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After the Crisis: Managing the ‘Scandal Attention Cycle’


October 21, 2013

Penn State students and faculty have quietly returned to classes. Carnival Cruise Lines ships are booking plenty of ocean vacations. And Apple has ordered Chinese-made components for an as-yet-unbranded smart watch.

You don’t need to conduct a Google search to know that each of these brands suffered an intense reputation crisis during the past two years. Media coverage of their scandals was so deep and dominating that the vast majority of us can describe at least the general circumstances of each of these blowups. But only hard-core crisis-communications junkies know what has happened with these stories since then.

Dartmouth College political scientist Brendan Nyhan calls this phenomenon the “scandal attention cycle.” It refers to the window of time during which interest in a crisis rises and peaks, a parallel to the “issue attention cycle” described by Danny Hayes, a political scientist at George Washington University.

“There’s a surge in initial interest as reporters rush to embrace the scandal narrative, but the press quickly loses interest after the most sensational charges are not substantiated,” Nyhan wrote on Aug. 1 in the Columbia Journalism Review, where he serves as an analyst of media and communications issues.

Nyhan looked at the “coverage trajectory” of the Internal Revenue Service scandal. He found that the key political media that drove the first wave of coverage wound up paying little attention when it became clear that the White House was not involved and that conservative groups, including the Tea Party, were not special targets.

“The problem is that it often takes time for the full set of facts to come out. By that time, the story is old news, and the more complex or ambiguous details that often emerge are buried or ignored,” he wrote.

Reaching stakeholders

The “good news is no news” phenomenon has been an ongoing challenge for communication professionals who are tasked with rebuilding reputations after the crisis has evaporated. If the media isn’t paying attention, then how do you communicate about what’s happened since?

One important lesson to keep in mind is that although the mass media has lost interest, your core audiences — the influential, often passionate groups that follow your operation mostly closely — have formed strong impressions and opinions that need to be recognized and changed.

In post-crisis mode, for example, a family in Texas who might have been following your scandal out of curiosity, is at the bottom of the communications priority list, compared with those who are more attached to your brand — the segments whose trust is critical to rebuilding your reputation, such as employees, analysts, shareholders, customers, partners and regulators.

In-house and agency communications professionals should know these segments best: You can measure their perceptions, and you have more channels than ever to use to engage with them on the issues that matter most.

Two years after the height of scrutiny, Penn State continues to self-publish about its efforts to implement promised reforms, such as instituting training programs to prevent sexual assaults on campus and appointing a compliance specialist for youth programs. Their initiatives don’t make national headlines, but they communicate them to key audiences across a number of channels and record them on a special “Progress” website that also details how much the university has spent on legal and PR counsel.

It is even more important to document and publicize kept promises in the aftermath of scandals that involve more retail-driven sectors, like hospitality and tourism.

For example, after a series of globally publicized customer-service embarrassments in 2012, the cruise-line industry unveiled its first passenger “bill of rights” this past spring, with little media fanfare. The major players, including Carnival, also now release their onboard crime statistics every quarter, though few consumers are aware of this increased transparency unless they have actively considered booking a cruise.

Considering context

The unfortunate irony is that a business that has suffered a crisis in the past is more likely to draw inflated negative media attention in the future — if there is another alleged misstep. From the perspective of the media and corporate citizenship watchdogs, a company’s “rap sheet” makes a new negative story much easier to tell. Past scandals tend to lay the groundwork for new accusations of hubris.

Insurance giant Liberty Mutual recently took criticism for cutting back on retirement benefits for its employees, even though numerous companies across the country have taken similar steps in the Great Recession. What earned the Boston-based insurer negative editorial attention — and even a brief turn among the campaign issues in the city’s mayoral race — wasn’t the benefits decision itself. It was the decision in the context of last year’s scandal over the company’s high-priced executive compensation and perks.

After the scandal has passed, a company faces the decision of how aggressively to communicate — a potentially risky proposition.

Should you proactively tell your story, demonstrate change and point out the inaccuracy of assumptions and allegations that others made at the height of the crisis? When? How? And will the media care?

There isn’t one right answer with so many variables at play, including the commitment of leaders in the executive suite. Organizations with a stockpile of reputational capital may be in a better position to take the offensive.

Apple, for example, has been proactive in its efforts to reshape customer and influencer perceptions following the peak of extensive negative media attention about controversial labor and environmental practices among its suppliers in China and other Asian countries.

Through its Supplier Responsibility website, the company paints itself as a model of values-based transparency, claiming, “We’re going deeper into the supply chain than any other company we know of, and we’re reporting at a level of detail that is unparalleled in our industry.”

Since the key factor in fueling the scandal attention cycle is almost always traditional top-tier mass media, today’s fragmented media environment offers smart communicators more targeted options to implement a successful strategic rebuilding plan.

As the satellite trucks drive away, measure the damage, communicate sincerely and consistently to the audiences closest to the organization, and focus on laying the foundation for a comeback.

 

Ed Cafasso A member of PRSA’s Corporate Communications Section, Ed Cafasso is a managing director in the corporate and financial practice for Burson-Marsteller and the agency’s Boston market leader.



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