A crisis of competence or character? How to understand (and prepare for) crisis basics

crisisahead

Are you prepared for the worst? (image source: http://www.adweek.com)

The past 18 months has been a remarkable time for crisis watchers. We’ve watched as global brands and leaders have become embroiled in crises. Some of these have been of their own making (think Sepp Blatter and FIFA, or Volkswagen and emissions). Others have been due to unfortunate circumstances, such as with Emirates flight 521.

As communications professionals out there know, there’s nothing like working on a crisis. In an excellent piece for the Financial Times by David Bond, Rupert Younger, director at the Oxford University Centre for Corporate Reputation, sorts crises into two basic definitions – a crisis of competence or a crisis of character. To quote from the piece:

Examples of competence scandals include Toyota’s 2009-11 recall of 4m of its cars because of defective accelerator pedals, or the battery defaults on some of Boeing’s Dreamliner aircraft. These, according to Mr Younger, can deliver a direct, and in some cases short-term, hit to a company’s sales figures.

A character crisis calls into question the culture and behaviour of a company and its senior executives and often arises out of media scrutiny or criminal or regulatory investigations. Fifa and News International were both crises of character.

The worst type of crisis involves both. The BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 is a case in point. It was triggered by a disastrous oil rig explosion that called BP’s offshore drilling competence into question. But the company’s response turned the crisis into a far wider issue of trust.

As communicators, our roles have traditionally covered managing the fallout from a crisis. However, whether we like it or not (I hope the former), we’re also becoming the conscience of our organizations. It’s incumbent on us to speak up when we hear about or see an issue that could harm an organization’s reputation. This is easier said than done. Volkswagen is a great example of a crisis of character – dozens of VW employees must have known about the manipulation of data, and yet no one spoke up (or, if they did, the information didn’t get to the right people).

To tackle such a crisis, communicators need to work with executive management to create an ‘incident aware culture’. Employees should feel that they can report issues without reproach or fear of retaliation. Employees also need to feel that they’re working for and in an ethical organization that cares about doing the right thing. This requires continuous communication from and engagement by the board and management, as well as support from legal and HR teams. If things do go wrong, communicators and management need to proactively engage with stakeholders to explain what has happened and why, a strategy known as stealing thunder. This is best defined as an organization “breaking the news about its own crisis before the crisis is discovered by the media or other interested parties” (Arpan & Roskos-Ewoldsen, 2005).

Unfortunately, as has been noted by academics such as An-Sofie Claeys, this type of self-disclosure is rare in practice. As with the case of VW, organizations are tempted to conceal the crisis rather than make it public.

Crises of competence are easier to deal with. However, many of us still aren’t prepared for what happens when this type of crisis occurs. Here’s a simple crisis communications assessment grid developed by the communications team at US firm Timken, which establishes crisis severity based on the type of incident and the involvement of various stakeholders, as well as who needs to be involved.

timken-crisis-comms-framework

For a more detailed look at how to handle a crisis (pre, during and post), then have a look at this post I wrote after meeting with crisis communications expert Caroline Sapriel. And, if you have any feedback on how do deal with a crisis, please do share. I’d love to hear your views.

WhatsApp and why communicators should care about Dark Social (at least in a crisis)

When it comes to harmful materials, WhatsApp should be a key source of concern for communicators in the Gulf

When it comes to harmful materials, WhatsApp should be a key source of concern for communicators in the Gulf

Let me ask you a question. Name the most popular application on the phones of consumers in the Gulf. It’s not Instagram. It’s not Twitter, and it’s not Snapchat. As you clever ones may have guessed from the title of this post, it’s WhatsApp. At the last count, in a survey by TNS in 2015, the instant messenger app was used by 84% of smartphone users in the Gulf. And yet, it would seem that WhatsApp is hardly used, either by marketers or by communicators.

Part of the challenge is that WhatsApp is a closed network. It’s dark social, a term coined in 2012 that refers to online activity which cannot be monitored. WhatsApp and other applications such as WeChat and Facebook Messenger cannot be mined for data, and as they’re closed the only persons who know what is being written or shared are the sender and the recipient.

And that’s often the problem. For people who are responsible for looking after corporate reputations, ignorance definitely isn’t bliss. I wanted to understand more about WhatsApp and what it means to communicators during a crisis. And so I asked them. I asked communicators in the Gulf what WhatsApp means to them. And I want to share their responses with you.

First of all, let’s start with what communicators are using. The most popular social media channels for communicators are Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. These are followed by LinkedIn and YouTube. Snapchat and WhatsApp are the least used, which is surprising considering their popularity in the region. This may suggest communicators are still struggling on how to use such channels.

Open platforms are the most popular among communicators. Dark social platforms are less popular.

Open platforms are the most popular among communicators. Dark social platforms are less popular.

What’s interesting is the channels that are used during a crisis. While Twitter again comes out tops, followed by Facebook, other channels don’t figure as much.

Twitter and Facebook are the two most popular social media channels during a crisis

Twitter and Facebook are the two most popular social media channels during a crisis

The majority of communicators I spoke to do see WhatsApp as a factor in the spread of harmful materials. However, relatively few have experienced crises over the past year.

The majority of comms practitioners have not seen a crisis spread over WhatsApp in the past 12 months

The majority of comms practitioners have not seen a crisis spread over WhatsApp in the past 12 months

What’s also illuminating is confidence in dealing with a crisis online. When asked about a generic crisis on social media, communicators were fairly confident in dealing with the issue. When you throw WhatsApp into the mix, that confidence level drops.

On the left, the question asked was, "I believe my organization is prepared for a social media crisis." On the right, the question asked was, "I prepared my organization is prepared for a crisis spread on WhatsApp."

On the left, the question asked was, “I believe my organization is prepared for a social media crisis.” On the right, the question asked was, “I prepared my organization is prepared for a crisis spread on WhatsApp.”

The issue that many of us face online is decreasing levels of trust in brands, particularly when it comes to social media pages. Whereas a couple of years back consumers believed that reaching out to branded Facebook pages or Twitter accounts would solve their issues, few hold such beliefs today. Add in issues such as defamation for online comments, and it’s no surprise that consumers are turning to WhatsApp to share their views with their friends and family and to ask them to take action against the brand.

Based on this research, there are a number of recommendations communicators (and marketing folks) need to take into account when it comes to dark social:

  • Communicators need to be familiar with dark social – it’s apparent that consumers are online and are using dark social tools to communicate. Communicators need to be conversant in these tools if they’re going to be effective in getting across organizational messaging, particularly during a crisis.
  • Dark social tools need to be part of crisis planning – one question which wasn’t asked was to do with which social media tools formed part of crisis planning. However, it’d seem that dark social doesn’t come into consideration when planning crisis scenarios or a response. This needs to change.
  • Communicators need to utilize dark social – certain industries, such as the media sector, have begun to make use of dark social in their public outreach. Communicators in this region may be advised to look at adding dark social to their social media planning, to increase the level of engagement and also to understand how much such channels are used vis-à-vis open channels when sharing from websites and other public sharing channels.

If you’re interested in the full research, drop me a note. Sharing is caring, especially when it comes to crisis communications and social media

How did Facebook fail with its Safety Check in emerging markets?

  
There are some times you really shouldn’t be making a distinction. Last week two tragedies took place, the first in Beirut and the second in Paris.

Others have written, much more eloquently than myself, on the raw emotion they felt after the two acts of terrorism – Beiruti blogger Elie Fares was one of the first to write about his anguish at Lebanons’s suffering being ignored by the West.

What is telling with the decision to activate the Facebook Safety Check was a comment by Alex Schultz, Facebook’s VP for Growth, who said:

In the middle of a complex, uncertain situation affecting many people, Facebook became a place where people were sharing information and looking to understand the condition of their loved ones. We talked with our employees on the ground, who felt that there was a need to fill. So we made the decision to try something that we’ve never done before: activating Safety Check for something other than a natural disaster. There has to be a first time for trying something new, even in complex and sensitive times, and for us that was Paris.

While Facebook’s intentions were to help those in need, the appearance to many in emerging markets such as Africa and the Middle East was that of bias. In effect, it was as if a life in Paris was worth more than a life in Beirut, or in Kenya or in Nigeria. This was compounded by Facebook’s decision to provide users with the option to upload the French flag over their profile picture.

Schultz’s comments that it was a human decision to activate Safety Check for Paris lead me to lose this question. Who at Facebook should have put forward the idea to use this service anywhere or everywhere where there is a crisis? My answer would be the communications and policy teams.

Communications in particular is the function that should act as the bridge between the outside world and the corporation, the part of the business that brings the outside in. That’s why, for example, Comms leads on issues and crisis management. Comms should have a robust understanding of the different stakeholder groups and how they impact the organization.

However, my take on Comms goes further. Comms should act as the conscience of the organization, and the Comms team should be able to advise when something is not right ethically. Unfortunately, Facebook’s team missed this opportunity here and instead turned what should have been an opportunity to play a vital role in helping inform families and friends re the safety oftheir loved ones into an example of unintended double standards (this was compounded by the Safety Check being used for residents of a Western capital rather than an Arab or African one, which in the context of colonialism also doesn’t look good).

Mark has said that Facebook’s policies will change and rightly so. Facebook is considered by many in emerging markets to be a tool for good, which is helping to promote positive change. It’d be a shame to see that opinion shift due to a lack of cultural awareness.

Why stonewalling the media is always a bad idea: Nakheel and Arabian Business

Another day, another flood. Nakheel’s attempts to stem the tide of negative PR by not talking to media simply won’t work (image source: arabianbusiness.com

For those that don’t know Nakheel, you’re in for a treat. The Dubai government-owned real estate developer and the name behind the world-famous Palm Jumeirah is a byword for customer relations fiascoes these days. The company has run into a number of public relations calamities over the past two year, including issues such as service fees, numerous floods, and, most recently, a new development with lakes forming from putrid water.

Like any other company, Nakheel has both fans and detractors. However, a recent story on Nakheel by popular Dubai-based news portal Arabian Business raised my interest. The piece, which was about the recent flooding at Nakheel’s Al Furjan development, included a significant paragraph at the end.

* Nakheel no longer responds to media enquiries from Arabian Business, nor does it grant this publication access to any of its media events or announcements.

When a company feels that it has to stonewall, restrict access to and stop all relations with a media outlet there’s something very wrong. Whatever the company expects to gain from this action, I can guarantee all that will result is more negative publicity and an inability to counter negative stories by providing comments from the company itself.

In these cases, my advice to any company facing a barrage of negative media is understand what is at the core is the issue and why there’s so much negativity surrounding the company’s public perception. For Nakheel, maybe their time would be better spent addressing customer service and engineering issues rather than duking it out with the media. In the meantime I’m looking forward to reading more stories about the company on Arabian Business.

GEMS foot-in-mouth syndrome and the curious case of the disappearing comments

Please don’t put your foot in your mouth. If you have to say something do mutter the words when the room is empty, or when you’re in the middle of the ocean. And it’s also advisable to stay away from media (image credit: http://www.ronedmondson.com)

There’s a condition that I like to name foot-in-mouth syndrome. Basically, foot-in-mouth happens when an executive talks to a journalist and doesn’t think before they speak. This results in classic ‘how did they say that’ quotes which often whip up a storm of protests from all and sundry.

This week we had one of the best foot-in-mouth moments I’ve read for some time. The chairman of GEMS Education, the UAE’s largest provider of primary and secondary education, gave an interview to Gulf Business. The story was rapidly picked up by Arabian Business and has provoked hundreds of comments from some very angry parents. The quotes which did the (most) damage were below.

Parents have no right to complain about fees if they choose a high school they cannot afford, GEMS Education chairman said of “grumbling” parents in an interview with Gulf Business.

“If you put your children in a school that you can’t afford then you can’t grumble,” Sunny Varkey said.
“You understand what I’m saying? You must choose a school that you can afford.

“It’s normal human behaviour [for parents] to defend fees. But parents can very well see which are the schools that are good, outstanding, fair, or not good. And, accordingly, they can choose a school.”

I love media sites on the internet, partly because of the ability to leave comments and the inevitable pearls of wisdom that readers leave. Varkey’s foot-in-mouth (and if you can’t see why this is a disaster of an interview for Varkey, you’re beyond the pale) was attacked from all sides by parents. Comments included such wonders as ‘It’s no wonder GEMS and HSBC (?) are the two most hated firms in the UAE’, and ‘If graduates from your schools are as arrogant as you are then your schools are definitely not worth the tuition. I would highly recommend getting media training before giving out interviews.’

I wish I could show you more comments; the last time I saw the piece with the comments section still live there were 98 printed which must be a record for the site. However, Arabian Business’ publisher ITP has taken off comments for this piece, either due to the severity of the comments or, more likely, someone possibly threatening legal action.

What happened to the comments on Sunny Varkey’s case of foot-in-mouth? I don’t know. But I can at least leave you this cached screen shot to show you that what goes on the internet can always be found!

Where did the comments go? Only ITP and GEMS will know!

Where did the comments go? Only ITP and GEMS will know!

Red Bull and a crisis in Kuwait that hasn’t hit the headlines

Surprisingly, Red Bull has not hit the headlines for what appears to be a number of major events in Kuwait. The company, best known worldwide for popularizing the energy drink concept, has apparently been embroiled in a crisis in Kuwait after a young Kuwaiti passed away after drinking too many cans of Red Bull. I’m going to continually use the word apparently as there’s no information out there in English and the only information in Arabic can be found on chat rooms.

According to Kuwait’s social media scene the Kuwaiti Ministry of Commerce has of the end of March banned all sales of Red Bull to those under 16 years of age. The below are a news piece from Kuwait’s news agency Kuna and an image shared over twitter of a Red Bull fridge with a sign in Arabic saying that Red Bull is not for sale to those under 16 years of age. Here is the same info on a discussion forum.

The article from Kuna on Kuwait’s decision to ban Red Bull sales to those under the age of 16. There’s no publishing date on this however (credit: Downtimes)

And a sign on top of a fridge which states that no sales of Red Bull are allowed to those under 16, which is supposedly from a Kuwaiti grocery store (credit: UAEwomen forum)

Kuwait’s Twitter community has also been focusing on the news, but surprisingly the topic hasn’t been trending outside of the country.

Whether this is all true or not, as it always the case with the internet the story is spreading especially in Arabic. The news can now be found on sites across the Gulf in Arabic. The fear may be that other GCC countries will follow Kuwait’s lead (such an action wouldn’t be unusual). However, it’d be fascinating to know what Red Bull has done to tackle this issue. There have been suggestions that Red Bull has upped its ad spending to tackle the issue, and that may explain why there’s little news of this in Kuwait’s vibrant media scene.

However, Red Bull has avoided the spotlight before. If you do read Arabic have a look at this piece on Red Bull apparently employing women to hand out cans in Riyadh back in December. Some would say brave, others would say silly.

Women walking outside of Riyadh’s Kingdom center apparently handing out Red Bull to passing motorists (credit: Murmur website)