of those outside a situation or insight drawn from the selective memories of those who were there (normally some time afterwards for any frank assessment), PR needs to respect the value of gaining a detailed contextual analysis of specific case studies in a more methodical manner. Data gathering approaches and analytical techniques need to be considered and cases can then be published within an open framework (albeit reflecting sensitivities where appropriate). Such research needs to be of a clear quality so that reports can help question practice (and theory), guide practitioners and inform students and researchers.

Academic in residence
I’d love to see the major consultancies and large companies second an ‘academic-in-residence’ on an ongoing basis. These research-focused scholars should be employed to undertake ethnographic and similar research into PR practice, including monitoring and reporting on emerging issues and crisis situations. This position could also be used to transfer knowledge from academia to practice and vice versa, as well as using their research to reflect on principles and practices of public relations.

Develop case study research methodologies
This should offer a range of methods to support those seeking to develop case studies, from an academic, practitioner or hybrid perspective. A panel of experts drawn from those with practice and theory backgrounds could offer guidance and guidelines under a Case Development Initiative, reflecting a problem-solving and rigorous analytical approach.

Establish a repository of PR case studies
Rather than the ad-hoc approach where you can find case studies (of varying quality) in journal articles, textbooks, award programmes, websites and so on, it would be useful to see a location offered (perhaps the Global Alliance website), where a clear narrative, including objective and subjective data sources, could be provided for a wide range of case studies. This could follow the format evident in the Harvard case study method.

Create better PR awards programmes
One of the issues for me with PR award winners (or shortlisted entrants) is that they generally rely on self-completed information with no independent analysis of results or wider contextualisation, comparison to other cases and so on. They are often little more than feel-good opportunities viewed as a means of promoting those who enter and the organisations who run them (frequently for profit). I’m actually uncomfortable about the concept of crisis communications award winners as there may be human tragedies involved where it seems inconsiderate to promote any actions as a cause for celebration. Besides, what is valuable is often what can be learned by an open consideration of the full scope of a crisis rather than just what can be promoted as success. More needs to be invested in terms of time and money in ensuring that we can be justifiably proud of the cases that are given an award.

There are clear limitations and issues with case studies even when robustly researched. We should always remember that any research is likely to reflect what is known – and shared – at the time, and a previous case is unlikely to ever be exactly replicated in future. Those drawing conclusions from the analytical process need to be transparent in the basis of their recommendations and these should be subject to debate and challenge, not least as new information is gained through follow-up research or subsequent cases.

Nevertheless, we have to move on from anecdote, personal opinion and frankly grandstanding by those who either hold up examples as exemplars or take to their keyboards to slate other PR practitioners. The real PR disaster is that we do not take the case study method seriously.

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12 Replies to “Getting serious about PR crisis case studies

  1. Possibly overlooked in this discussion are the resources represented by the collections held at and These collections contain cases related to practice questions, and guidance on case writing. Cases written to serve the Harvard Case Method are not equated with best practice, but provide a basis for thorough discussion in business school classes and executive development programmes.

    1. Jon – thank you for the links to these examples of cases written for educational purposes (seemingly drawn from various sources). I do feel that there are still issues that I’d relate to ‘anecdote’ in what I could see when looking, for example, at BP Deepwater Horizon as a crisis case here.

      First, I couldn’t immediately see exactly what methodology is used to research this as a case (from the Case Centre site, this was acknowledged as drawing on public materials, but there wasn’t a clear framework used for obtaining or analysing data evident in the write-up that I could see.

      Second, of course, each case is framed by the originator and again by the educator using it (and again by students interpreting what they are given), to make specific points presumably in discussion (or at least within the context of the discipline being studied). This would seem to support a largely deductive process whereby the case is used to analyse models of leadership in relation to Tony Hayward – which is clearly framed in this example: – as being ‘wrong’.

      I have other concerns, but do appreciate these as case resources that can be used by those reflecting on pracitce, provided the limitations were recognised (even if they are not transparent in the methodology applied).

  2. I enjoyed this post, Heather. I quite like the ‘academic-in-residence’ model you’ve proposed, although it would require a special kind of agency/organization and organization leadership to open up to outside analysis (my own experience in pitching such an approach to both government and public sector organizations has typically been met with a frigid response). The growth of new university programs in public relations, professional communication, communication management, etc. — provided they offer quality training in ethnographic research of the type you’ve suggested — may be a good place to begin. I could envision such a relationship between scholars and organizations as either a complement to or replacement of more standard internship models. Lots of potential here.

    1. Josh – sadly, I think you are probably right. I’m intrigued how Universities increasingly have a practitioner-in-residence where I’m not convinced it is really of the same value that an academic-in-residence would be. A post-graduate intern who is on an academic career track could be an interesting option.

  3. I will not criticize your excellent post,Heather, but only invite you and prc readers to have critical attitude towards the harvard case study model.
    It is not the holy grail.

    For example it is useful to know that unofficially many socalled harvard case studies today are imagined, invented and created by professors on the border between teaching and consulting who through their own pr consultants stimulate organizations to be featured as a harvard case study in exchange of fat (not flat!) fees and the right to edit the final text of the study.

    Another limitation is today’s stereotyped equivalence between harvard case study and best practice.

    My experience is that best practices are not half as useful as a learning tool as worst practices are.

    Let’s keep our critical mindsets awake and be careful not to fall in the same hypes that we are so effective in creating.

    1. I agree with you Toni about the Harvard approach not matching up to its promise. I tend to find the approach used to write a case for teaching purposes to be quite flawed (ditto when used in textbooks). The thing there to remember of course, is that the example is written to be used in a particular way i.e. to inform use of a tool or illustrate a particular point.

      And, I’m totally with you on best learning experiences coming from either worst practices, or my preference would be when things went wrong or not to plan. Too many examples are presented in a way that hides any glitches whether or not they were resolved in practice.

  4. Great article Heather, I enjoyed it and echo your thoughts around organisations winning awards for crisis situations where there could be tragedies.

    ‘Academic-is-residence’ is a sterling idea, I would love to see that happen.

    I like the suggestion of using the Global Alliance website in the way you suggest too,


  5. I totally agree with Heather. Very often also little rumors start to be considered as “PR failures” and talk after talk they become “PR crisis” or “bad reputation crisis”.

    Due to the lack of any research competence, many “communication” bloggers tend to publish opinions on whatever seems to be a crisis.

    Very often I find that these opinions are not backed by any measurable indicator.

    More than that, short terms evaluation is the most common approach in these cases, without considering that a crisis must be evaluated on the long terms and on the impact on business, reputation and relations with the stakeholders.

    1. Thank you – you make a good point about how ill-informed comment appears to often contribute towards the escalation of a situation. That would be worth studying further in itself as now the social media debate about such circumstances could be considered a factor in the formation, development and resolution of any incident.

      I also agree that evaluation needs to be longer-term and consider actual impacts rather than always shouting ‘reputational damage’ without clear evidence of what this might mean.

      1. “….you make a good point about how ill-informed comment appears to often contribute towards the escalation of a situation”

        Heather, that point was addressed, quite forcefully, in a comment by Mat Wilcox in Tegan Ford’s post that preceded yours.

        I call it drive-by opinionating, Biagio!

  6. Heather, You are right and I am amazed that even a simple process is not part of the basic understanding of the practitioner (here is a slide show that may help

    But the issue for practitioners goes much further and the lack of understanding about Big Data is holding practitioners back.

    On any issue on any day it is easy to find out who is contributing what on and off line; in real time; the extent to which they have a following and their take on the crisis or issue. This may mean having an ability to monitor a few thousand citations or a few hundred thousand.

    This is not hard and I guess every student now has access to such facilities and can show the rest of the profession how (give me a call :)).

    Understanding what has to be done thereafter is another matter.

    Radical transparency is here now. It will NEVER go away. PR people have to learn how to manage it.

    This is a huge opportunity for the PR industry.

    1. David, I agree that Big Data offers an opportunity to look at PR case studies in a robust way in relation to any online development and should certainly be part of any methodology. However, there is more to a case study than the data trail and it is important that we are as robust with any qualitative insights regarding processes, decision-making, behaviour etc.

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