Archive for the ‘Online reputation management’ Category

Tim Luckett talks crisis management in PR Week

With big brands dominating 2010 headlines for all the wrong reasons, PR Week’s feature on crisis communication is both timely and a good read. Contributions from Hill & Knowlton’s Managing Director of Issues & Crisis, Tim Luckett.

Protecting your brand on Twitter is just one part of good crisis preparation

We talk about Twitter in the context of crisis management quite a lot on here – mostly because it’s a good way of getting people to visit our blog (fact: posts with “Twitter” in the headline average around three times the readership of our next most popular group as of writing this).

However, when it comes to practical applications, much of the world seems to be still coming to grips with what companies can actually use Twitter for, at least according to the moderator of this week’s Frontline Club meeting (yes, yes, we all know it’s fabulous).

What we do know is that like any other online activity, Twitter isn’t immune to hackers. In his post Is your brand protected on Twitter?, fellow Hill & Knowlton blogger, the irrepressible Dan Leach, gives a number of tips to help you get the basics right for your corporate (and personal) Twitter accounts.

The security of your Twitter account should be as important to your company’s Twitterers as the login details for their computers.

Eurostar was not a social media crisis

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:

  • PA system on trains
  • Actual train staff
  • Arrival boards at stations
  • PA systems at stations
  • Information desks at stations

For passengers or greeters who haven’t left home yet to catch their train:

  • A company website interstitial page that re-directs people away from the corporate site for information about the delay (helps stop servers crashing and is just as transparent if you badge it properly)
  • Direct to customer emails/sms to advise of the issue

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.

What a GCSE in social media means for Crisis management

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.

Are you really using Twitter for crisis management? Really?

Here’s a really interesting post on the Marketing Pilgrim blog, looking at a recent eMarketer report on the uses that companies are putting social media to.

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.

Social media: friend or foe?

As I mentioned earlier this week, last night I attended the Social Media: Friend or Foe? event hosted by our Change & Internal Communications team here at Hill & Knowlton. This event represented a bit of a break in format for our recent events. Rather than the traditional expert presentation followed by a Q&A, our host and Head of Internal Communication, Scott McKenzie, challenged the audience to field two debate teams from amongst their number.

This was a great approach for a number of reasons, not least because it highlighted that there’s not really such a thing as a “social media expert” (one of the problems of a medium that changes exponentially while you’re asleep). In this context then, the challenge for our guests and attending H&K-ers was to coordinate either a Friend or Foe argument, and the results were particularly interesting given our debate teams.

From a crisis management perspective the outcome of the debate isn’t nearly as important as some of the observations the debate itself triggered. Some of the more poignant among these were:

  • As social media becomes more pervasive it also becomes less social. (this is similar to the old “alternative” music debate – if everyone’s playing “alternative”, doesn’t that just make it mainstream?)
  • As mobile technology continues its upward evolution it becomes a social media lifeline. How then does a company possibly enforce a social media ban amongst its workforce if they have their own mobile phones in the workplace?
  • When it comes to engaging with audiences via social media, you have to be brave because you cannot be selective. This was from our very own global Director of Marketing Technology, Niall Cook (or follow him on Twitter here).

For crisis managers then, the key take-away from the night was this: social media is here to stay. So deal with it.

This cold, hard truth has several important ramifications, which are not exactly new, but are definitely more pronounced with the rise of online networks. Here are three of the more confronting ones:

  • The “how” of a story supercedes the “what”. Relatively simple issues, the kind that used to be classed as “just the cost of doing business”, now take on a life of their own. All it takes is one connected individual to decide they don’t like the way your organisation has behaved, and it’s enough to start a landslide. Snowflakes and skiers have known this for years.
  • The relevance of social media to your primary target audience is irrelevant to your actual crisis. It used to be that if a special interest group took offence, you could rationalise your level of engagement on the basis of whether or not that special interest group had any bearing on your ability to continue doing business. Now, though, if that otherwise irrelevant interest group can stimulate significant attention in their own right, then to the world’s media that actually is a story. It may still have no bearing on what your original problem was…but by now, that no longer matters.
  • Yes, engaging with a social media-based crisis does reinforce a positive feedback loop. So, think carefully before you do it. This is a real sticking point in the crisis vs. digital communication debate because the pro-social media camp is very much singing the “two-way communication promotes transparency” hymn. Fact: that statement was just as true before the internet was invented. It was just harder to tell if you weren’t holding up your side of the deal.

The point then is that you don’t have to get on facebook/Twitter/foursquare/insert-your-preferred-platform-here in order to engage with your audience. So have a good, hard think about whether you even should. Absolutely, the odds are you should engage with your audience. But if they’ve created a space on a social network that’s akin to an old-fashioned lynch mob, why on Earth would you do it there? Be creative and find a better solution (do something completely out of the box – actually meet the leaders of the mob one-on-one, for a coffee and a chat).

It’s all pretty daunting stuff, and depending on which school of thought you subscribe to it will make the lives of crisis managers either infinitely more difficult, or somewhat less painful. And the reason for that is a simple one: how people respond to your corporate behaviour is well and truly beyond your control. So instead, we need to take a leaf out of our Internal Communications colleagues’ handbook, and focus our efforts instead on what our corporate behaviour actually is in the first instance.

In other words, do the right thing by people and chances are, they’ll do the right thing by you.

(For any readers who haven’t yet, you can also check out Scott’s Collective Conversation blog here)

What a teenage vampire love story can teach crisis managers about Twitter

At a recent event I was challenged over my views on Twitter – specifically as to whether or not it’s really all that big of an issue in the context of your average crisis manager’s day in the office.

Before we get too carried away with this (perceived) blasphemy, in principle I agree with the challenge on the following points:

  • Not everyone’s on Twitter
  • If you’re not following a particular Twitterer (e.g. Ashton Kutcher) then you’re not really all that likely to see their tweets (leaving aside for the minute the phenomenon of re-tweeting)
  • The “push” mentality of most Twitterers (yours truly included) means many tweets are practically spam, although working this out for yourself means the quality of your tweets should improve over time
  • With some notable exceptions such as the Iranian elections (or here for The Washington Post’s coverage of the Twitter phenomenon), most trending topics lack apparent relevance for big corporations (the number of companies selling tickets to see New Moon, for example, is far lower than the audience interest in buying them)

However, on reflection, the phenomenon that is Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight saga actually makes the opposite point. Like Harry Potter and The Davinci Code before it, copies of Twilight and its sequels can be seen on trains, planes and around the Hill & Knowlton offices, on our colleagues’ desks. And that’s largely the point.

As the Current Twitter trends column from independent.co.uk highlights, the topics that trend on Twitter are in fact the things that a critical mass of people actually care about. In real life.

And this is where I think many of us have, until recently, missed the point with Twitter and other social media.

There’s something of a bias towards believing that if something’s covered in the news media then it’s objectively important. It must be, because it’s “the news”, as opposed to a published stream of consciousness, right? So it then begs the question as to why a respected newspaper would go to the trouble of republishing a list of things that people are tweeting about.

It’s all about dealing with real people, whose actual lives exist offline. No-one lives on the internet. You can’t eat it, you can’t breathe it, it doesn’t keep you warm. Social media is populated by real people, with concerns that are as real to them as the need to eat and breathe.

The role then for crisis managers, is to recognise that grievances, complaints, valid concerns and, dare I say it, helpful tip-offs, are all getting aired in pubic, around the clock, around the world, and on the internet. Good crisis management requires us to be alert to that scenario, and do something about it (which is why the Issues & Crisis team here at Hill & Knowlton works closely with our counterparts in the Digital team to make sure we’re continually learning about how to do this better).

As I’ve said in a previous post, social media should be considered on its merits for every individual case. However, understanding the premise of the beast is no longer optional for any crisis manager.

As an aside (although somewhat related from the perspective of corporations using social media as a communication channel), check out this post from the Brand Twist blog on why you don’t need a social media strategy…

Also, follow Hill & Knowlton UK’s Twitter feed here.

Disclosure: this is an edited version of a post I made last week. While some of the examples have been updated, the basic thrust of the post hasn’t.

How social do you want your crisis management to be?

Nearly every article written on the role of social media in crisis management overlooks the hundreds of crises managed by organisations every year that no-one outside of a very small management team ever hears about. However, that’s a topic for another day because we’ve found a very good article by Euan Semple, on the Internal Comms Hub, on the importance of incorporating social media into your crisis management plans.

Euan makes a good point when he says: “When you have an unpredictable situation the distributed nature and inherent spontaneity of social media is just what you need.” That’s absolutely true when you need to get a message out to as broad a population as possible, as quickly as possible.

But good crisis management planning should increase the predictability of most situations facing organisations today, and the likelihood that you need to alert a whole country to a problem is very, very small. There aren’t really that many people in the world who will ever have to deal with a tsunami, earthquake, flood or terrorist attack.

So while it’s important to understand how social media works, and how that can help or hinder you in your crisis management efforts, it’s probably more important at the planning stage to understand how it fits with your organisation’s overall identity, and your existing relationships with your audiences both on- and off-line. At the end of the day, we’re still talking about real people (you and your colleagues) talking to other real people (the rest of the world). Just because it’s on the internet doesn’t change that.

If you’re using a facebook fan page as a one-way channel to push information out to a customer base, a sudden switch to two-way crisis communication is going to create more problems than it solves because that’s not what your audience is coming there for.

Social media is the great communication equaliser in that it levels the information playing-field for both organisations and their stakeholders. This also means that cranks, charlatans, hackers and general trouble-makers get to enjoy the power shift as well. In the midst of a crisis do you have the physical resources available to tackle these head-on? Probably not. Can you rely on any social media platform to self-regulate itself into a rational state of mind? Probably, eventually. In the timeframe you need it to? Probably not.

Escalating a crisis, 140 characters at a time

In an article last month published in Communicate, Hill & Knowlton’s own Peter Roberts made the following point:

…social media does two things incredibly well: “The first is creating an environment where people can communicate one-to-many, instantly. The second is the observer’s view of a conversation. Thanks to social media, we can now watch a conversation unfold.”

In his Telegraph.co.uk blog today, Head of Technology (Editorial) for Telegraph Media Group, Shane Richmond, highlights some of the issues that this phenomenon represents – particularly when you or your organisation become the subject of the conversation in the context of Twitter.

This raises an interesting question for communicators, and particularly with respect to crisis management. Do these increasingly transparent (if not voyeuristic) forms of communication mean we’re facing a different type of crisis? Our Canadian colleague, Brendan Hodgson, shares his views. Ultimately, the principles of crisis management should remain the same, but the emphasis on speedy and transparent response is more pronounced than ever.

Online reputation management

Further to yesterday’s post about managing online rumours, here’s a great column we read recently on the Financial Times website (you may need to register to read this – it’s ok, registration is free and well worth the 3 minutes it will take). As our team of Digital specialists here at Hill & Knowlton constantly remind us, online reputation management means recognising that you’re now stuck in a conversation. You can’t dip in and out like you do with the media agenda. It’s like the difference between channel surfing and a family dinner.