Who you hurt matters, as does your size–U of Missouri research

I found this research by University of Missouri about differences in public reaction to crises interesting. What causes a bigger negative reaction in the public–when something an organization does hurts someone outside the organization or inside? Does it matter to the public if an employee is hurt, or a customer? It does, of course. The victim outside the company or organization gets more sympathy than the one inside.

Does it matter if the organization in question is big or small? Absolutely. The bigger and more powerful you are perceived, the more quickly you are blamed and the more accusations of responsibility are given credence.

What does it mean for crisis communicators? Well, as I just mentioned in a training class I was teaching last week, there is a big difference in a crisis where you perceive your starting point to be. If you or your senior execs think that you are at a neutral starting point in public perception when an ugly situation hits, and your goal is to keep at neutral or above, you deal with the crisis in one way. But, what if you are starting the crisis from the perspective of a deep hole–that you are not neutral but public perception is already very negative, how does that impact how you deal with the crisis? Quite a bit, I would think. It would show itself in the degree of effort you would undertake to address the issues, the proactive communication you would do, the investment made in getting your messages out. The problem is, most organization leaders perceive that they are starting from a positive or neutral position. What they don’t realize is that for most of the public, if they are seen as big, powerful, rich, profitable–they are already starting from a deep hole. When the reporter comes to interview your CEO, head of Big Oil, the audience (and reporter) isn’t likely thinking, oh good, here’s a person helping make sure I’ve got fuel to burn in my tank. They’re thinking, here’s a greedy, fatcat, despoiler of the environment who would do anything to turn a buck.

Now you know that if you are big, powerful and you hurt someone outside of your organization, the hole you are in may be a lot deeper than you thought.