The 3 issues today’s crisis comms professional needs to tackle

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Make sure that you’re prepared for these three big issues which are shifting the crisis comms goalposts (image source: http://www.bairdscmc.com)

It doesn’t take a genius to tell you that the world is changing, and with it the way that crises develop. I was listening to a very engaging podcast by the Gulf News business team, with communications professional Omar Qirem (check out the post here).

While the conversation touched on a host of crisis issues and triggers, there were three big issues that are relatively new, and which are shifting the crisis communications landscape.

Hacking and Emails

Long gone are the days when whistleblowers would walk out of offices with a suitcase full of papers. Today, information is conveyed electronically, and all it took for Chelsea Manning to leak hundreds of thousands of US military documents to Wikileaks was a single USB drive. Hacking is becoming a real problem for both governments the world over, as well as corporates (just ask Sony).

Hacking is developing from the well-understood concept of the ethically-troubled whistleblower to groups-for-hire who are ready and willing to hack email servers, or public domain accounts in the search of damaging information. Hackers can also attack websites and social media accounts to fake news, or even create fake sites which are mirrored on the real thing.

We’re going to have to become more aware of these threats, and develop mitigation strategies, including better security (at the very least, please use two-factor authentication as much as you can and don’t use the same password for every single account), and also educate executives on the need to communicate differently. What you write can be leaked; are you willing to see that email on the front page of a newspaper, or a website?

The Rise of Values-Based Communication

Consumers aren’t just interested in what brands make and sell. They want to know what we stand for. This public interest has partly been driven by the political climate in the US and Western Europe and by the behavior of millennials and their increasing skepticism of established institutions. For brands, value-based communications is a key point of differentiation, particularly for industries which have been impacted by technology-driven commoditization. Think of Paul Unilever’s Polman and his passionate belief in sustainability.

Conversely, executive behavior which is looked down upon by the public can have serious business implications. Whilst the official reasons for Uber being stripped of its London license were due to questions around passenger safety and drivers’ rights, the behavior and words of former CEO Travis Kalanick haven’t done Uber any good. The apology proffered by the new CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, seems to have gone a long way to defusing some of the tension between Uber and Transport for London which oversees the company’s license to operate.

Data and Online Regulation

We’ve been living in the internet age for over two decades now, and business has benefited from a relative lack of legislation and regulation about what can and can’t be done online, particularly with data. That has slowly changed as governments have sought to understand how the internet has changed our lives. Upcoming legislation in Europe, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), is going to change how corporations monitor and store data (it’s been covered in some detail by Rachel Miller for the CIPR). There’s no doubt in my mind that the online and social media networks will also have to deal with more governmental oversight. There’s been a string of scandals around issues such as extremist content on YouTube,  Facebook and the Trump election, and Twitter’s lack of action on far-right hate speech.

Whilst I’m certain that more regulation is coming, and soon, it’s far too early to say how this will change how we as communicators operate online. There will be more data-related crises, either due to how data is collected and used, or due to an inability to adhere to these new rules.

As always, I’d love to know your thoughts. What issues do we need to better understand when it comes to modern-day crises? Please do share with me your thoughts.

Silicon Valley, Values-Based Communication & Reaction to the ‘Muslim Visa Ban’

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The executive order temporarily banning people from seven Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East from entering the US has sparked fierce debate among both the public as well as tech-focused corporations in America

Another day, another controversy in Washington D.C. This time, it’s about the Presidential executive order halting all refugee admissions and barring temporarily people from seven Muslim-majority countries. I’ve written about how corporations will either follow one of two strategies when dealing with the President – they’ll support his America first agenda (mainly by recycling old news), or they’ll stick to their values and come out against policy shifts such as this one.

Over the weekend, we’ve seen evidence of the latter. A swathe of tech firms, primarily from California’s Silicon Valley, have come out against this policy, which has been described as a ban on Muslims, which they view as both un-American and harmful to attracting talent. Here’s a snapshot of views as reported by the ‘fake news’ website Buzzfeed and Bloomberg:

Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai

“It’s painful to see the personal cost of this executive order on our colleagues,” Google Chief Executive Officer Sundar Pichai  wrote in the memo, a copy of which was obtained by Bloomberg News. “We’ve always made our view on immigration issues known publicly and will continue to do so.”

Apple’s CEO Tim Cook

In my conversations with officials here in Washington this week, I’ve made it clear that Apple believes deeply in the importance of immigration — both to our company and to our nation’s future. Apple would not exist without immigration, let alone thrive and innovate the way we do.

I’ve heard from many of you who are deeply concerned about the executive order issued yesterday restricting immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries. I share your concerns. It is not a policy we support.

Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella

“As an immigrant and as a CEO, I’ve both experienced and seen the positive impact that immigration has on our company, for the country, and for the world. We will continue to advocate on this important topic.”

Facebook’s Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg

Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk

Other Silicon Valley CEOs have also stepped in to support those who will be affected by this decision. In a post on Facebook Uber’s CEO Travis Kalanick wrote that the company is working out how it can financially support Uber drivers who aren’t able to travel back to the US due to the visa ban.

Airbnb’s Brian Chesky wrote on his own Facebook page that his firm would be supporting those impacted by this ruling with free housing.

The list of tech CEOs who are standing up goes on and on, and I don’t want to repeat too much here from what is an excellent article on Buzzfeed. The US tech sector, an industry that owes much to the talent of immigrants and which leads the world when it comes to innovation and product usage, has essentially spoken with one voice against the Presidential executive order halting all refugee admissions and barring temporarily people from seven Muslim-majority countries.

In contrast, older industries such as the automotive and manufacturing sectors (what could be dubbed the ‘older’ corporate sector) have not shared their views. In what is becoming a battle for hearts and minds across America, this public show of values-based beliefs will not be the last by an industry wary of what the Trump administration means for its future. I’ll leave you with another quote, this time from a wonderful article in The Atlantic on how this will be the first of many disputes between the Trump administration and Silicon Valley.

The barriers between Trump and the technology world span both values—the industry emphatically leans left on social issues—and interests. Trump’s hostility to immigration, opposition to free trade, and resistance to replacing fossil fuels with renewable sources to combat climate change all clash directly with the constellation of technology industries that rely on importing talent from around the world, sell their products across the globe, and have invested heavily in developing clean-energy alternatives to oil, gas, and coal. Tech leaders are also bracing for Trump to attempt to unravel the net-neutrality rules that Obama’s Federal Communications Commission adopted, and to push against the privacy standards many industry leaders have sought to maintain.

Whilst we won’t know who is winning over the majority of America’s public, it’s good to see organizations in the tech sector standing up for values which they believe in. I hope other organizations and corporations will remain true to the values that they talk about as well.

Will Saudi’s telcos, government charge Saudi consumers to use social media?

Saudi is a country that isn’t well understood by many, especially by communicators. However, for all of the stereotypes the Kingdom has the capacity to surprise. Take for example a piece published by Saudi Arabic-language newspaper Al-Watan on the 15th of December. If true, the short story was a good piece of investigative journalism. To summarize for non-Arabic speakers out there, a number of telecommunications companies have met with the Communications and Information Technology Commission, the national regulator which oversees the telecommunications industry, to discuss levying on consumers a charge for social media services (the full story in Arabic is below).

Saudi telco operators have apparently met with the national regulator to discuss levying a social media charge on consumers, according to this piece in Al-Watan

Saudi telco operators have apparently met with the national regulator to discuss levying a social media charge on consumers, according to this piece in Al-Watan

The Kingdom has the most active social media base in the region; Saudis are avid users of services such as Snapchat, Twitter and YouTube. Saudis have taken to social media to call for boycotts against the telcos for what they describe as poor service and high costs. Quite understandably, this report didn’t go down too well with Saudi consumers. A new hashtag was conceived, named fees/charges on social media (#رسوم_علي_مواقع_التواصل).

The regulator has moved to deny the initial story – Al-Watan carried a denial piece the day after. However, partly due to a lack of trust in both the telcos and the regular, many Saudis online have expressed their belief that the news is true. The report prompted many Saudi influencers to share their own views online on the quality of service offered by Saudi telecommunications firm; below is a vblog by Saudi Gamer.

Globally telcos have been seeking solutions to redress the challenge of revenues lost to social media channels or applications which offer lower or free services such as messaging and calling. The issue is going to get worse, according to London-based research and analytics firm Ovum. The telecommunications industry will lose a combined $386 billion between 2012 and 2018, the firm predicts, from customers using over-the-top (OTT) voice applications such as Skype, or Whatsapp.

Some operators such as Verizon are looking to become content producers as well as deliver the content through the pipes. However, charging consumers for accessing social media would be a short-term but unpopular option for telcos to use as they seek to fill the revenue gap. How much it may impact online consumer behavior and advertising is anyone’s guess. We may find out next year.

Guest Blog – How To Meet Your Customers Changing Expectations

We've gone from digital natives to mobile natives. As consumer expectations change, how can we communicators remain relevant? (image source: www.mirror.co.uk)

We’ve gone from digital natives to mobile natives. As consumer expectations change, how can we communicators remain relevant? (image source: http://www.mirror.co.uk)

I’ve asked a number of prominent communicators to talk about the importance of communications and design when it comes to customers. Julio Romo (on Twitter as @twofourseven and on LinkedIn here), an International Communication Consultant and Digital and Innovation Strategist, shares his insights on how communications is changing and how customer experiences are impacting our jobs as communicators. Julio, over to you.

How To Meet Your Customers Changing Expectations

People around the world are today more connected than ever before. Let it be through social media, smartphones or both. The way we are now connected has influenced and changed the way in which our beliefs and expectations are shaped.

Let me give you some facts. There are over 2.3 billion social media accounts worldwide – Facebook has 1.79 billion monthly active users (92% access via mobile), Twitter has 313 million active monthly users and Instagram has 400 million monthly active users. These are very top line numbers. They are Impressive, but missing some context.

Now the context, one in every six minutes that is spent online is spent on Facebook, 2.5 billion comments are made on Facebook Pages, 6,000 Tweets are sent every second. The more content that is out there the quicker that we must be to filter out what we think is not relevant to what we want to learn.

Research by Microsoft also tells us that our attention span is now down to 8 seconds, that is shorter than that of a goldfish. The speed at which we make decisions has also shortened to what Adobe calls, the last millisecond. We live in extraordinary and highly competitive times.

People have changed how they make decisions. Today it is the experience that they get from their engagement that shapes their perceptions and decisions-making. Get the experience right and in a fraction of a second you keep and possibly convert an individual. Get it wrong and you risk loosing your customer, possibly for good.

Think about it this way:

And the benefits? Well, insight from Bain & Co tells us that increasing customer retention rates by 5% increases profits by 25% to 95%. Not bad at all.

Experience that your audiences receive matters. Design and the way in which they interact with you certainly matters. And today, the customer matters more, and they know this.

The customer journey has to be simple and rewarding. It has to deliver an experience that not just converts them, but gets them to return and amplify the positive engagement that they’ve had. And it is in this connected world that reputations are built and broken.

A McKinsey report states, ‘Consumers now have much more control over where they will focus their attention, so companies need to craft a compelling customer experience in which all interactions are expressly tailored to a customer’s stage in his or her decision journey.

So how do we secure better engagement from our target market and audiences? That is simple, yet not very straightforward. Organisation must become agile and nimble. They must become better at listening and learning. And their communications and marketing must be always-on and responsive – be ready to respond to customer service issues. Our digital touch points need to be built around the personas of our audiences, yet bearing in mind that like technology, peoples behaviour and expectations changes fast, especially when start-ups come into play disrupting business as usual.

Some companies have already embarked on a journey of change to ensure that they remain relevant. In 2005 the former FT US Technology Correspondent and Columnist Tom Foremski coined the term ‘Every Company is a Media Company.’ A term that still to this day is alien to many. Yet some organisations have changed their PR and communications teams into modern day brand newsrooms that monitor news, deliver content and engage through social channels.

Having and understanding of the audience and designing for them will give companies access to a global market that in 2014 McKinsey thought this year could have been worth $2 trillion in potential sales. Being nimble and agile is a must. Having your communications, marketing and customer service teams working together is what will help your businesses grow in a competitive market.

After all, bad news travels fast on social media. According to Zendesk, bad experiences are shared with more people than good experiences, and more customers share bad experiences than good through social networks like Twitter and Facebook.

Today, people who complain are the ones that you know about. People expect and we must deliver, we must be what they expect, more customer centric. Because it matters to our reputation, our business and in competing markets it gives us competitive advantage.

The building of successful businesses today depends on the gaining of more insight about audiences. Understanding their behaviour and decision-making and roadmappiing their journey so that they find what they want on platforms relevant to them.

Now more than ever we have to move towards acting on insight and data in order to secure attention and engagement from people.

Twitter and the need to tackle automated, political hate in the Middle East

Twitter has been a huge hit in the Middle East; it has become the one place where everyone can share their views (image source: http://www.sustg.com)

I’ll admit it, Twitter is my favorite social media channel. I love that little blue bird and how it captures the moment. However, we live in a harsh environment in the region and Twitter isn’t without its issues.

I had the privilege to sit down with and talk to Twitter’s local management team recently. Two topics of concern came up: the first was pornography, which is illegal in the Gulf and which Twitter wants to keep off its network in the region; the second was religious extremism and terror-related content, affiliated to the likes of Islamic State, AlQaeda and others.

While I did in part acknowledge that both were issues to tackle, I didn’t fully agree that they were the most pressing problems for the social network. Pornography is much easier to find online, through the use of a VPN, than it is on any social media channel. With religious extremism, much of the conversation has moved onto dark social which cannot be monitored by governments.

Instead, I threw out a different idea. For me, Twitter is the place to come to for discussion and debate, a platform for use by all. However, recent cases have shown that some are automating conversations to dominate discussion.

An example was uncovered by Marc Owen Jones on his research into Bahrain following recent events there. His blog post, which is well worth your time, highlights a key issue facing Twitter when it comes to automated bots hijacking conversations.

While the notion of bot accounts is probably not news to anyone, the evidence here hopefully highlights that much online sectarian discourse is perhaps inflated by those groups or individuals with specific ideological agendas, and the means to do so. Of course we know PR and reputation management companies offer such services, yet their work is often done secretively and behind close doors. Would be interesting to find out who is behind this. It would also suggest that Twitter needs to better regulate spam.

While this isn’t the first time that social media channels have been used unethically in this region (during 2011 bloggers in certain countries were singled out and targeted for retribution through social media), the danger is that automated bots will become more common, taking over conversations and driving real users off Twitter. 

While Twitter has taken action following the work done by Marc Owen Jones, suspending up to 1800 accounts according to his blog post, the team need to be as proactive as possible to take these bots down to ensure that the platform is still a place that welcomes differing points of view. 

More than ever, we in the region need a place for discussion that is independent and welcomes genuine debate. It’d be a shame to see such actions driving people off Twitter and onto closed apps such as WhatsApp and Telegram. 

Twitter can be a force to engage and promote debate in the region, and I hope that it remains so without such bots hijacking conversations for whatever political, sectarian purpose(s).

What Customer Service? Etisalat and its inability to put customers first…

Etisalat never ceases to transform me into a mass of seething rage and frustration thanks to its inability to do anything right for its consumers

Etisalat never ceases to transform me into a mass of seething rage and frustration thanks to its inability to do anything right for its consumers

I’m a patient man. Really, I am (I can imagine my wife shaking her head right now, but it’s true). I can put up with anything. It’s just that I don’t want to give up the good fight when it comes to telling companies that we customers in the Gulf (and especially in the UAE) deserve more. Here’s one story of a company that could do a whole lot more to be customer-friendly, my favorite Etisalat.

At the beginning of the year, I was jumping up and down with excitement. For the first time I could change my home internet provider at my home in Abu Dhabi. For years, I’d been stuck with Etisalat and its atrociously poor customer service. Now, I could move to Du. I took up the opportunity, and moved. Unfortunately, no matter how much I wanted it to work, it was a doomed romance. I couldn’t get television services as part of my internet and telephone services (I still can’t explain this one), and, most importantly, Du’s internet connection was poor and often dropped. With a tear in my eye, I had to go back to Etisalat.

I head on down to one of Etisalat’s outlets and make the request for internet at home. The request was simple enough, until we got to the nitty gritty of the agreement which included a router and phone. There was no need for either, I explained, as I’d already spent on both. No worries, I was told by the sales person, I could use my routers but I’d still have to take the router and phone as part of the package (in other words, the package was fixed).

First step done, I waited for the engineer to come around. He did and he had a look at my internet setup. He then asked if could set up the network, including the Etisalat router, a D-Link AC1750 router. I said I’d like my router set up, a Linksys WRT1900ac which I’d already spent a significant chunk of money on and which I’d already set up for my home.

After an hour of ‘discussion’, including lines such as ‘the Etisalat connection will only work with the D-Link router from Etisalat’, and that ‘the Linksys wouldn’t work as it couldn’t be configured’ (both of which were utter nonsense), I spoke to a supervisor who told me that it was a sales decision and that I’d need to go back to the store to sort it out. I even offered to take the router but not to use it. My request was turned down. In essence, no Etisalat router installed = no internet.

Two days later, I received an SMS saying that my original request for internet had been declined and that I’d have to make a new request. Which of course I did, and during which I asked the same things, to be told the same excuses. Essentially, someone in head office had decided that he knew best, better than his customers, and that without a router from Etisalat, which we pay for, we can’t get internet from Etisalat.

What pains me throughout this is that I’m not alone in my point of view (and my suffering). The first engineer explained that every day new seven or eight customers would tell him the same thing, and yet he couldn’t do anything. All that we customers can do is dump our expensive kit so that someone in Etisalat can make more money. Forget listening to the customer, forget keeping them happy and increasing their average spend through giving them what they want. Let’s ram products down their throat as there’s nowhere they can go and no one they can complain to. It’s naturally disappointing, especially when you consider the leaps and bounds that are being made by other operators across the globe, even here in the Gulf.

The experience was topped off by my wife paying the second engineer to reconfigure all of our wireless extenders at home to work with the new router.

Customer service and Etisalat? It seems I, like many others, have no choice but to suffer as we wait for a customer-centric epiphany among Etisalat’s executive management.

The Fire, the Selfie and Prison – why you should care about what your friends say online

Was this inappropriate? Most certainly. But what could get you jailed is not just a picture that is in poor taste, but rather the comments your friends make on that post.

Was this inappropriate? Most certainly. But what could get you jailed is not just a picture that is in poor taste, but rather the comments your friends make on that post.

We all do stupid things, and we unfortunately then post these acts of idiocy online. Combine that with a situation like we had during New Year’s Eve, and you’ve got a situation that could at best be described as combustible.

As the flames ravaged Dubai’s The Address Hotel on New Year’s Eve, some people decided to take selfies. A few posted these selfies online, to Instagram and Facebook. At least two people, two young men, were arrested for their selfie (pictured above) while the Emirate’s Public Prosecution investigated their case.

There’s been much speculation online as to why the men were arrested, with many commentators arguing that the action defamed the country and its image – let’s remember that defamation is a criminal offense in the Gulf, with a minimum fine of 500,000 Dirhams and jail time in the UAE (as well as deportation for expatriates). Many have posted selfies at the same location, with smiles, grins and laughs, and such expressions of emotion may have been considered a case of schadenfreude by the authorities.

However, according to the English-language newspaper 7Days which spoke to the lawyer of the two accused, they were investigated not for the image per se, but rather for the comments made about the image. The argument goes that the person who posts content is also responsible for the comments on that post, even if those comments are not written by the same person but his or her friends, family (or anyone who wants to get you jailed).

Luckily for them, the two were released from prison after a couple of days with no charge after investigators found that there was “no evidence of criminal intent”. However, remember that in future it’s not just your stupidity that could land you in jail, but that of your online contacts as well. Their comments could cross the legal line of what is defined as defamation, so don’t post images or any other type of post that could get you into trouble. Just don’t…