How to defuse a crisis at a Gulf-based telco? Tell the journalist there’s no story.

I love talking to journalists. They’re often witty, sometimes charming. One thing that journalists have an abundance of are stories and anecdotes. I’ve dealt with one Gulf-based telecommunications firm for a couple of reasons of late, and it’s a fascinating company due to internal issues and ambitions. However, this firm has faced accusations of poor customer service in its home market. Consumer anger recently came to a head with calls for a symbolic, hour-long boycott of the company’s products and services.

I’m not going to name the firm, but if you do a search on Google you won’t have to search long and hard for the story or its context.

While this in itself is an interesting development, the mark of a good communications team will be able to step in, work with journalists and bring out the positive of any negative story. This didn’t happen to one journalist colleague who inquired about the boycott. An experienced reporter on a global title, she emailed a PR executive at a public relations firm representing the telco asking about the boycott.

The response was abysmal. Rather than talking through the issue, explain the company’s attempts to improve its customer service and put right the company’s standing amongst its customers the PR executive pulled his face and told the journalist there was no story.

Telling a journalist those three words – there’s no story – is akin to holding up a red rag to a bull. Following on from this faux pas the executive then started to vent his belief (off the record) that the competition was behind the boycott.
Needless to say, despite his best efforts he failed to put over to the journalist anything remotely useful that would have conveyed how much his client were investing in time and money into their customer service.

What happened? An article in a global business title which prominently featured comments from those spearheading the boycott and a single quote from the company in question. That story was syndicated both regionally and globally. This company has operations in 17 countries and ambitions to operate telecommunications networks in many more locations.

The damage done to the firm’s reputation can’t be measured. However, there’s always time to put right what has been done. Get in touch with the journalist, show them that the company cares, that it aims to redouble its efforts. Even if the journalist doesn’t write a follow-up story you’ve left a positive impression.

To date has there been any follow-up? Unfortunately not. But then again, who needs good communications and media outreach when you’re a government-owned firm with a sizable marketing budget and only one competitor in your home market? Do you really want to have a frank and open dialogue with the media and your customers? Or are you happy with being subjected to boycott campaigns simply because you don’t want to listen and you think there’s no story? How you defuse the situation is your choice.

Washing your dirty laundry in public PR style

As someone who’s been around the proverbial communications block, I’ve always been taught never to air any grievances in public. The thought of picking a fight with a journalist or a publication is always a no go, no matter who is right and who is wrong.

While few things seem shocking following events over the past six months, a couple of articles in the Bahrain media were eye openers in terms of how regional governments, media and public relations firms are communicating with each other in the public domain. The first was a stinging article in Bahrain’s Gulf Daily News related primarily to the decision by the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile or FIA as it’s also known to cancel this year’s Bahrain race.

The author suggested that Bahrain’s loss of the race, which is estimated to bring in several hundred million dollars to the local economy, is partly due to a lack of action by lobbying firms hired by the Bahraini government. The below from the article on the 10th of June suggests that only companies with a vested interest should be hired to support and defend Bahrain. For those interested the fully story is hosted here.

“Certainly Bahrain should share part of the blame for innocently allowing both international media and human rights organisations to twist the truth. For years they have been fed a dubious diet of information. However, we have relied on individuals like Lord Gilford and public relations organisations such as Bell-Pottinger (whose staff deserted the kingdom en masse as soon as trouble started). They have milked the country’s financial resources for a long time, yet failed to deliver any positive result.

From now on we hope such tasks will be undertaken by organisations with true local links, knowledge and understanding, as well as a genuine love for Bahrain.

The defamation of Bahrain was started by so-called native opposition elements, therefore only local, loyal media and public relations companies with a vested interest in the future of this country can be relied upon. “

What is striking about the above paragraphs is how the author attacks those agencies hired by the government to lobby on its behalf. Gulf Daily News is a pro-government newspaper.
In response the founding partner of one of the agencies mentioned, Gardant Communication, replies to the article with a short but succinct letter published on the 15th of June and which can be read here.

Lord Clanwilliam argues that he’s on Bahrain’s side and that he’s been criticized for his support for and defense of Bahrain

“When I defended Bahrain on Al Jazeera news channel recently, calling it a beacon of democracy, I had no idea what events would follow, nor how much I would subsequently be attacked for my loyalty by the British gutter Press.

I am proud to defend a country I love, but it would be helpful to have the support of that country’s Press instead of unsubstantiated criticism.

Finally, Anwar, we have known each other 15 years, please learn how to spell my name correctly.
The riproste from the editor is carried below the letter. In summary, the editor attacks the Lord and his firm for a complete lack of action in relation to its lobbying contract for Bahrain (the firm is actually hired by the Embassy of Bahrain in London).

“However without in anyway wishing to be personal, we do not believe that you have represented Bahrain successfully and that you have given the opportunity to opposition elements to steal a march on us by allowing them to influence the international media virtually unopposed.”

To top it all off, the Lord is attacked again in the letters page on both personally and professionally the following day by a reader. The letter is still hosted on GDN’s site.

“This is to you, Lord Clanwilliam. Simply adding the word “Lord” before your name doesn’t make you one. You have to go a long way to achieve it.

In the report ‘Overtaken by lies?,’ the only inaccuracy was one letter missing from your name – for which GDN Chairman and Responsible Editor Anwar Abdulrahman apologised. Apart from that, all other matters were correct.
Abraham Samuel (bijji)

What is astounding about all of this for me is that these views are being aired in public at all. Having worked in the region for this amount of time I don’t believe that the initial piece and slight towards the agencies employed by Bahrain unless it was sanctioned by a government employee. Gulf Daily News is a pro-government newspaper.

What follows is a further tirade which is both personal and professional.

I don’t understand is how this benefits anyone. If the agency/ies have not done what they were hired to do then release them. Attacks on people who are supporting you will not encourage other agencies to flock to your support . If I am working on a client account it doesn’t do much for my motivation to be hammered. I can imagine that those agencies who were attacked in the article and particularly the founder of one of them is even less enthused about fulfilling their duties towards the country.

The loss of this year’s formula one to Bahrain is a major political and financial blow. The race was estimated to be worth up to 500 million dollars to the island’s economy. However, if you are unhappy with your agency my advice is to show it in the simplest and most effective of ways and change your agency. Don’t wash your dirty laundry in public.