What actually constitutes a public relations disaster — do we measure it by negative publicity or by ultimate outcomes? Is it PR which has gone wrong or a corporate or political disaster which becomes a PR disaster?

The thought is prompted by Gerry McCusker’s third annual PR Disaster Awards, released early in January, which lists the 2012 Awards (in order of disastrous magnitude) as; the carbon tax, Alan Jones, 2Day FM (hoax call), AWU slush fund, Tent Embassy riots, Peter Slipper, The Circle (dumb comment about VC winner), Craig Thomson, Nick D’Arcy and Red Cross (homophobia).

The list was prepared after CyberChatter research was used to analyse mainstream and social media coverage. In contrast the 2011 list was dominated by Qantas (accidents and lockouts) and also included the AFL footballer, Brendan Fevola, an Tony Abbott TV interview and some other things which many people have probably forgotten about. Significantly the carbon tax — which was, after all, very much in the news in 2011 — was not listed.

On the list the clearest PR disaster is the Tent Embassy riots where a Prime Ministerial staffer leaked information about Tony Abbott’s whereabouts and what he had allegedly said about the Tent Embassy. This is clearly a disaster caused by bad PR, a bit like the problems created by the Blair government advisor who sent out a note suggesting the World Trade Centre attack was a good time to dump bad news, although not as brazen, insensitive nor as incompetent. Arguably the Jones apology was a bigger PR disaster than the original Young Liberal function and it is moot (as McCusker concedes) that Jones did not do much long-term damage with his audience rather than among those who detested him to start with.

The best way to measure corporate, organisational or other disasters — that is, issues and crises which are not just about how PR performs — is not in terms of negative publicity. The real test for these is in the recovery and the ultimate outcome. Robina Xavier of QUT has demonstrated that listed companies which handle crises well have share recovery prices that put them back to where they were before, sometimes even better. Many companies — Nestle, Ben and Jerry’s, and others — have recovered from really adverse publicity. Nestle’s brand has allegedly been “irretrievably damaged”, according to various PR experts, on many occasions over my four decades in the industry. Nestle shareholders would undoubtedly disagree.

In the case of the carbon tax, it is arguable that while the Abbott campaign on Julia Gillard’s trustworthiness did great damage, the introduction of the carbon tax itself probably damaged Abbott in terms of crystallising feelings about his hyperbolic aggression. The outcome might not be a net Gillard PR disaster after all.

The other problem is leads and lags. Social media impact has the advantage over mainstream media impact in that some issues have greater longevity in social media than they do in mainstream media. The mainstream media gets bored with issues around the time the public is beginning to notice them. The media (with notable exceptions who go on and on about the iniquity of something or other) move on to something new while the general public are just digesting the latest big issue.

Social media gets sustained by the manic fringe who keep on an issue in even more detail. It is also sustained by negative political campaigning — apparatchiks never get sick of putting out another email or social media burst about how awful their opponents are. There is, however, still considerable doubt about the long-term impact of negative social media chatter on reputation — witness Nestle again.

All in all it is probably unwise to make big calls about reputational damage and PR disasters on the basis of a year’s assessment of media coverage — whether mainstream or social — at the time. It is probably also wise to discriminate between PR disasters caused by “bad” PR and crises or issues which arise because of specific events. You can fix the former by sacking the responsible person but the second takes a more systematic approach.

And the ultimate test is who, other than some PR people and journalists, remember much about these disasters after a year or so? Even most PR people tend to forget and most PR textbooks and case studies cover success stories and don’t analyse failures. McCusker and some other PR critics would no doubt argue that their books, columns and blogs do analyse the failures, but then they are mainly read by either other industry opponents or the PR people who really enjoy the discomfort of their industry colleagues — not the general public.