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London

A resourceful Media and Public Relations student from China at a UK university recently asked me for my thoughts on crisis communications and social media for her dissertation. In the spirit of sharing, here’s the first part of my response – the second on how crisis communications differs in Asia and the west – will be posted shortly.

The questions have been edited for clarity:

1. To what degree is social media impacting crisis communications? How is it changing traditional crisis communications?

Social media has had a significant impact on crisis communications:

  • Most obviously, news and information travel much faster, meaning organisations need to track issues and potential crises more regularly and respond more quickly when something bad happens
  • There is much more misleading and false information to track and consider, some of which is deliberate
  • Online opinion tends to be very volatile and polarised during a crisis, making it difficult to know when and how to try to manage perceptions
  • The lifecycle of crises has become much more unpredictable with so much information constantly swirling online and getting picked up by the mainstream media, and the ease with which confidential information now leaks
  • Perhaps most important, the nature of the social web means people nowadays expect organisations to be open and responsive during a crisis – which may have profound implications for crisis strategy, important at a time when many large organisations are not trusted and when the facts are unclear when a crisis first breaks.

2. What are the advantages and disadvantages of social media on crisis communications strategy?

The main advantages are that, thanks to social media:

  • Organisations now have greater insight into what various different stakeholder groups think about them and behave towards them
  • Crisis strategy and messaging can be tested and revised more or less in real-time, rather than having to commission custom market research surveys
  • Relationships with stakeholders can be handled direct, bypassing ‘traditional’ gatekeepers such the mainstream media
  • Using video, photographs and other tools, it is now possible to communicate factually and, critically in a crisis, emotionally
  • You can involve more people more closely in an organisation’s recovery once the worst of a crisis is over using crowdsourcing and other web and social media-based techniques.

On the other hand, social media presents many strategic risks and operational challenges during a crisis. These include:

  • Organisations have to respond very fast while ensuring their messages are consistent across many channels
  • Then there’s the huge volume of comments and feedback to manage, while knowing what is important and what should be left alone
  • Online opinion and feedback may be skewed, inaccurate and not as insightful or nuanced as conventional market research
  • An analogue leadership team which does not understand digital/social media and can be very jumpy during a crisis, leading to poor decision-making
  • If social media is not treated seriously and strategically, the necessary procedures and skills may not be in place before and during a crisis.

 —

See also my Primer on Crisis Communications, which covers similar territory:

London

The web is now the medium of choice for campaign groups like Greenpeace, Oxfam and the WWF to raise funds, expand their networks, and mobilise supporters. Little wonder: online pressure played no small part in Shell exiting its longstanding partnership with Lego, Nestlé reconfiguring its palm oil supply chain, SeaWorld halting its breeding of captive orcas, and the collapse in shark fin consumption in Hong Kong. Then UK Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt admitted that online pressure had ‘significantly influenced’ his decision on the Rupert Murdoch’s 2010 bid to take full control of BSkyB.

finishedwithfins

 

But it is not just the big campaign groups that have benefited. Once the preserve of students, tree huggers and political dissidents, activism is now the opium of suburban housewives and white collar workers across the world. It is particularly evident in the huge popularity of online petition sites:

  • Change.org counts over 140 million members in 196 countries
  • Avaaz boasts some 43 million members in 194 countries
  • Care2 has almost 35 million members
  • A UK member of parliament recently told me she receives dozens of emails every day supporting various causes from the 3 million+ members of 38 Degrees, all of which she feels compelled to respond to.

People power has never felt so real, or so daunting. And in an age in which business is increasingly expected to play the role of a concerned and actively engaged ‘citizen’, the numbers involved and the sheer unpredictability of public opinion raises real challenges and risks, as firms supporting ostensibly mainstream causes have discovered.

Drawing on discussions and interviews with Greenpeace, the WWF and high profile individual activists, I argue in my book Managing Online Reputation that online activism is now mainstream, activist networks are becoming more amorphous, and campaign groups are deliberately making their lines of attack less predictable, before going on to detail three current and emerging strategies and tactics used online in the ongoing battle for public support.

The relevant chapter – on the social and environmental threats of the web – is now available online as a free sample:

 

With propaganda swirling online, a Change.org petition fast escalating and Greenpeace all over your Facebook page, an online activist attack can feel terrifying and remorseless. But while some activist campaigns meet or even exceed their objectives, most fail to convince the public of their merits, or simply succumb to slacktivism.

How you choose to respond requires a close understanding of your detractors’ playbook, a smart reading of the public mood, and an appreciation of your tolerance for business and reputational risk – factors I’ll explore shortly.

Image courtesy of WWF Hong Kong.

 

biz.HK, the magazine of The American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong (disclaimer: until recently I chaired its Communications and Marketing Committee) recently interviewed me about how companies should protect and manage their reputations online.

While wide-ranging, the interview focuses on the need to align online reputation activities with offline reputation management, an area many organisations are struggling with.

Here it is (p. 46):

And here it is on Amcham HK’s blog.

 

 

Ho Chi Minh City

The web and social media have borne many wonders, yet Wikipedia, with – or perhaps despite of – its basic interface, remains something of a standout, not least because of its truly collaborative nature. Not only is it one of the most highly trafficked sites in the world, but is also surely one of the most influential, and not just amongst students: I have seen it quoted verbatim by journalists and bloggers.

All of which means it is particularly important that information about your company is accurate, fair and timely – something that can be challenging to ensure at the best of times and even more tricky in the context of a long-term, simmering issue, or during a high profile incident or crisis. Wikipedia expert Bill Beutler kindly shared with me his tips on how to handle Jimmy Wales’ beast in times of trouble. (He also contributed to my book Managing Online Reputation.)

VWGroup_Wikipedia

Here’s the first part of the interview, which was first published by Social Media Today.

Update: and here’s the second.

Hong Kong

Earlier this week I was pleased to be invited back to Hang Seng Management College in Hong Kong to deliver a Guest Lecture on Crisis Communications. The talk was for year 1 through 4 students from the Schools of Business and Communications, and was intended to give them an overview of Crisis Communications today and some basic tips on how to respond to crises. As this was part of the students’ Digital PR module, the talk has an online focus though puts the internet and social media in a broader context.

This lecture follows naturally from my previous Lecture at the College on Online Incident Management, and includes cases on the disappearance of MH370, the atomisation of Virgin Galactic’s spaceship, the failed attempt by Hong Kong’s MTR Corporation to help a stray dog from its rail tracks, and the self-destruction of Singapore blogger network Gushcloud.

Here’s a (slightly abbreviated) version of my talk:

Hong Kong

Caution, shameless self-promotion: my book Managing Online Reputation launches today.

You might ask – perfectly legitimately – why I have taken the trouble of writing 60,000+ words about something that should now be well understood. Surely it hardly needs saying that Google, Twitter and Weibo make it harder to manage a company’s name and image, opening it to the whims, prejudices and ulterior motives of disappointed customers, aggrieved employees, malicious competitors, enraged activists and recalcitrant algorithms?

pownall-book-0006

Yet it remains the case that many organisations (and individuals) remain unclear how best to insulate themselves from trouble online, and continue to mess up their response when things go public.

It has not helped that there remains a dearth of practical, common sense advice in this area. There are many reasons for this, from a tendency to see social media as a business and marketing Holy Grail while overlooking the hazards of the conquest, to the fact that most existing guidance is written from a social media marketing, public relations, technology or legal perspective when effective online reputation protection and defence is about all of these working together. Things have also not been helped by a cottage industry of  ‘online reputation management’ specialists selling puffed-up search engine solutions.

Managing Online Reputation draws on what I have learned over many years as a communications strategist, PR practitioner and digital marketer mining the seam where communications and reputation, and the internet and social media meet. Accordingly reputation is tackled primarily from a communications perspective – albeit a broad one – and I make no apologies for this: if issues are left to fester long enough they will almost inevitably become reputational – and hence PR – problems and must be tackled as such.

However, to understand more clearly the risks to reputation posed by social media, and to appreciate the many different response options, I talked with experts in fields such as media and IP law, social and environmental activism, IT security, digital forensics, crisis management,  emergency response, social media monitoring, search engine marketing and Wikipedia management.

Given that the social web impacts so many areas of an organisation it should come as little surprise that online reputation is a complex topic. However Managing Online Reputation tries not to over-complicate or over-sell the issue. You’ll find it avoids talk of ‘social media crises’ and other hyperbolic marketing phraseology, just as it makes no grand claims about what the many social media business and listening tools now available can do for you. Rather it looks at social media in a broader context, and offers practical, realistic, common-sense advice in plain English.

It is also intended to be interesting. Sprinkled amidst tried and tested ways to categorise, assess and respond to potential problems online, and detailed guidance on how to develop (or update) your crisis plan, you’ll find vignettes about the culture of smears in China and political protest in Hong Kong, the easy and pungent opium of online petitions, the perils of companies attaching themselves to social movements, and what a black swan looks like online. There are also detailed case studies of companies of all shapes and sizes responding successfully to and recovering from fast escalating negative incidents and bone fide crises.

Here’s more of a taster:

 

More than anything you should come away from reading Managing Online Reputation with the notion that, despite the scepticism in which companies and institutions are held today, and the innate tribalism and volatility of life online, your organisation’s reputation is eminently knowable, manageable and redeemable – as long as you prepare well, keep your head and play it straight.

Managing Online Reputation is available in paperback and as an e-book via Amazon, Barnes & Noble, 800-CEO-READ and other outlets.

You can find out more about the book and how to order it here.

Hong Kong

Concerns about privacy and piracy aside search engines appear able to do little wrong. Google is regularly rated one of the most trusted companies in the world. A 2013 study by media agency OMD discovered Britons trust Google as much as they do the church. Baidu is one of the five most trusted brands in China. Data from PR firm Edelman’s latest Trust Barometer suggests search engines are regarded as more trustworthy sources of general news and information than all other forms of media, including the traditional/mainstream media and online word of mouth/social media.

Media sources search

It is an interesting finding that raises all manner of questions for traditional news publishers, social media platform operators, marketers, public relations professionals and others. But the research also begs the question: should search engines really be classified as a media ‘source’?

I expect search engines to deliver a good range of links to relevant, timely news coverage either when a story is breaking or when I want to get a sense of what others beyond my staple news provider(s) are saying. They are also useful for conducting basic research into a company, industry or topic. Edelman’s data suggests this is also the case for many others.

EdelmanTrustBarometer_BizInfoSources_2015

While we may trust Google to dredge up a decent sample of the latest news coverage research studies consistently show we continue to trust news and information from the mainstream media, companies and brands, and through friends sharing experiences and making recommendations above other sources. The fact that an article or video analysis is produced by a recognised journalist at the AP or BBC or by a blogger or colleague who we figure knows what he is talking about continues to determine whether we take it seriously, irrespective of whether the content is viewed on the publisher’s website, mobile app, Facebook or Google.

Edelman’s annual trust updates provide fascinating insights into the nature and dynamics of trust across the world, but in the area of media sources it seems to be comparing apples with pears.

Or am I being pedantic?