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The Evolutionary Nature of Crisis Communications

From Anthony Spota, writing for Fair Observer:

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.

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.

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