Running head: FESS UP OR STONEWALL? An Experimental Test
FESS UP OR STONEWALL?
An Experimental Test of Prior Reputation and Response Style
in the Face of Negative News Coverage
Glen T. Cameron, Ph.D.
Manuscript produced under the auspices of
The C. Richard Yarbrough Public Relations Laboratory
Henry W. Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication
The University of Georgia
Athens, Georgia 30602-3018
Funding for this study was provided by The Institute for Public Relations
Research & Education.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Lisa Lyon at the
above address, office phone: (706) 542-4475, home phone: (706) 613-6915, office
fax: (706) 613-6915, Internet: [log in to unmask]
FESS UP OR STONEWALL?
An Experimental Test of Prior Reputation and Response Style
in the Face of Negative News Coverage
A fully counterbalanced, within-subjects experiment addressed fundamental
questions about the value of corporate reputation. The 2 (good vs. bad
reputation) x 2 (apologetic vs. defensive) design also compared apologetic and
defensive responses to negative news about a company. Reputation profoundly
affected memory attitude and behavioral intentions, bearing out platitudes about
bottom-line importance of reputation management. Conversely, response style was
not particularly robust as a factor affecting cognitive, affective and
behavioral measures. Interaction effects of the two factors ran counter to
common wisdom abjuring the stonewall response. Corporations with a bad
reputation prior to the negative news story in the experiment were further
damaged by the apologetic response style. Measures taken after ten days delay
supported the differential decay school of thinking about sleeper effects and
confirmed the supposition that reputation can be thought of as a prior source
cue about a company before subjects process the company's response to negative
FESS UP OR STONEWALL?
An Experimental Test of Prior Reputation and Response Style
in the Face of Negative News Coverage
Trade Wisdom Prompts Questions
There seems to be strong conventional wisdom in public relations practice that
reputation matters. This is evidenced by the frequent trade articles offering
advice and input on reputation management (Caudron, 1997; Davenport, 1989;
Gorman, 1989; Holmes, 1995; Kiechel, 1995; Kukaszewski, 1997; Patterson, 1993;
Skolnik, 1994; Towers, 1993). It stands to reason that reputation is important,
but in what ways and to what extent has less empirical support.
Some suggest that the best time to assess a company's reputation is during
times of difficulty D nothing brings out the true corporate persona like the
response to a crisis (Druckenmiller, 1993). Conventional wisdom dictates
avoiding "no comment," and discouraging clients from taking a defensive position
at all costs (Druckenmiller, 1993; Patterson, 1993). In fact, public apology in
response to the accusation of corporate misconduct is often touted as one of the
most important ways to protect a company's reputation (Lukaszewski, 1997).
Given the platitudes about leveling with the media, why does the phenomenon of
lying, stonewalling and obfuscating in response to negative information persist?
Why might organizations continue to use this approach, when public relations
"gurus" and academics discourage this response type? Is response type
unimportant, or perhaps simply overshadowed if one's preexisting reputation is
good? And what happens to these attitudes in the long run?
These sorts of questions about the profound impact of reputation as well as
the prescriptions for appropriate response to negative news prompted us to
wonder just how significant reputation is as a factor and how it interacts with
response type to negative news. To explore these issues, we formalized the
following research questions.
RQ1: Does a negative news story have a stronger impact on subject evaluations
of corporations with an already damaged reputation? Does a negative story about
a company with a good reputation cause lower credibility of the negative
RQ 2: Which is more effective in combating negative information in a news
story, an apologetic or a defensive approach?
RQ 3: How durable are the effects of response style (apologetic or defensive)
in relation to reputation (good or bad) over an extended period of time? What
are the long-term attitudes regarding the different variables tested? Are they
consistent with the initial attitudes formed after the message response?
Reputation Management Literature
It has been said that by the year 2000, reputation management may be the
"dominant force" in public relations (Patterson, 1993). In today's consumer
oriented world where everything is seen as a commodity, a company's reputation
can be the key distinction between prices, technologies and product capabilities
(Druckenmiller, 1993; Caudron, 1997). "Reputation can be a company's most
powerful asset -- or its costliest liability," said Alan Towers, president of
the public relations firm Alan Towers Associates. Experts agree, however, that
reputations are abstract, subjective personal judgments, the origin of which is
hard to pin down (Budd, 1997). On the one hand, the bottom line business
implications of a strong reputation have prompted some scholarly work on
reputation management. On the other hand, the nebulous nature of "reputation"
has caused uncertainty and some disagreement about the effects of reputation.
Within the past decade, business and management scholars have developed a
formalizing idea that a firm's reputation is an asset vital to the future
economic success of an organization (Weigelt & Camerer, 1988). The notion that
bottom line financial success is linked with corporate reputation has been
studied, often using the Fortune Most Admired list as the sample for the
financial data. These studies indicate variables such as above average
financial returns for a firm, quality of job candidates, and initial decisions
about pursuing contact with a company all hinge at least partly on corporate
reputation (Hammond & Slocum, 1996; Fombrun & Shanley, 1990; Fryxell & Wang,
However, lack of a widely accepted measure for reputation has created
difficulty in replicating the findings of others (Hammond & Slocum, 1996).
Additionally, research suggests that simply using dimensions and scales that
describe individuals cannot accurately capture our perceptions about
organizational reputation. Attributes describing an individual such as
expertise, attractiveness and trustworthiness translate to "smart organization,"
"role model" and "good organization" when measuring corporate image and prior
performance (Raman & Haley, 1997).
Mass communication experts concur that the elusive concept of corporate image
or reputation has caused confusion about how to define and measure it, and that
devices traditionally used to measure brand image do not successfully capture
corporate image or reputation (Budd, 1994-5; Headrich, 1993; Moffitt, 1994).
From a public relations standpoint, a positive reputation allows a company not
only to implement its present plans, but also to pursue its goals in the future.
This has been described as the "halo effect" D where "a generally positive
attitude toward the company lends the company immunity to a certain extent"
(Bromley, 1993; Haedrich, 1993). Goldberg and Hartwick (1990) found evidence
of this in an experiment investigating the combined effects of a company's
reputation and advertisements on product evaluations. Subjects who formed a
negative evaluation of the company based on a bad reputation found the
advertisements less credible and rated the products less favorably than those
who received a positive reputation company.
This would indicate that by defining a valid and reliable method of evaluating
reputation, companies could not only help protect the "bottom line," they could
also help ensure a more mutually supportive relationship between an organization
and its publics (Bromley, 1993).
Because each day, management teams across America gather to implement
reputation damage control due to negative publicity, the effect of unfavorable
media coverage plays an important role in establishing corporate strategy to
maintain positive reputations (Young, 1995-6) . In fact, research shows that
negative information can have a powerful impact on attitudes and behavioral
intentions. It has been shown that a single item of negative information can
neutralize five pieces of positive information, and that negative information is
more enduring than positive or neutral information (Richey, Koenigs, Richey &
Fortin, 1975; Richins, 1983). In the long term, negative publicity may more
strongly influence attitudes and behavioral intentions than positive information
(Weinberger & Dillon, 1980). Some suggest the reason for this influence is the
surprise factor, while others claim it may be that negative information is seen
as less ambiguous (Mizerski, 1982)
Most every organization will receive unfavorable coverage at some point. So,
it is important that the organization receive knowledgeable counsel on how to
address the problems and formulate the most effective response. While the
primary focus should be on affecting positive organizational behavior, some type
of response will still be required and it is essential for public relations
scholars to develop the best response strategy to combat negative publicity and
still maintain a positive reputation.
If reputation is well established before negative publicity strikes, the
effects of corporate response strategy may decay in the long run. Miller and
Campbell (1959) found that when two sides of an argument were presented, the
side learned last would be better recalled immediately, but this superiority
effect would gradually decrease. This effect was also predicted with attitude
change because of the assumed relation between message retention and attitude.
This suggests that the power of preexisting reputation may ultimately override
the carefully planned public relations response strategies. Individuals may
respond more favorably toward a corporation that is willing to "own up" to its
mistakes. But, if this favorable reaction is not durable over time, perhaps the
apologetic response will only be washed out by corporate reputation. This can be
tested by recall of the negative information, attitudinal assessment of the
organization and behavior intention in the short and long term.
In rhetoric and speech communication literature, apologia is considered an
effective self defense strategy, appropriate when individuals must defend their
character (Kruse, 1981; Ware & Linkugel, 1973). Empirical research suggests,
however, that an apologetic response strategy can be effective in some cases but
not in others (Coombs, 1995; Coombs and Holladay, 1996; Hearit, 1997; Sherrell
and Reidenbach, 1986). Nevertheless, public relations practitioners have since
drawn upon this rhetorical strategy as the best way to respond to negative
publicity with an internal locus of responsibility (Coombs, 1995; Coombs &
Specifically, crisis management specialists have suggested there are five
possible response types to negative or crisis situations: denial, distance,
ingratiation, mortification, and suffering. Of these, experts suggest the
mortification strategy when the negative information results from an internal,
intentional action taken by an organization that places publics at risk or harm
(Coombs, 1995). Mortification strategies must first acknowledge responsibility
for the negative information, then the organization seeks to redress the problem
in some manner (apology, compensation, etc.) (Coombs & Holladay, 1996).
Like apologia, the stonewall concept also has roots in rhetoric/speech
communication. While silence can be considered a rhetorical strategy, experts
claim it likely implies passivity and a relinquished control over the situation.
This response type can create or add to existing doubts and uncertainty and has
been deemed a "public relations" issue that simply reinforces the public's
negative impressions (Brummett, 1980). While some public relations scholars
suggest a "transcendence" response, where the company tries to place the
negative information in a different, more desirable context, stonewalling has
not been empirically tested as a possible response type to negative publicity
(Hearit, 1997). Instead, anecdotal examples such as Ford Motor Company's use of
delaying and stonewalling facts with its Pinto are cited as examples of the
futility of this approach (Sherrell & Reidenbach, 1986).
The structural guidelines on how to respond to such situations often assume,
however, that the media coverage is disseminated upon a tabula rasa public and
does not take into account the context or reputation of the organization. In
order to fully comprehend the impact negative information has upon an
organization, we must not view response as a snapshot or cross section. Taking
a reflexive orientation, reputation is an ongoing index of previous responses to
situations, making the most immediate response strategy a key element of that
index, but also a response that should be made in light of current reputation.
The interaction of reputation and response may be such that traditional
strategies do not apply in all cases and certainly calls into question pat
answers or formulaic principles such as: "Always Apologize" or "Never Say No
Durability of Effects of Reputation and Response
Source credibility and memory. Cameron and colleagues have reviewed and
adapted nearly 50 years of sleeper effects literature to current public
relations theory and issues in the profession (Cameron, 1994; Grunig & Hunt,
1984; D. L. Wilcox, Ault, & Agee, 1989). Source credibility studies starting
with Hovland have included memory for message as a dependent variable, with
higher source credibility contributing to better memory which in turn can
contribute to attitude change (Fishbein, 1967; Greenwald, 1968; Hovland, Janis &
Kelley, 1953; Hovland, Lumsdaine & Sheffield, 1949; Hovland & Weiss, 1951;
McGuire, 1964; Miller & Campbell, 1959; Petty & Cacioppo, 1981).
Cook and Flay concluded from a review of over 25 studies of the role of memory
in attitude change that it "seems unlikely that retention of message details and
delayed attitude are related in any simple way, though they may be related in
complex ways" (Cook & Flay, 1978, p. 23). They stated that although "the
evidence is equivocal, there are indications of a causal relationship, and it
would be premature to suggest that persistence is not at all related to the
retention of broader details of a persuasive communication" (p. 25). Miller &
Campbell (1959), Wilson & Miller (1968), Gruder, Cook, Hennigan, Flay, Alessis &
Halamaj (1979) and Ronis (1980) found just such a relationship between retention
of messages and attitude formation and persistence.
Timing of source notification (before or after message) particularly influences
the effect of source on audiences (Homer & Kahle, 1990; Insko, 1964; O'Keefe,
1987; Sternthal, Phillips & Dholakia, 1978). O'Keefe's meta-analysis (1987)
suggested that more than a simple association of a credible source with a
persuasive position must occur, otherwise timing of source notification would
not be a significant factor. This view gained further support from Pratkanis,
Greenwald, Leippe, and Baumgardner in 1988 as well as Homer and Kahle (1990).
Timing of source notification before or after a message affected memory for the
message and for the source, as well as affecting persuasive impacts. For the
current study, corporation reputation reifies credibility of the source
responding to negative news. In sum, the prior source cue here is the
corporation's reputation. The implication of prior notification was summarized
by Cameron (1994):
When a source cue is given after a message, encoding processes are
already done, with additional traces laid down in memory for source
information found at the end of the message. With prior source
attribution, encoding is influenced by the credibility of the source.
Prior source attribution leads to integration of source with message.
When a source has lower credibility, the message is accorded less credence
and less effortful elaboration in memory occurs (i.e. poorer memory for
Durability of source effects. The persuasion literature includes considerable
attention to the durability of source credibility effects. In the current
study, durability of source effects are integral to the purported effects of
reputation on subsequent processing of information about the source. If
reputation is not durable, then it does not affect later processing of messages
about the organization.
Most of the work on the interaction of time and source conditions has involved
the search for and explication of some variant of the sleeper effect, beginning
with the idea that forgetting the source (Hovland, Lumsdaine & Sheffield, 1949)
releases deleterious effects of low source credibility, resulting in an absolute
increase in persuasive impact for the low credibility message.
When it was found that source was remembered, the dissociation hypothesis was
developed (Hovland & Weiss, 1951; Weiss, 1953). Failure to consistently find an
absolute sleeper effect represented by a rise in persuasive impact over time
(Chaiken, 1980; Capon & Hulbert, 1973; Maddux & Rogers, 1980; Whittaker & Meade,
1968) called into question the robustness of the sleeper effect. Gruder et al
(1978) found absolute sleeper effects, but specified certain conditions
necessary for obtaining the effect.
Gillig & Greenwald (1974) found more evidence for a relative sleeper effect.
The relative sleeper effect occurs when a low credibility source has less
initial impact than a high credibility source, but experiences less decay of
impact over time than does the high credibility source (Cook, Gruder, Hennigan &
Flay, 1979). Pratkanis et al (1988) repeatedly found a relative sleeper effect
and offered a replacement for the dissociation hypothesis -- the differential
decay hypothesis that:
subjects remember the communication events (episodes), but the
impact of the communication (on evaluation) decays over time. This
assumption is made in the differential decay interpretation. Thus,
it is not the dissociation of events in memory but a differential
dissipation of the impact of two different persuasive
communications. This is consistent with the notion of two separate
memory systems (Tulving, 1983): one for episodes or events (i.e., I
heard a message and cue) and one for meaning (i.e., I favor X). (p.
With the present study, reputation could be considered a prior source cue,
therefore a predicted sleeper effect for persuasive impact would probably not be
According to the differential decay interpretation, a sleeper
effect is not likely to occur when discounting information precedes
the message. In such cases, subjects may be more disposed to
counterargue with the message as they read. Thus, the persuasive
impact of the message is attenuated, and the message and source are
more likely to form a unit in memory. (Pratkanis et al, 1988, p.215)
With prior cuing for source, the message and source cue "can be interpreted only
in light of the other" (Petty & Cacioppo, 1981, p. 92). In considering
reputation (i.e. source cue) and response style in the face of negative news
(persuasive message), reputation and response intermingle as the story is
Cognitive effects and public relations practice. The brief review above
indicates that message retention plays an important role in source credibility
research, both as the focus of studies and in the relationship of retention to
attitude change and persistence. Of equal importance, message retention is
recognized as a very important dependent measure relevant to both the theory and
practice of public relations (Broom & Dozier, 1990, p. 36).
Grunig has offered several reasons for the study of cognitive effects in public
relations research. In an age recognizing moderate effects (McQuail, 1984) for
mediated communication, cognitive effects take on importance in setting
realistic public relations objectives (Grunig & Hunt, 1984, Chap. 6). Grunig's
situational theory offers a second rationale for attending to cognitive effects.
Causal path analysis of research using the situational theory suggested that
active publics may arise through information gain, when information leads to
problem recognition and then involvement with an issue (Grunig & Childers,
Perhaps the most compelling and current reason for examining cognitive effects
pertains to the symmetrical model of public relations. In the symmetrical
model, persuasion and attitude change are supplanted by an emphasis on
negotiation. Imparting of information as part of an exchange leading to
accommodation of an organization to its publics makes message retention and
other cognitive effects highly pertinent (Grunig et al., 1992, p. 174-175).
For several specialties in public relations, information gain is usually the
paramount objective. Public information officers often seek to impart
information without an explicit intent to change attitudes. And some proponents
of integrated or mega-marketing take a fairly restricted view of public
relations as conditioning the market. This is done by providing information
about a product, company, issue or economic philosophy, with more persuasive
efforts reserved for other elements of the marketing program (Wilcox, Ault &
Veridicality and public relations. Slater and Rouner (1996) have suggested
that some information is perceived as having a higher truth value, or
veridicality than other information. Some conditions, such as a powerful
preexisting reputation, may cause an individual to discount or give less
credence to a message if it is deemed less veridical. It has been predicted that
high source credibility is more veridical and will result in higher truth value
toward a message. However, it has not been tested whether this is true with
negative information about a company with a strong/positive reputation. When
negative information is received about a company with a good reputation, perhaps
individuals subject the message to a veridicality test and denigrate the
information as less credible. The durability of attitudes formed under these
conditions is an important factor in understanding long-term implications for
reputation management and response strategies.
In today's public relations world, many of the messages disseminated by PR
practitioners do not pass through a news media filter. Web pages, direct mail,
advertorial inserts, and corporate magazines are just a few examples of
controlled communication on the rise in the field. If we can test and fine
tune the effectiveness of such messages, then public relations professionals
have the opportunity to determine whether the conventional wisdom about the
importance of reputation is merited. If so, we can then use that information to
better shape and counsel management to achieve a better corporate reputation.
One of the strengths of experimental design is that it enables us to sort out
theoretical issues and isolate the fundamental effects of reputation and
response type. The following hypotheses attempt to address both theory and
To assess the effect of a good reputation on memory, attitude, and behavioral
intentions over time, the following three hypotheses were developed.
H1: Memory for information about companies with bad reputations will be better
than memory for companies with good reputations.
H2: Attitudes toward companies with good reputations will be better than
attitudes toward companies with bad reputations.
H3: Intended purchasing and investing behaviors will be more favorable for
companies with good reputations than for companies with bad reputations.
To assess the effect of an apologetic versus defensive response type on memory,
attitude, and behavioral intentions over time, the following three hypotheses
H4: Memory for companies using a defensive response in a news story will be
better than memory for companies using an apologetic response.
H5: Attitudes toward companies using an apologetic response in a news story
will be better than attitudes toward companies using a defensive response.
H6: Intended purchasing and investing behaviors will be more favorable toward
companies using an apologetic response in a news story than for companies using
a defensive response.
The interplay of reputation and most recent response to negative information
was addressed in Hypothesis 7.
H7: Reputation and response type interact such that the combination of bad
reputation and defensive response is markedly different from any other
combinations of the two variables.
Because durability of effect has practical implications and also serves to
explore the concept of a sleeper effect, the following two hypotheses were
H8: Memory for information about companies will decay after approximately one
week, but because reputation is a prior cue, no differential decay associated
with a sleeper effect will be found.
H9: Attitude and intention to behave will regress toward the mean after
approximately one week, but because reputation is prior, neither an absolute nor
even a relative sleeper effect will occur.
Seventy three subjects in two administrations (student and non-student adults)
participated in both the initial and follow up sessions of the study. In the
first group, thirty-six undergraduate students (20 women and 16 men) from a
large, public southeastern university volunteered to participate in this study.
Each student was offered two points extra credit on a test in a large
introductory level mass communication class. This group constitutes the first
group to participate in the study. Volunteers were treated in accordance with
the Institutional Review Board Code of Conduct.
In the second group, thirty-seven non-student adults (24 women and 13 men) were
recruited from the community (a mid-sized southeastern city) using a random
digit dialing protocol. Each participant was paid $40 for complete
participation in the initial and follow up phases of the study.
A 2 x 2 within-subjects design was employed, meaning that each subject received
each of the conditions for each of the two variables. The design controls for
individual differences in this way, thereby greatly increasing the sensitivity
of the measurements. The first factor was reputation (good vs. bad). The
second factor was response style (apologetic vs. defensive). A complete
counterbalance was used to randomly distribute variables such as company names,
bad news stories, good or bad reputation, and apologetic or defensive response
to the negative news.
Four fictitious news stories were written by a journalism graduate student with
extensive newswriting experience. Then, for each story, two versions were
crafted. One, where a principal of the company issued a defensive response to
the negative information; and one where a principal of the company issued an
apologetic response to the negative information. In all, there were then eight
stories. Each story was about a different clothing company responding to
negative publicity (e.g. a toxic spill into a river, sexual harassment claims,
etc.). Stories were written in news wire style. Each story was independently
reviewed to ensure for clarity and consistency of style. (See Appendix A for a
sample of the stories)
Four fictitious reputational paragraphs were also written (one to accompany
each news story). Two of the paragraphs were about a company with a good
reputation; two were about a company with a poor reputation. (See Appendix A for
a sample of the reputational paragraphs)
Two questionnaires were drafted. The first was a simple one-page questionnaire,
asking subjects for unaided recall of the central point and all details about
the story that was just read. The questionnaire also asked subjects to rate the
various news writing styles of the story they had just completed.
The second questionnaire contained a battery of questions about the (4) stories
subjects were asked to read in the form of matching, true/false, and semantic
differential scale questions. This questionnaire was five pages long.
Packets were assembled for each participant, containing an Institutional Review
Board approved consent form, four reputational paragraphs, wire stories, and
one-page reaction questionnaires. At the end of each packet was the five-page,
detailed questionnaire. Each subject received a random selection of (1) story
topics; (2) company names (3) corporate response to the negative information in
the story, and (4) reputational type.
As mentioned, the student participants all volunteered to participate through a
sign-up sheet in an introductory mass communication class. The non-student
participants were selected using random interval selection from the local
telephone book. The University's Survey Research Center was hired to screen and
recruit the participants for the study, after approval from the University's
Institutional Review Board. This group was the second group to participate in
Testing for each group occurred in two sessions, one week apart. In the first
session, subjects were asked to read the packet assigned to them and answer the
questionnaires described in the stimulus materials section.
In the second testing session, subjects were asked to complete the same
questionnaires given in the first session, without the news stories or
reputational paragraphs to reread. This was done one week after the first
session. Because of on-campus availability, the student group was asked to
return to the research room where the first session was conducted to fill out
the second questionnaire. The non-student group, however, conducted this second
session over the telephone, answering the questions orally. Both groups
received a debriefing after completion of the second questionnaire.
The questionnaires were written with three main criteria in mind: immediate and
delayed memory performance, attitude formation and change, and behavioral
intentions in the short and long term. These were measured in the following
ways. Memory performance includes total as well as the subset of accurate
details recalled about the company and the news story, unaided recall of the
central point of the news story, and matching questions where subjects were
asked to match the company name with the story topic.
Attitude for the companies was measured using semantic differential scales
which asked the subjects to assess how prosocial and typical each company was.
True/false style questions also asked whether the subject liked each company's
ethical standards and management styles.
Subjects' intention to behave was measured using semantic differential scales,
which asked the likelihood of investing in each company and the likelihood that
the company's actions would affect purchasing behavior.
To examine possible differences between student and non-student subjects,
independent t-test statistics were run for the measures to assess the
manipulation of reputation and response, as well as measures of memory, attitude
and behavioral intention of the subjects. Significant differences were found in
only three instances, in spite of the likelihood of more instances due to
listwise error when 30 t-tests are done.
Two of the significant differences as a function of student status occurred
with manipulations checks. The tests determined whether subjects recognized the
type of response (apologetic or defensive) and the level of reputation (good or
bad). Students performed better in the matching task for memory of the news
story in immediate test of subjects (students 3.72, non-students 3.24, t=4.52,
df 251.76, p=.000). Non students performed better in the true/false,
recognition of the apologetic response type in the news stories in the immediate
test of subjects. Performance was significantly different for stories employing
the apologetic response strategy (students .71, non-students .85; t=-3.01, df
The other significant difference pertained to the hypotheses in the experiment.
Overall, the non-student adults expressed greater likelihood to purchase across
all conditions of reputation and response in immediate test of subjects.
With overall possibility of significant difference in each of the 30 t-tests
run to compare students and non-students, the fact that only three were found
suggests the comparability of the student and non-student groups. Additionally,
each group performed better on one of the many manipulations, with neither group
showing consistently better performance in the measures tested. In each of the
three cases where a significant difference was noted for the immediate test of
subjects, there was no significant difference in the delayed test for these
measures. In light of the very limited and balanced differences in performance
between the two groups, all subsequent analysis used the combined data set.
To ascertain whether the experimental manipulations were effective, the
following tests were run. Responses were manipulated using either apologetic or
defensive versions of the news stories. Subjects were asked to rate, using a
semantic differential scale, whether each company's response to the news story
was apologetic or defensive (apologetic=1 defensive=7). Using an independent
samples t-test, a significant difference was found between the apologetic and
defensive responses in both the immediate and delayed tests (Immediate --
apologetic 4.48, defensive 3.24, t=5.35, df 286.84, p=.000) (Delayed --
apologetic 4.27, defensive 3.48, t=3.54, df 279.33, p=.000) .
Reputation was manipulated using either good or bad versions of background
information about companies accompanying each news story. Subjects were asked to
rate, using a semantic differential scale, whether each company's reputation
prior to the news story was excellent or poor (excellent = 1 poor = 7). Using
an independent samples t-test, a significant difference was found between the
good and bad reputations in both the immediate and delayed tests (Immediate --
good reputation 5.54, bad reputation 2.97, t=12.68, df 286.64, p=.000) (Delayed
-- good reputation 4.95, bad reputation 3.46, t=7.40, df 283.57, p=.000)
To assure that the particulars of the stimulus materials did not contain
reactive elements, a Oneway ANOVA was used for company name and story type. No
significant differences were found among any of the dependent measures as a
function of company name (the four names of clothing companies used were:
International Female, Cricket, Bodywear, and Rustler). For story type, only four
of a possible 30 comparisons were significant. Furthermore, no pattern of
reaction to a particular story was found; i.e. the significant differences as a
function of story type involved different stories in the four instances.
Hypothesis 1 stated that memory for information about companies with bad
reputations will be better than memory for companies with good reputations.
Because each subject was exposed to both conditions for reputation, the effect
of reputation on memory performance was evaluated using repeated measure,
MANOVA. Throughout the experiment, MANOVA enabled isolation of the relative
effect of reputation on memory performance for subjects by controlling through
the experimental design for individual differences of the subjects (see Table
As a function of reputation, memory performance measured by recall of total
details from stories, accurate recall of details from stories, identification of
the central point of the story, and matching of story topic with company name
were all non-significant.
Hypothesis 2 stated that attitudes toward companies with a good reputation will
be better than attitudes toward companies with a bad reputation. As a function
of reputation, attitude was measured by the semantic differential scales asking
subjects if the companies were prosocial or; and if the companies were typical
or atypical. A significant difference was found in the measurement of the
company's prosocial stance F (1,59) = 1.33, p=.000. Subjects indicated that
companies with a good reputation were more prosocial than were companies with a
bad reputation. No significant difference was found as a function of reputation
for the measurement of the company's typical behavior.
True/false questions were used to measure attitude asking whether participants:
liked the company's management styles and liked the company's ethical standards.
Significant differences were found in response to both questions as a function
of reputation (management styles -- F (1, 59) =.35, p=.001; and ethical
standards -- F (1,58) =.33, p=.000. Subjects were more inclined to like the
management styles and ethical standards of companies with good reputations than
they were for companies with bad reputations.
Hypothesis 3 stated that intended purchasing and investing behaviors will be
more favorable for companies with good reputations than for companies with bad
reputations. As a function of reputation, behavioral intent was measured by
subjects' indication on a semantic differential scale of: the likelihood that
purchasing behaviors would be affected and the likelihood of investing with the
company. Subjects indicated they were significantly more likely to invest in an
organization with a good reputation than with a bad reputation F (1,61) =5.55,
p=.000. As a function of reputation, likelihood that purchasing behavior would
be affected was non-significant.
Hypothesis 4 stated that memory for companies using a defensive response in a
news story will be better than memory for companies using an apologetic
response. Because each subject was exposed to both response types, the effect of
response on memory performance was evaluated using repeated measure, MANOVA.
This enabled isolation of the relative effect of response on memory performance
for subjects, controlling for individual differences of the subjects.
As a function of reputation, memory performance measured by recall of total
details from the stories, accurate recall of details from the stories,
identification of the central point of the stories, and matching of the story
topic with the company name were all non-significant.
Hypothesis 5 stated that attitudes toward companies using an apologetic
response in a news story will be better than attitudes toward companies using a
defensive response. As a function of response, attitude measures of the
companies' management styles, prosocial standing, and typical behavior were all
Hypothesis 6 stated that intended purchasing and investing behaviors will be
more favorable toward companies using an apologetic response in a news story
than for companies using a defensive response. As a function of response,
behavioral intent was measured by likelihood that purchasing behavior would be
affected and likelihood of investment with each company. Differences between
response types were non-significant for these measures.
Hypothesis 7 stated that reputation and response type interact such that the
combination of bad reputation and defensive response is markedly different from
any other combinations of the two variables. The only significant difference
found for reputation as a function of response was for the subjects' likelihood
to invest. Subjects said they were least likely to invest in companies with an
already poor reputation that responded apologetically. However, subjects
indicated they were most inclined to invest in a company with a good reputation
that responded apologetically F(1,61) =4.64, p=.017.
Hypothesis 8 stated that memory for information about companies will decay
after approximately one week. This hypothesis was supported by memory
performance measured by recall of total details from stories, accurate recall of
details from stories, identification of the central point of the stories, and
matching of the story topic with the company name. One week after subjects
completed the first questionnaire, they recalled significantly fewer total
details about the stories than immediately after reading the stories F (1,34)
=6.71, p=.008. Subjects also recalled significantly fewer accurate details
about the stories after a one-week delay F (1,43) =7.60, p=.000. Subjects'
ability to recall the central point of the story was significantly less after
the one-week delay F (1,29) =.23, p=.000. After the delay, participants were
also significantly less likely to correctly match the company name with the
story topic they had been given F (1,62) =.26, p=.000.
Hypothesis 9 stated that attitude and intention to behave will regress toward
the mean after approximately one week. As a function of delay, this was measured
by subjects' indication of: whether the companies were prosocial or antisocial,
if the companies were typical or atypical, the likelihood the company's behavior
would affect their purchasing behaviors, and the likelihood of investing with
this company. Subjects' ratings of the companies as prosocial or antisocial did
significantly regress toward the mean after the one week delay F (1, 59) =1.33,
p=.017. No other significant differences were found.
Hypotheses 1 and 4 stated that memory for information about companies would be
affected by the company's reputation and response type. These hypotheses were
not supported. Subjects abilities to recall both raw and accurate details
about the stories, to identify the central points of the stories, and to match
the stories with the topics were not affected by the response type or the
reputation of the organizations.
Reputation did, however, affect subjects' attitudes toward the companies. Not
surprisingly, companies with a strong reputation were seen as more prosocial.
Subjects also preferred the ethical standards and management styles of good
reputation companies. These results support hypothesis 2. It was hypothesized
(H5) that the apologetic style of response in the negative news story would also
have significant positive effects on attitude. However, subjects did not view
companies that gave an apologetic response type as more prosocial. Subjects also
did not prefer the management styles or ethical standards of companies that
issued an apologetic response.
This is true even though it was shown subjects could accurately recall both the
reputation and response type for each organization. Hypothesis 5, stating that
attitudes toward a company using an apologetic response would be better than a
defensive response, was not supported. This indicates the power of reputation in
comparison to response type. Subjects generally favored companies with a good
reputation -- regardless of whether the organization apologized or reacted
defensively to the negative information.
It should be noted that one measure of attitude, whether the company was
considered typical or atypical, produced no significant results. This may be
because the measure lacked valence. That is, subjects who held favorable
attitudes about an organization may mark that company as "atypical."
Conversely, subjects who held unfavorable attitudes about a company could also
consider the company "atypical."
Hypotheses 3 and 6 stated that reputation and response type would affect
subjects' behavioral intent. Lack of valence in the measurement may also have
been a factor for behavioral intent questions. As a measure of likelihood that
purchasing behavior would be affected, subjects may have interpreted this
question idiosyncratically due to a lack of valence. The question asked, "How
likely is it that this company's actions would affect your purchasing behavior?"
It appeared that some subjects who felt favorably toward the organization
responded "very likely" to this measure -- whereas others who felt very
unfavorably also responded "very likely" to this measure. This may be the reason
there were no significant results produced from this question.
Subjects did indicate, however, that they were more likely to invest in an
organization with a good reputation than with a bad reputation. In keeping with
the results of the attitudinal measures, response type had no effect on
subjects' likelihood to invest. That subjects were more likely to invest in good
reputation companies coincides with the fact that subjects also had more
favorable attitudes about these companies -- again, this is true regardless of
whether the organization issued an apologetic or defensive response. Hypothesis
3, then was partially supported, while hypothesis 6 was not supported.
Hypothesis 7 stated that reputation and response type interact such that the
combination of bad reputation and defensive response would be markedly different
from any other combinations of the two variables. As we have seen up until this
point, prior reputation of a company can have a noticeable effect on attitudes
and intended investing behaviors, while response type does not seem to matter.
However, when asked to indicate how defensive an organization was in response
to the negative information, significant differences were found both as a
function of response and reputation. Conversely, subjects did not link response
type to the evaluation of the company's reputation. That is, in evaluation of
the reputation of the company, no significant difference was found as a function
of response type. This indicates that, while subjects could correctly link the
response type to the story, they seem to confound reputation with response.
There was a main effect for reputation, showing up in a measure intended to
check for the manipulation of response. Reputation appears to be a powerful
force in subsequent judgments about the company -- subjects may make unfounded
attributions about other aspects of the organization based on reputation. This
includes attributing a response type as a function of reputation.
Another powerful implication found from results to hypothesis 7 is that
subjects' likelihood to invest hinges on reputation as a function of response.
Subjects were significantly less likely to invest in companies with an already
poor reputation that responded apologetically. However, they were most inclined
to invest in a company with a good reputation that responded apologetically.
The apologetic response to negative information has drastically different
results, depending on one's preexisting reputation. For companies with a bad
reputation, it appears that an apologetic response only makes matters worse.
However -- consistent with conventional wisdom -- an apologetic response to
negative information appears to reinstate the organization in good graces if
their reputation was strong to begin with. This "damned if you do -- saved if
you do" paradox reemphasizes the importance of a precise understanding of one's
current reputation (see Figure 1).
Hypothesis 8, which stated that memory for information about the companies
would decay after one week, was supported. As expected, subjects were less able
to recall the specifics of the stories and were less able to correctly identify
the company name with the story type. Although this finding was not a surprise,
it is an important finding when measuring the durability of the effects. In this
study, it was important to measure the attitudes and behavioral intentions after
subjects were less able to recall the specifics of the stories. In the "real
world," we aren't normally asked to make evaluative decisions about
organizations immediately after reading the newspaper or watching the news --
instead these questions may arise a day, week, or months after one is exposed to
the negative publicity.
Hypothesis 9 stated that attitude and behavioral intention would regress toward
the mean after approximately one week. This hypothesis was partially supported.
Over time, subjects' assessments of how prosocial a company was did
significantly regress toward the mean. Also, subjects ratings of the companies'
reputations significantly regressed toward the mean as a function of delay by
reputation. After a week, significant differences still existed, showing that
subjects could accurately rate the good and bad reputation companies. However,
good reputation companies were not rated quite as good (means regressed from
5.77 to 4.93) and bad reputation companies were not seen as quite as bad (means
regressed from 2.98 to 3.5). This is likely another indication that, as time
passes, the strength and accuracy of our judgments become weaker and more
In addition to testing the aforementioned hypotheses, this study sought to
develop a valid and reliable research tool that would enable public relations
practitioners to determine the "reputation" of a company. It also sought to
develop a valid, reliable and usable experimental protocol for message testing
in public relations. As a result of this study, several strengths and
weaknesses for using such a methodology have emerged. Using memory, attitudinal
and behavior intent as the dependent measures for this experiment have proven
useful in determining a comprehensive understanding of the subjects' short and
long term reactions to the companies. Subjects' assessments of the companies
reputations and response types were generally valid and reliable. However, as
in most social science research, hindsight reveals several areas for improvement
should practitioners attempt to employ a "reputation audit" using this
As mentioned, valence was not included for two questions in the experiment --
one measuring attitude, the other measuring behavioral intent. This should be
an important consideration in the structure of each item on future
questionnaires, so as not to confound responses.
Also, results of this study indicate that the appropriate response type to
negative information may hinge on the company's preexisting reputation. This
stresses the need for a "reputation audit" measurement tool. Such a service
could be an important part of the research program offered to major clients by
agencies. However, it also indicates that a few more questions may be necessary
to understand why subjects felt less favorable toward bad reputation companies
with an apologetic response type. Perhaps subjects find an organization with a
poor reputation less credible or sincere when it issues an apology. Likewise, a
company that has proven to be a shining star of social responsibility is
afforded the benefit of the doubt in a time of crisis -- and a public apology
might reinforce the view as a good corporate citizen. Further study of why
subjects appreciate the apologetic response type from companies with a good
reputation but frown upon apologetic companies with a bad reputation is in
order. Measures of the companies' sincerity and credibility should be added to
the questionnaire -- both for immediate and long-term effects -- to sort out a
possible "hypocrisy factor" at work.
As controlled messages become more common in the field of public relations,
the experimental methodology used in this study will become increasingly
important in testing and understanding the effects of messages distributed under
the control of the public relations practitioner. The prototype used in this
study allows public relations practitioners to adopt copy testing methods with a
focus on targeted messages in public relations. The method used in this study
shows promise as a tool to evaluate reputation and message testing. Future use
of this method should include valence in all individual measurements.
Additionally, measurement of message credibility and company sincerity should be
included in evaluations of the response type to better determine why the best
response type may depend on the existing reputation. The dependent measures of
memory, attitude, and behavioral intent provide a solid and comprehensive
understanding of short and long term effects of the corporate reputations and
Results of this study show the powerful effect reputation has on both attitude
and behavioral intent. Even though subjects were able to accurately recall both
the reputation and response type in the short and long term, subjects were more
inclined to use reputation as the predictor of attitude and behavioral intent.
This may provide some research-based insight to the conventional wisdom
addressed in this study: Why might organizations continue to react defensively
in response to negative information when it is traditionally discouraged as a
response type? It appears that if an organization is operating with a good
reputation, response type to negative information may not have the powerful
damaging effect traditionally thought. In fact, this study indicates that there
are some situations when one's reputation is such that a defensive response type
might even be more effective in the long-term.
Of course this is a cyclic dilemma, and it is possible that continued lying,
obfuscating, and stonewalling could lead to an even worse reputation over time.
Notably, this study shows that we hold less favorable attitudes and are less
likely to invest in organizations with a bad reputation, linking reputation to
bottom line considerations for all companies.
If so much of our attitude and behavior toward an organization depends on
reputation, then an accurate reputational measurement is essential to conduct a
reputational audit. It is likely that organizations all too often operate on
the assumption of a strong reputation, without any reliable proof. This might
metaphorically resemble a slow boiling crisis, where retroactively executing the
wrong response type could be too little too late. A reputational audit
measurement would provide companies with a valid and reliable tool, that could
be used to plan the most effective response type for that individual
organization before a crisis occurs.
This study also shows that, using naturalistic stimulus materials, individuals
are able to accurately discern: a good from a bad reputation, an apologetic from
a defensive response. This manipulation check reinforces the existing belief
that our efforts to shape reputation, and craft individual response types do
matter in the short and long term.
In order to most effectively counsel clients, public relations practitioners
must have a solid grasp of reputation evaluation and management. In the field
of public relations, an accurate measurement tool such as this is essential in
order to provide counsel that won't backfire.
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A summary of each hypothesis and corresponding results.
H 1: Better memory for companies with bad reputations
Total details -- N.S
Accurate details -- N.S.
Central point -- N.S.
Matching -- N.S.
H2: Better attitude toward companies with good reputations
Prosocial -- p=.000
Typical -- N.S.
Management styles -- p=.001
Ethical standards -- p=.000
H3: Better purchasing and investing behaviors for companies with good
Invest -- p=.000
Purchase -- N.S.
H4: Better memory for companies with a defensive response
Total details -- N.S
Accurate details -- N.S.
Central point -- N.S.
Matching -- N.S.
H5: Better attitude toward companies with an apologetic response
Prosocial -- N.S
Typical -- N.S.
Management styles -- N.S
Ethical standards -- N.S
H6: Better purchasing and investing behaviors for companies with an apologetic
Invest -- N.S.
Purchase -- N.S.
H7: Bad reputation and defensive response will produce the most drastic overall
Invest -- .017
H8: Memory will decay after one week
Total details -- p=.008
Accurate details -- p=.000
Central point -- p=.000
Matching -- p=.000
H9: Attitude and behavioral intention will regress toward the mean after one
Prosocial -- p=.017
Typical -- N.S.
Purchase -- N.S.
Invest -- N.S.
* Sample of a good reputation paragraph and an apologetic response to negative
* Sample of a bad reputation paragraph and a defensive response to negative
 This design welcomes all of the various and naturally occurring
differences between individuals (involvement, intelligence, gender, alertness,
etc.), because this suggests that significant effects are quite robust. Good
reputation may raise already high ratings offered by an involved and sympathetic
respondent, while also raising ratings for indifferent subjects with lower
scores overall. The relationship between good reputation and higher ratings
holds across all sorts of audience members.