Using Google Trends to measure the effectiveness of crisis communications

It's generally accepted that crisis communications is a worthwhile pursuit. But in a world where executives want to measure the effectiveness of everything, how do you know if your crisis communications plan actually worked?

Traditionally, you had to rely on indicators such as business volumes/trends, client feedback/complaints, quantity/quality of media coverage and public perception (measured via expensive surveys). There's a new tool from Google that can help you measure the effectiveness of your crisis communications strategy (or any other marketing/PR strategy for that matter). With Google Trends, you can compare the public's interest (measured by the number of web searches) in a topic, company name or individual. This information is provided in an easy-to-read chart format. You can also customize the chart view by geography or time period.

Google Trends can also show you how frequently your topic has appeared in media stories (again, searchable by geography and time period). You can also compare up to five topics on the same chart to see which had the most web searches and news items associated with them.

Here's an example of how it works:

I used Google Trends to compare the levels of web searches and media coverage associated with two big news stories from October 2009: the David Letterman extortion story and the Balloon Boy saga. I used the search terms 'David Letterman' and 'Heene' (the balloon boy's surname). Here's the chart generated by Google Trends:

The chart on the top compares the number of times people searched for these words on Google (Letterman in blue and Balloon Boy in red). The chart on the bottom shows the media coverage each term generated (again, Letterman in blue and Balloon Boy in red). These respective charts are fascinating in that they demonstrate how good crisis communications can help contain a story, while bad crisis communications can pour gasoline on the flames and make the situation worse.

In the top chart, notice the blue spike on the left. These are web searches done on the name 'David Letterman' as his extortion story emerged.The red line on the right shows web searches for the name 'Heene', as the Balloon Boy story unfolded.

As the bottom chart shows, however, the Letterman story generated much less media coverage than the Balloon Boy story.

Also, notice the shape of the blue line in the bottom chart -- a small triangle. This illustrates that Letterman (through his proactive crisis communications approach) was able to successfully turn this crisis situation into a two-day news story. The Balloon Boy story, on the other hand, was filled with misinformation, confusion, changing storylines, multiple appearances on national talk shows (which ended up inflaming the situation), etc. At one point, the father even put a box on the curb where dozens of reporters were camped out and asked the media to write out their questions and put them in the box. This is a textbook lesson in how not to handle a crisis in the media. And the red line which indicates media coverage in the bottom chart proves it. Not surprisingly, there's no neat little red triangle in the bottom chart. Instead, the media reference volume line resembles the Rocky Mountains, with the story dragging on like a media rollercoaster for more than a week.  

It's worth taking a few minutes to experiment with Google Trends -- plug in a few search terms and check out the results. There are even some advanced search features to further customize your searches. Google Trends isn't a cure-all for measuring the effectiveness of communications initiatives.

But it can add some compelling information and insights to your company's current measurement practices.