Contains some strong (but brief) language. As if the words “Charlie Brooker” didn’t give that away.
Archive for January, 2010
Contains some strong (but brief) language. As if the words “Charlie Brooker” didn’t give that away.
Back in December when this was still a gaping wound we promised to take a look at the Eurostar rail crisis in detail, to identify some lessons that could help us and our readers learn from this high profile crisis. As we said then, we’re not going to pass judgement on the situation because we weren’t in the room, and frankly there are a lot of Monday morning quarterbacks already on that case. Instead, let’s look at a few key areas that we can all put to some constructive use.
After watching the story unfold, quiet down and revive itself over the past month, we thought it was time to make good on that promise. Unfortunately, there were so many things we wanted to look at we’ve had to stagger our analysis over a few posts, so if you’re not completely alienated by what’s about to follow then you’ll have to come back again.
Here’s the first thing we learned. What transpired was not a social media crisis. What actually happened was this: a few trains broke down. In no way was that caused by the internet, nor was it caused by a sweeping movement of social change that brings unprecedented power to the voice of the individual. It was caused by snow (in response to feedback received in our Comments, I’m updating the “cause” of the train breakdown to “caused by condensation shorting out electrical systems as the trains moved from extremely cold conditions outside the tunnel to warmer temperatures inside.” However, according to this AFP story that states: “the company blamed the ‘wrong kind of snow’ for causing problems with its trains’ electrics”, I think it was a fair error to make – GS.). The second thing we learned was this: business operations and communication functions must be intrinsically linked in order to provide any semblence of good communication in a crisis.
Now before you start sharpening your pitch forks, let me give you a bit of perspective.
If you’re on fire (yes, physically alight), then you have a crisis on your hands – it’s stopping you going about your day to day life. What you want in this case is an operational solution to your problem. You want the fire put out. Ideally, fairly soon. A communication solution requires you to find someone to ask to put it out. An operational solution involves…putting it out yourself, however you need to.
If you’re stuck on a train in a tunnel, where in the best of my experience you can’t get mobile reception or a decent wifi signal, then what you don’t want is to read on Twitter that your train is stuck in a tunnel. In face, you probably already have a hunch that this is the case. What you want…is someone to get you out of the tunnel.
In the meantime, you’re probably going to settle for a) knowing what’s going on, b) knowing how long it’s likely to go for, c) knowing how that’s going to affect your life in the foreseeable future, and d) knowing how the people responsible for your wellbeing are going to make the experience as painless as possible.
At this point, communication starts to have a role to play. Communication in a crisis is all about facilitating the flow of information, and the very human thing to do is to focus firstly on the people who are immediately affected by the crisis. In this instance they are the passengers stuck on a train, closely followed by the people waiting for them at their destination, who are probably on par with people waiting to get on a train themselves. Frankly, everyone else is a spectator.
The priority should be (should always be) to communicate first to the people most directly affected by the crisis, in this case the passengers on the trains, followed by the people waiting for them at the other end.
This information will always “leak” anyway, so if you’re responsible for communication you need to get this bit right first. The best social media strategy in the world would still be useless in this case when you’ve got actual passengers tweeting about pools of vomit, starving babies and over-flowing toilets.
When it comes to actually getting information to our previously identified audiences there are so many other channels that would make for a more targeted (effective) communication of the breakdown information – arguably more appropriate as well. Here are a few:
For passengers or greeters who haven’t left home yet to catch their train:
Not until all of the above channels have already been tapped would something like Twitter become a relevant consideration. Although at this point all of your connected audiences who got their information from one of the above channels will already have tweeted about it, and you’re probably already getting media enquiries…so what really are you going to say that’s any different? And isn’t that up on your crisis website anyway? Where people can already get all the information?
Yes, you should absolutely be providing information to external sources, and if you get out there early enough then the world’s news media will happily go and write their stories and then tweet about them – leaving you to get on with fixing the crisis. And if your company has an existing social media strategy that is actually appropriate for communicating crisis information, then sure, go for it. But don’t be fooled for a second that a #hashtag with your brand attached to it is going to make life any better for a three-year-old sitting in a tunnel.
From a crisis management perspective I’d venture that Eurostar not using its (unbranded, push-marketing focused) Twitter account @little_break to provide updates was the right thing to do in this case. As so many of the social media commentators have noted, this is a marketing account with no link to customer services. Why then should it be a considered channel in the first hour of the crisis?
A bigger problem according to many of the eyewitness accounts was the flow of information at all. Had the company got Twitter right, they just would have alerted a bigger audience to the fact there was a problem at all. You know what – that’s why the media exists. To report news. Let professionals deal with that – company focus should be on fixing the problem.
And fixing the problem comes back to our earlier point – business operations and communications need to be intrinsically linked. The communication team can now describe in vivid detail how the outside world perceived this crisis, and hopefully the operations team will take a good look at how passenger comfort might be maintained in the event of a future scenario, followed by communicating to passengers and greeters appropriately.
I don’t believe any agency, be that PR, social media or anyone else should get to take credit for either of those. They should be business-critical activities, not crisis PR.
Every day a new digital age dawns (or so it seems from all the media coverage it gets), and here at Hill & Knowlton we’ve undergone a digital facelift ourselves.
However like with any new technology we encounter the Issues & Crisis team is still finding a few gremlins, so if you’re finding some of our old links taking you to interesting places please bear with us as we update them. The great news is we have a lot more scope for our creativity now, so keep coming back as we evolve from this primitive text-based blog to see if we can cook up something a little more visually stimulating. And if you have any suggestions for what you’d like to see, please leave us a comment below or send us an old-fashioned email.
In the meantime, for those of you with smart phones, our London office has also been registered on foursquare and Gowalla. We’re going to be paying closer attention to the geo location craze in the coming months, and figured it was worth giving it a shot ourselves for the first-hand experience.
As if the concurrent enquiries into the Iraq war and financial crisis weren’t enough to keep the world’s media busy last week, we also watched as the Caribbean nation of Haiti was devastated by a massive earthquake.
This has been a massive humanitarian tragedy and our thoughts are with all those affected by the disaster.
Events and news cycles such as this one usually come as a shock purely because they’re unexpected. However, that shouldn’t be taken to mean “uncommon”. The nature of news media is to find the newest, most exciting stories to tell, so there will always be a bias towards covering the unexpected. Particularly in the case of major disasters where every story is a very real human interest story.
From a purely academic perspective the past week also serves as an important reminder for spokespeople (and marketers) that regardless of how important you are, or how interesting you think your story is on a normal day, sometimes…stuff happens.
Across the world last week, dozens of spokespeople who got out of bed early to front up for interviews will have arrived at studios, or sat waiting sleepily by the phone waiting for it to ring, only to have been stood down by broadcasters.
Stories that were “scheduled to run” were been pulled to make room for more pressing news.
This is one of the quirks of the game of media relations. If you want to participate in making or contributing to the news then you have to be prepared for things to not go your way – every time you saddle up. That includes not actually getting the opportunity to get on the horse. You don’t have to like it, you just have to accept it, and that goes for the rest of your campaign as well. It’s literally nothing personal.
That said, there are a few things you can do to mitigate the effects of a hijacked news cycle, some of which you may have heard from Catherine Cross in our media training. But be warned – most of them involve a bit of extra work:
The use of prominent, well-known celebrity figures as spokespeople to front a campaign is a standard tactic amongst comms teams looking to create impact for their campaigns. Not only is it standard, but it’s also usually highly successful in enabling organisations to connect with their target audience and deliver the right message.
However, as last Friday’s incident involving the musician Dappy (from N-Dubz) demonstrates, if a negative issue arises involving your chosen spokesperson, then there’s a fair chance your organisation will be referenced, thus creating a negative impression.
The choice of Dappy by the Deparment for Children, Schools and Families to front their anti-cyber bullying campaign last autumn was certainly bold, but also not without logic or merit given the audience the Deparment was trying to reach. Unfortunately, as this incident demonstrates, with the best will in the world you can’t legislate for what happens once their work with your organisation is complete.
There are however, some good basic tips that you can adhere to when deciding on a potential spokesperson for your campaign:
1. Does your campaign really need a spokesperson? Assess the likely impact that your efforts would have with, and without, a well-known figurehead before you commit to one. Also, seek a third-party opinion on this given that you’ll likely be very close to the project.
2. Assess what you want them to do for you. Will it be a simple photoshoot, a series of interviews, or something more ambitious? This will help determine the type of person that you’ll likely want to employ.
3. Who is your target audience? It can sometimes be easy to get wrapped up in who you think you’d like as your spokesperson, rather than properly considering who your audience will respond to.
4. What have they done over the past couple of years that’s relevant? It goes without saying, but a proper check of any previous activity, soundbites, quotes or anything else that relates (positively or negatively) to your organisation, industry or your customers is essential.
5. Take the time to properly prepare them. Invest the time to meet with your chosen spokesperson and brief them well in advance of the event/activity. Consider media training them as well, especially if they haven’t worked in your product/brand area previously.
There’s been much wailing about the promotional airtime afforded by the BBC to Chris Evan’s new breakfast show on Radio 2.
The latest critic has been former Capital Radio and Virgin Radio presenter, Steve Penk.
You can read more here.
While I have some sympathy with Penk’s misgivings about the BBC’s cross-promotion, the debate does highlight the preciousness of editorial coverage, especially for the BBC. Fundamentally, we arrive at the question of whether Evans’ move in the schedule constitutes a new story?
Is this wrong? For many of the audience it is.
As is the case with reports pertaining to the latest Hollywood blockbuster, or a much publicised product launch.
This, of course could be overlooked if it wasn’t for the numbers who are interested, and any discerning television editor will be keeping abreast of audience engagement in such stories. Marry that interest with the fact that viewers are paying their licence fee and you have a difficult call to make.
Further to this week’s earlier post on the topic of Twitter, the London office of Hill & Knowlton has made over its Twitter handle. You can now follow @HK_London on Twitter (previously we were @HandK_UK but we’ve changed in order to help standardise our nomenclature across the network).
Here in the Issues & Crisis team we figure we don’t have enough to say to warrant our own Twitter account, but all of the @HK_London tweets pertaining to our team will continue to carry the #HK_crisisUK hashtag.
As of next year, it seems that teenagers are going to be able to turn their Tweets into UCAS points, with The Daily Telegraph reporting today that an exam board is set to launch a GCSE called ‘English Studies: Digital Communication’.
According to the paper, this will require students to be able to “read, analyse, critique and plan…industry made or user generated examples of advertising, audio podcasts, video/moving image, websites, social networks, wikis and blogs”. In other words, social media.
At the same time, The Independent, which has long-targeted a youth audience (in particular students on campus) and always been something of a pioneer with regards new ways for people to read its newspaper, is embroiled in a potential minefield with its readership over the possible appointment of a new editor, Rod Liddle.
Within hours of Media Guardian publishing the story that Liddle was being lined up as a potential recruit, a Facebook group had sprung up opposing the move. At time of writing, that group has 2,732 members, which is nearly 1,000 more than it had this time yesterday. This is only one example of a string of unpopular decisions by prominent organisations that have resulted in a large number of people registering their dissatisfaction within a short space of time in a similar way.
For comms professionals, social media can be a powerful tool provided you can harness it. For crisis practioners however, it presents a different challenge – how do you communicate sensibly, clearly and effectively with this type of audience, who are clearly pushing for change, whilst protecting your company’s reputation?
As my colleague Grant notes in his blog post today, monitoring and listening to social media channels is a great place to start, but it should only be a start. Actually being in a position to effectively engage with this audience requires an understanding of what motivates them, what their goals are, how you can acknowledge these and crucially, how you can best communicate your key message to them in a way that they will listen to, understand and accept.
In other words, before you can apply the basic principles that drive your crisis comms to these groups, you really need to know and understand your audience first. Sounds familiar? It should do, because it’s something that we do with other audiences and channels already. It’s just that new learning is required with regards to these groups and it is this that can appear daunting at first.
Training can help immensely in this regard, but it also still requires a lot of hard groundwork as well in order to succeed.
Of immediate interest was the finding that more than forty percent (40% ?!?) of respondents claim to “Monitor Twitter for PR problems in real time”.
While it’s encouraging to see so many organisations recognising the benefit a platform like Twitter can provide from a monitoring and issues management perspective, I’m not sure I believe the 300-odd respondents who said they’re actually doing it. It’s always easy to answer a survey question in the affirmative if you think that’s what you should really be doing – case in point, *of course* I get my five-a-day every day.
I think what I find more believable is that only around half of the respondents that claim to monitor Twitter as an issues management tool actually respond to the tweets they’re picking up on. This is a worry in itself.
If you’re not going to do something about the problems your stakeholders have with you, then all monitoring does is take away the element of surprise when one of those niggles becomes an actual issue or crisis. And it gives you some time to start updating your CV.
As our Digital team constantly reminds us, monitoring and listening are great places to start, but the important bit is actually doing something to fix the underlying problem.
This is one of the topics that Gaylene Ravenscroft and Candace Kuss cover in our Social Media Workshops, which we’ve been running with numerous clients to great effect (having sat through one of these myself I can vouch for the quality of the content – it’s actually part of the reason we started this blog).
And for those readers who are on Twitter, you can follow Hill & Knowlton London. Relevant crisis-related posts have a #HK_crisisUK hashtag for easy reference.
I’d like to point out that we don’t work with National Grid, but felt it important to acknowledge the team’s success. The nature of crisis management is such that often some of the best crisis work is done behind the scenes – a day at the office where no-one heard about what you did is actually a pretty good day in our book.
Like trade negotiations, or the recent climate change summit, the details that get hammered out behind closed doors frequently make all the difference in a crisis. Sometimes the fact it didn’t make the front page is all the testament you need to know your crisis team did a great job.
However, sometimes you just don’t get that break and your crisis captures the public’s (read: media’s) attention. These are the crises against which organisations are most frequently judged by their stakeholders, and it’s only because of these very public events that the practice of crisis management, and by extension the public relations industry, has the opportunity to evolve.
So congratulations to the National Grid team, who will doubtless continue to be kept busy as this ridiculous cold snap continues.