More and more often while working with clients we see examples of how extremely polarized audiences have become today. While gauging public reaction to your crisis communications is a recommendation any expert will give you, fewer mention the fact that you may see completely different responses to the same messaging depending on which public is viewing that message. Let me give you an example…
An organization runs into trouble which results in national news coverage and has to publish a corporate apology. When they go to listen, they are met with a flurry of mixed reactions. On Twitter their response is being eaten alive, with a heavy dose of trolling added in for good measure. But, over in the comments on CBS and NBC coverage of the issue the public seems cautiously receptive and prepared to move on. Meanwhile, a post mentioning the situation pops up on the local Nextdoor forum and, while there are some vocal doubters, the discussion has quickly moved on to the positive experiences former employees who live in the area had there. To round things out, the direct email campaign to customers and business partners is being met with responses sharing understanding and minor concerns which customer service staff is actively addressing.
A bit confusing, right?
Yes, you absolutely want to gauge the reaction of anyone who isn’t outright trolling you, and yes I will always advise taking measure of even known opponent’s reactions to crisis messaging. However, you need to understand that each platform or medium comes with its own audiences, that those audiences are often tremendously polarized in terms of their world view and beliefs, and that this polarization means the most extreme of reactions in either direction must be taken with a large grain of salt. In fact, I’m fully convinced that if Shakespeare himself came back with a Master’s in Public Relations and authored your messaging, some people would STILL tear it apart because that’s how the outrage machine works.
Understand the polarity of your publics, recognize which reactions are actually genuine or important, and avoid letting the “yes” crowd make you overconfident. That’s how you successfully listen to an audience today.
[Jonathan Bernstein is president of Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc., an international crisis management consultancy, author of Manager’s Guide to Crisis Management and Keeping the Wolves at Bay – Media Training. Erik Bernstein is vice president for the firm, and also editor of its newsletter, Crisis Manager]
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