In Jo Nesbø’s Scandinavian thriller, Headhunter, the protagonist, Roger Brown, is a slick, charming recruiter with an expensive taste in art and other luxuries that keeps him on the guest list for upper crust gatherings. While interviewing a candidate for a lucrative position as CEO of a high-tech firm in Oslo, he asks,”What is your name worth? “He then points the baffled candidate to a piece of Julian Opie art in the office and explains, “Can you tell what it’s worth just by looking at it? It consists of lines and circles, monotone colouring without texture. What makes it worth quarter of a million dollars is the artist’s name…his reputation.” There’s a lesson in that not only for brands but also individuals as brands. What’s being said matters just as much as who’s saying it. In a recent panel discussion co-hosted by the UK PR trade body, the PRCA and Waggener Edstrom, we discussed, among other facets of crisis communications, the importance of individual ownership in the way in which organisations prepare and respond to crises.
The audience consisted of largely in-house communications professionals who were pursuing a part time MBA at the University of Zurich. Here were three key takeaways:
1) Preparing for a crisis begins with proactively managing your reputation
In its widest definition, the business of public relations is to manage a brands relationship with key players in its ecosystem. Don’t wait for a crisis to reach out to influencers to share your side of the story – get them onside before. Make sure you have a regular and healthy relationship with them so they’re familiar with your brand what you stand for, and the impact of your work on the markets you operate in and the lives of the people it improves. Does your brand tell a consistent story that means something to your target audience? Do key influencers know what differentiates you from the rest? Are you generous with your time and expertise in a way that builds goodwill for the brand?
Building advocates for your brand, both internally and externally is the first step of good crisis planning – bolster that ‘trust piggy bank.’
2) Just because you’ve decided social media is not for you doesn’t mean social media is ignoring you
Even if you’re selling to businesses, at the end of the day, we’re all consumers. It’s the people behind the social media you’ve got to know. I can’t count the number of times I’ve met clients who shrug their shoulders when discussing their position on social media, especially those in financial services. Yes, the regulatory environment is complex and there is a fear that a throwaway tweet could lead to potential mis-selling claims. However the potential value in listening to what customers are saying about your brand online and how they’re discussing you can provide powerful context to respond proactively and prevent a crisis from escalating. In November 2011, UK bank HSBC was able to quickly respond to a customer service issue from an outage in its mainframe that affected its online banking service and prevented customers from using its cards in stores. Noticing a surge in tweets with customers using the hashtag #HSBC on a Friday afternoon, the social media team was able to quickly investigate the problem, alert internal stakeholders and started responding to online posts. The team apologised for the failure but also clarified that the problem was a technical fault and not a security failure, thereby preventing the outage turning into a full scale PR nightmare. Voila. ROI on social media investment in one day’s crisis management. The next time someone asks you the value of dollars spent on social media ask them if they know the value of the risk of not listening to their customers.
3) Be human in your response: How many millions of dollars do you think BP spent on crisis communications training, on creating reams of crisis manuals, of running crisis simulations? Yet, the Gulf of Mexico spill will go down in history as an example of not only one of the world’s worst crises, but also one of the worst managed. Of course, you can’t prepare for every crisis scenario, but what you can do is remember that there is nothing like personal ownership in responding to one. As a more recent example of how not to do it, just look at the Sears failed Black Friday campaign, leading to thousands of customers venting their frustration on Sears’ online channels, particularly Facebook and Twitter. In response, the social media team responded to each post with a corporate, boiler plate message:, “We sincerely apologise. Please Direct Message us regarding a solution to the cancelled order. Thank you for being a Shop Your Way Rewards member.” Contrast that with O2′s highly lauded social media response to the crisis caused by network outage earlier this year where they personalised responses to individual tweets, even to those who clearly just having a go:
Little wonder that despite a longer than expected network outage, the chatter online shifted from frustration directed at O2, to admiration of its bold and spirited response.
Instill a culture of empowerment and a genuine attempt at responding to the emotions behind the protests and you can throw out the corporate binder.
(Disclaimer: None of the brands mentioned in this post are clients of Waggener Edstrom)
Featured picture consists of the Waggener Edstrom panel of (from right to left) Meredith Lynch, VP Microsoft EMEA, Nick Lawrence, Head of Editorial & Broadcast Strategies, UK and Helene Bartos, Technology Intern, accompanied by Jennifer Christie, Marketing Specialist, EMEA.