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.