Most organizations have a crisis of some sort at one time or another.  Here are three ideas regarding how research can help you manage those crises better.

1.  Assess the Crisis
The first thing you want to do when your management or client says they have a crisis is determine whether there really is a crisis, and, if so, how big it is.  I once worked with a major hotel chain, which had a scandal break based on inappropriate behavior of a few employees at one hotel.  The client was very concerned about its frequent business traveler “club” members, who tended to be senior executives.  The client wanted to take out a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal apologizing and outlining measures the organization was taking to correct the problem.  We suggested they wait until we’d done a quick survey of their club members.

We were able to do a telephone survey overnight, and it turned out fewer than ten percent of their club members were even aware of the incident, and most of those who were aware did not see it as serious.  Taking out an ad in the Wall Street Journal would undoubtedly have made the issue worse by raising awareness of it.

The point in this case is that by assessing the crisis, we learned it really wasn’t a crisis at all.  However, when there is a crisis, research at this stage can help you define what the crisis really is — that is, how your stakeholders perceive the crisis and their areas of greatest concern.  In addition, you can either solicit potential solutions from stakeholders or test with stakeholders the solutions you have available to you.  Then you will know which solutions stakeholders approve most and why.  If you are trying to generate ideas, you might use qualitative research techniques, such as focus groups.  If you are testing ideas, you would want a quantitative method, such as a survey.

So in the first phase of the crisis, research can help you diagnose and understand what is happening in the minds of your stakeholders.

2.  Monitor the Crisis
You cannot manage a crisis if you cannot measure it.  In this case, the measure of the crisis is what’s in the minds of your stakeholders — awareness, perceptions, attitudes.  In the first phase of our research, we determined that there really is a crisis and got stakeholder opinions of some strategies we might use to resolve the crisis.  In the second phase, we need to determine the effect on stakeholder perceptions of those strategies we execute.  Here again we use research.

Most likely, we would again be doing surveys of key stakeholders.  Depending on the crisis, we might be doing them as often as every day.  If all goes well and the crisis subsides, you might just continue these daily surveys until management is comfortable the crisis has been taken care of.  However, sometimes the media highlight additional information that fans the flames of the crisis.  In this case, you can use the research to understand the changing dynamics of the crisis and develop new strategies and tactics, if necessary.   

3.  Stakeholder and Issue Monitoring
In truth, we missed what we should have done first.  Before there was a crisis, we should have been monitoring our key stakeholders — typically customers, shareholders, employees, communities where we have operations and regulators and legislators.  I would go so far as to say we should assess the strength of our relationships with each stakeholder group (see http://tinyurl.com/76cbwf7 for more on this).  We should be doing surveys, monitoring social media and talking with these people so we understand where they stand on the issues important to our organization.  We can supplement this research by monitoring non-social media.

In addition, we should be monitoring issues in those sub-environments important to our organization. These might include the technological, socio-cultural, economic-competitive, regulatory-legislative or green environments.  We may then want to do research with our stakeholders on any of these issues that might be topical.  (For more on this see http://tinyurl.com/3z2asjq.)

There are sudden crises, brought on by unexpected events, such as Tepco nuclear plants and the devastating tsunami, and there are smoldering crises, such as those that developed at Penn State or Newscorp.  With any kind of crisis, a solid understanding of your stakeholder relationships and where stakeholders stand on issues important to your organization gives you an immediate context for crisis planning, prevention and management.


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